The annual Southern Heritage Classic is far more than a football game. Each year, on the Saturday morning of the game at 9 AM, the Southern Heritage Classic Parade begins from the corner of Park Avenue and Haynes Street, and proceeds along Park through Orange Mound to the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center. The parade usually includes the Jackson State University and Tennessee State University bands, along with majorettes, drill teams,drumlines, Cowboys and Steelers fan clubs, car clubs and many others. There used to be more marching bands in the parade as well, but for the last few years, the parade has conflicted with the Southern Heritage Classic Battle of the Bands in Whitehaven, so there have been fewer bands recently, but the hometown favorites, the Melrose High School Sound of the Mound Marching Band always closes out the parade. It’s always a lot of fun, family and food.
Although the annual Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis is a football game, Black college football classics are never JUST football games. It’s just as much about the pageantry and battling of the drumlines, bands and majorettes, the cameraderie and fun, good food and general good times. The Jackson State University Sonic Boom of the South is consistently one of the best marching bands in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands is also well-known and well-regarded. In addition to the mandatory halftime show, bands from Black colleges often engage in an after-game ritual known as the “Fifth Quarter”, in which the two bands compete for crowd acclaim by playing tunes back and forth at each other after the game. Although this tradition has been somewhat restricted and shortened in recent years, it is still very much a part of the Black college football tradition.
As the day wears on, the crowds at the Southern Heritage Classic tailgate get bigger and bigger and more and more joyful. Many people have a really good time without ever going inside the Liberty Bowl.
Coors Beer sponsors a huge party and concert each year at the Southern Heritage Classic, at the far northern end of the Fairgrounds near Central Avenue. Because the mayor and other important city officials attend it, it has traditionally been difficult to get inside the event, as it technically is invitation only. However, this year, a man in a Coors shirt waved me through the gate just in time to see the introduction of WDIA’s Bev Johnson as the announcer. She in turn introduced Ecko Records’ recording artist Sweet Angel, who came out on stage with her band and did a full set of her trademark suggestive blues songs, as well as a demonstration of her saxophone skills. Her performance was followed by that of a band called Fifth Element, which was first-rate and which did a series of Earth, Wind & Fire covers.
Tiger Lane is named for the University of Memphis Tigers, but by an odd coincidence, the Southern Heritage Classic pits the Jackson State Tigers against the Tennessee State Tigers, so it’s appropriately named for the event. The gates open to tailgaters at 8 AM on game day, and the place becomes something like a small city, with tents, stages and recreational vehicles everywhere, and the sounds of music and the smells of barbecue drifting over the whole area. Many of the parties hire DJ’s for their day of fun, and every once in a while, a tent will have a live band. And although this year’s weather was hot, there were plenty of vendors with things like Italian ice or snow-cones to cool you off.
The Star Steppers are yet another popular youth majorette program, and the drummers they marched with this year in the Southern Heritage Classic parade were the famous Baby Blues, who are probably Memphis’ best-known and most well-travelled youth drumline.
Booker T. Washington is Memphis’ oldest Black high school, and Memphis’ oldest Black high school marching band. Like Manassas, BTW has been through some rough times with lower enrollment, particularly since Cleaborn Homes was torn down, but their band seems to be on the way back up in numbers, based on what I could see at the Southern Heritage Classic Parade, 9/14/13
The Cowborettes are one of Memphis’ better-known majorette squads, and although they usually compete without drummers, they always march with a drumline when they’re in a parade. In this year’s Southern Heritage Classic Parade, they marched with the Blood Sweat & Tears drumline.
The Millennium Madness Drill Team & Drum Squad is one of Memphis’ premiere drill teams, and one of the few that still gives young men an opportunity to be drummers. Here they are in this year’s Southern Heritage Classic Parade in Orange Mound, 9/14/13
The Talladega College Marching Band is actually quite good, and has been a frequent visitor to Memphis over the last several years, appearing in the Southern Heritage Classic Parade, local band battles, and the Whitehaven Christmas Parade last year.