I had been at Duwayne Burnside’s birthday event at the Blues Shack earlier in the evening, and he had mentioned that drummer Kent Kimbrough was also having a birthday party at Junior’s Juke Joint #2 in Holly Springs, so when Duwayne’s event seemed to be calming down, I drove back to Holly Springs to check out the other event. Junior’s Juke Joint was clearly packed to the rafters, and I had trouble finding a place to park. A rather loud argument was going on in the parking lot when I arrived, but I went on inside, where a DJ was spinning blues and southern soul. At one point, a singer named Benny Moore got up to perform, and the club’s house band, known as the Holly Springs Rhythm Section, backed him up. Although I had not heard of him before, he was a decent singer. After his performance, with the DJ providing the music, a woman who said she was one of the late R. L. Burnside’s daughters pulled me onto the dance floor. I’m not a dancer by any means, but it was fun anyway.
Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside was celebrating his birthday with a party and bonfire at the Blues Shack in Waterford, Mississippi, so I decided to go down. Unfortunately, it was the coldest night so far of the year, and the turnout wasn’t nearly as large as I had expected, mostly close friends and family, but Duwayne and his brother Garry Burnside were glad to see me. At previous Blues Shack events, people tended to hang out near the stage, but at this one, people kept around the bonfire for obvious reason, except for the younger kids, who were running all around. An old harmonica player was on stage, playing with one of the younger boys on drums. After awhile, I headed back to Holly Springs because Kent Kimbrough was also celebrating his birthday at Junior’s Juke Joint #2.
The Side Street Steppers are a Memphis-based band whose repertoire consists mainly of music from the 1920’s and 1930’s, an era that has largely been forgotten. It is significant that Memphis’ first recording industry occurred during those years, in which record companies from the north rented rooms at the Peabody Hotel and recorded Black bluesmen and gospel choirs, country string bands and hillbilly musicians. This activity in Memphis continued until the Great Depression put a stop to the early independent record labels. Much of this kind of music finds its way into Side Street Steppers shows, and they are both accomplished musicians and fun to hear.
Memphis indie duo Deering and Down wear their Memphis influences on their sleeve. Yet the 13-year-old duo of Lahna Deering and the Rev. Neil Down started not in the Bluff City, but in the unlikely town of Skagway, Alaska, when Deering’s mother introduced her to Rev. Down, who was known in the community as a musician and band-leader. The quick friendship led to an album, a cross-country tour that included a stop in Memphis, and eventually an album recorded at Yellow Brick Studios in Memphis in 2007. Shortly, thereafter, Deering and Down relocated to Memphis, cutting yet another album, 2009’s Out There Somewhere at the legendary Royal Studios, working with Willie and Boo Mitchell, Teenie Hodges and other Memphis musical legends. Memphis music was always part of Down’s musical vision, and Deering and Down pull off the seemingly impossible, reconciling alternative/indie music with soul in a way that doesn’t seem forced or contrived. Given the rise of other soul-inflected indie bands over the last couple of years, it could be truthfully argued that Deering and Down were ahead of their time.
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For whatever reason, the music at this year’s River Arts Festival seemed oriented toward folk, rock and country, with far less jazz, blues, soul or gospel than previous years’ festivals. But one exception was Clarksdale-based bluesman Terry “Big T” Williams, who played all Saturday afternoon on the festival’s far northern end of Main Street, occasionally accompanied by Latin percussionist Rico Rumba as well. Big T’s repertoire stretches from traditional blues to soul tunes like Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.” Occasionally, groups of festival goers would stop to listen before heading further down to the art exhibits.
If you turn east on Renwick Street off of Highway 165 in Monroe, Louisiana, you will soon come to the intersection of Griffin Street, where you will notice a massive, two-story building that resembles a school gymnasium more than anything else. A sign outside announces that it is the Elite Lounge, and a closer look reveals that the complex of buildings is truly massive, including what appears to be a motel as well. Although it has been closed for many years now, the Elite Lounge at 1207 Griffin Street is a part of a forgotten part of Monroe history. Built as Cain’s Lounge and Motel,opened by Willie and Edna Cain, it was one of the city’s biggest night life spots, often serving as the site of performances by local singing star Toussaint McCall, and other singers and bands, and the adjacent motel met a need during the dark days of segregation when white-owned motels were closed to Black people, no matter how wealthy or famous. Later it became the Elite Lounge, serving as the center of a thriving blues and southern soul scene in Monroe. Unfortunately, Monroe became wild and violent in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and eventually the woman that owned the building chose to shut it down. However, the building doesn’t seem quite abandoned, as there are cars about, and it seems that a least of couple of people might be living in the old motel. The owner’s request for a city liquor license earlier this year led to speculation that the historic lounge might reopen. But so far, that remains merely a wish.
