Despite Memphis’ well-deserved basketball reputation, Memphis is also traditionally a strong football town, particularly at the prep level. People turn out to see both the ball game, and also the battle between the bands and drumlins as well, and certain stadiums are historic locations for Memphis Black high school football, such as Booker T. Washington Stadium in South Memphis or Melrose Stadium in the center of Orange Mound. On Friday, September 19, 2014, I went out to the latter stadium to see the game between Whitehaven High School and the Melrose High School Golden Wildcats. Both schools brought their marching bands to the game, which isn’t always the case in Memphis these days, but Melrose seems to have declined in numbers in recent years, and its band, though it sounded good, was far smaller than I remembered in the past. Whitehaven, on the other hand, is one of the city’s premier high schools, academically, athletically and musically. Its band marches more than 100 members, and looks and sounds better than many colleges. The football game was a runaway for Whitehaven, but the band battle was more evenly matched, although I would have to give Whitehaven the advantage there too. Both bands pleased the crowd by playing a number of current hits, including Memphian Snootie Wild’s “Yayo”.
When I saw a flyer on my Facebook timeline for a performance by someone called “Lil Tyrone Davis” at a place called Ralph’s Bar & Grill in Whitehaven, I immediately planned to go, suspecting that Ralph’s might be the kind of neighborhood blues and soul spot that I like. The spot turned out to be in a strip mall on Millbranch just north of Holmes, and had just opened under new owners, although I recall it being a bar some years ago. It was quite large and roomy, with two main rooms, the second of which was centered around a good-sized stage and dance floor, and at first it was rather empty, with a DJ playing good blues and southern soul. Slowly, the place began to fill, first with women, then with men, and I noticed that many of them were singing every word of the songs the DJ was playing. These were true southern soul fans.
The high point of the evening was the band known as the Soul Connection Band, comprised of some excellent musicians who did a great job of backing up several male singers and a female blues artist named Ms. Diedre. After a brief intermission, they were back, this time backing Lil Tyrone Davis, who was from Chicago, and made a point of performing most of the late Tyrone Davis’ classic songs. Many of his friends and relatives were in the crowd, which by now had filled up most of the room. I met the club’s owner, who told me it was their intent to have live bands at least once a month.
Ralph’s Bar & Grill
5162 Millbranch Rd
Memphis TN 38116
I ate lunch at Pearl’s Oyster Bar downtown, and then headed out to Southbrook Mall, because my homeboy Snipes said his band A Touch of Soul was performing in the parking lot for the opening of some sort of discount mall there. A Touch of Soul proved to be a very talented young band, with a drummer named Otis Logan whose solo was one of the high points of the concert. Several rappers and singers performed with the band during the course of the hot summer afternoon.
#067 Mitchell High School Band @ Whitehaven Christmas Parade (by John Shaw)
The Mitchell High School Tiger Band marches in the Whitehaven Christmas Parade in Memphis on 11/17/12. Formerly Mitchell Road High School, the school was the first African-American high school in Shelby County to play football, and thus had one of the earliest marching bands in the county schools.
#056 Manassas High School Band @ Whitehaven Christmas Parade (by John Shaw)
Memphis, and its marching band was originally founded by the well-known band leader Jimmie Lunceford. Another Manassas band director, Emerson Able, was recently honored with a star on Beale Street. The schools produced a number of great musicians, including trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonist Frank Strozier and pianist, singer and songwriter Isaac Hayes.