If you've heard me talk about Memphis for any length of time, you've heard me talk about Wild Bill's (pictured above, Bill standing in the doorway). After Junior Kimbrough's Place burned down in 2000, Wild Bill's became one of the last surviving "juke joints" in the Delta. It wasn't much bigger than a large living room, but still managed to seat a live 5- or 6-piece band in the corner and regularly packed sweaty, drunken R&B lovers in there like sardines. I've seen the sun rise (too) many times as I dragged myself out of Wild Bill's, but I was always happy on my way out. In fact, I would say that I've had some of the best nights of my life at Wild Bill's. Back in the day, the band used to call me up to sing a song or two on Saturday nights, and I can honestly say that I've never had a feeling like that since, and probably never will.
Wild Bill passed away Sunday after a bout with cancer. It's hard to explain what a loss this is. Bill Storey, who must have been in his 90's, always took the money at the door of his place-- a measly 5 bucks, which was a steal considering the time you were inevitably going to have there. Sometimes, when the place was really hopping, Bill would scurry around and distribute the "set-ups," occasionally partaking in a little nip himself. "Set-ups" are really just ice and glasses-- Wild Bill's only serves 40 oz. beers and a couple of fried foods (chitlins and wings). You can bring your own bottles of liquor, though, and can pay $2 for a "set-up." There was a time when Bill knew my face and my name, and he always gave me a bear hug when I came in. He was a man of few words-- I may have only collectively heard him say about 4 sentences in the years that I went to his place--but he had a presence. And he loved that place. And everyone loved him.
A couple of years ago, I was living in Philadelphia and travelled home to Memphis for a conference. I noticed that the airline magazine had a section on "Places to Go in Memphis" and that it included Wild Bill's. At the time, I thought this was the most tragic thing I had ever read. One of the great things about Wild Bill's, for many years anyway, was that it was the place you went to get away from the tourists. Of course, you can hear good music lots of places in Memphis, but Bill's was a place that only the "locals" knew about-- and even if a visitor had heard of it, they probably wouldn't be able to find it. When I saw the address listed in the Northwest Airlines magazine, my heart sank a little. Of course, this was selfish of me, as I am sure that the new publicity made Bill a lot of money, but it seemed like an era had passed, and I was sad about it.
I would say "Rest in Peace, Bill"... but the fact is that I can't really imagine Bill anywhere "peaceful", or at rest for that matter. I hope that wherever Bill is now, there is an organ and a few road-weary guitarists plugged into beat-up amps. I hope there's a cover charge, and that Bill is trusted to man the door. I hope he can smell the chitlins frying in the back and that the bottle of hot sauce is full. I hope that whoever sits down next to Bill remembers to bring a bottle of something brown and strong, and I hope that they tell Bill to help himself. And I hope he keeps watch over his place down here. We'll miss him.