For many years, Hill Country bluesman Junior Kimbrough had a juke joint in rural Marshall County that was a destination for those in the know. People from all over the world made their way to the spot, where blues continued “All Night Long”, as the song said. The juke moved a couple of times over the years, then burned to the ground, and never reopened. So when I heard that Junior’s son was opening a new juke called Junior’s Juke Joint #2 near Holly Springs, I was thrilled. The new juke is much closer to town than the old ones had been, just north of the Rust College campus along Highway 7. The bright blue building was already abuzz with activity when I arrived, and I saw a number of people that had just come from the blues concert on the square, just as I had. Little Joe Ayers performed first, and as he was on stage Shannon McNally and Garry Burnside came in. Shortly thereafter, Junior Kimbrough’s son Robert Kimbrough got on stage and performed several tunes, and then the man of the evening appears, the juke’s owner himself, David Kimbrough Jr. As he performs a number of the Hill Country blues standards, his dad’s as well as R. L. Burnside’s, the floor fills up with willing dancers. When I left at midnight, things were still going strong. Junior’s Juke Joint #2 will be a must-visit attraction in Holly Springs.
Beginning in July each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi sponsors Thursday night blues concerts on the courthouse lawn in the town square. While the events do attract tourists, it’s not just a tourist-oriented event, as Marshall County is an important place in Mississippi blues history. Two of the greatest Hill County bluesmen, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, were from Marshall County, and made their careers and reputations in the area. The county is also home to the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, held each summer in Waterford, and the county seat of Holly Springs is the location of Akei Pro’s Record Shop, a virtual blues-lover’s paradise, full of old vinyl records and some compact discs, as well as bluesman Duwayne Burnside’s local club, Alice Mae’s Cafe.
On September 25, I headed down to Holly Springs for the soft opening of a new juke joint, Junior’s Juke Joint #2, being opened north of town by David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. The opening date was chosen to correspond to the final Thursday night event of the year on the square, so I headed there first, and found a large crowd listening, dancing and enjoying the music of blues singer Brown Sugar and her band. After her performance, I ran across and grabbed a dinner at JB’s on the Square (good food) and then made it back in time to see indie singer Shannon McNally, who was performing with a band that included Garry Burnside (another son of R. L.’s) on guitar. North Center Street was also in a festive mood, with a large crowd outdoors, and good Southern Soul records playing in Alice Mae’s Cafe. In a large parking lot north of Akei Pro’s, there was a crowd of people hanging out and grilling food. After Shannon’s last song, there was a procession of Corvettes that came through the square, and the final Thursday night Blues on the Square event for 2014 came to a close.
Memphis musicians were shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of a young drummer, Mario “Yoggi” Stewart, but on September 10, a number of musicians and relatives came together to honor his memory in the most appropriate way possible, with music and song. The setting was the Blue Worm AKA The Blues Night Club, a neighborhood fixture on the backside of the Lamar/Airways Shopping Center in Orange Mound. The band was anchored by three drummers playing three sets on stage, with “Cowboy” Neal on guitar and my homeboy Danny Peterson on bass. I had intended to observe, enjoy and film, but I got called to the stage to play keyboards. Other guest musicians and singers included Tony Gentry, Deij’rah Terrell, Gerod Rayborn and Terry Wright. The night closed with a drummers’ shout shed in memory of Yoggi, and Cowboy thanking all of those who came out. It was a great night of Memphis music, with nothing but love and respect between the musicians.
When I left Hal and Mal’s, I headed on over to F. Jones’ Corner, where something called the Dexter Allen Blues Band was playing. Despite the name, Dexter Allen seemed to perform more soul than blues, but I was quite impressed with his first set, as he did two of my favorite songs. The first one, “Cruising”, is a difficult song to do right, as it immediately invites comparison with Smokey Robinson’s original, which is sheer perfection. However, it’s not one of those songs that just should not be covered, and Allen did a tremendous job of making the song his own, and his band gave it a slower, funkier gospel and neo-soul feel. He also performed Bobby Womack’s “Harry Hippie”, not a Womack song that gets covered frequently. Of course, everyone knows it, and one of the beautiful things about F. Jones’ Corner is that in a place like that, everyone will sing the hook together.