Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dear Memphis: You've Got To Love Them While They Live

Yesterday, Memphis turned out in force at W.C. Handy Park and on Beale Street to bid its final farewell in a home-going celebration for one of our city's musical legends, B.B. King, who passed away last week.  It was a dark and cloudy morning, which felt strangely appropriate, as Nature herself seemed unable to hold back tears for the Beale Street Blues Boy whose fans and friends gathered to watch his final ride down the historic street that gave him his name and made his fortune.  In the end, the sadness we all felt was ultimately drowned out by a moving display of love and tenderness, pride and joy. which drew from a popular, musical and cultural well so deep that its resources seem inexhaustible.  I was there and cannot describe it any other way than to say that it was Memphis.  Thousands braved the elements to pay their respects, fellowshipped with one another and stood together as living testaments to the continuing vitality of this, our Memphis, Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock 'n Roll.

Without a doubt, the thrill lives on.  Just see for yourself:

BUT what may have been overlooked by many Memphians who were there to say goodbye to a musical legend was, unfortunately, the countless living legends, who were also there among them.

I'm talking about people like my dear friend Earl "the Pearl" Banks, who I ran into at the tribute concert in Handy Park immediately preceding B.B. King's final ride down Beale Street and who, for reasons utterly mysterious to anyone with an appreciation of this city's musical history, was standing among the crowds without a VIP pass hanging aound his neck.  Earl is pushing 80 years old now. He still plays regularly on Beale Street and throughout town with his band, and he is every bit as good (and as saucy) now as he ever was.  Earl is a living legend. Same goes for Ruby Wilson, who is 67, who was one of the featured artists at yesterday's tribute concert and who holds on to the title "Queen of Beale Street". (I had to phone Ruby while I was writing this to ask her age, which is impossible to find on the Internet, but she was quick to tell me "oh yes, honey, tell them how young I am!")  And Herman Green was there in the crowds, just turned 85, who absolutely owned it during his birthday party concert at Blues City Cafe just last week, which lasted into the wee hours, long past bedtime for many half his age.   Joyce Cobb, another of Memphis' living legends who will turn 70 in just a few days, wasn't there, but only because she has been battling cancer. Blind Mississippi Morris (also 70) was there, walking the street and glad-handing blues fans who were barely born when he reached his prime. Vince Johnson was there, who is a considerably younger 55yrs old and who will probably kill me for including him with the "older" crowd here, but Vince's legendary status is quite definitely indisputable and he belongs in the company of these legends, as evidenced by his throngs of fans not only here in Memphis, but in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.. (About Vince, who is one of the most talented human beings I have ever known, I can say nothing greater than that he is also one of the kindest, most trustworthy and dearest friends I have.)  And although I didn;t see him yesterday, I absolutely must recognize the man who made Handy Park the place to go (and who has been, inexplicably and unjustifiably displaced from Handy Park) Chic Jones. ( I LOVE YOU CHIC!) Eventually-- and, God willing, hopefully a loooong time from now-- the day will come when we have to say goodbye to these living legends, and many more like them, as we did to B.B. King yesterday,

DEAR MEMPHIS, DON'T LET A FUNERAL BE THE FIRST TIME YOU SHOW UP TO PAY YOUR RESPECTS. There are ridiculously hardworking and touched-by-God-talented men and women who carry on the work that put our city on the global map every day. We need to love them while they live.

If you're a Memphian and you don't know, if you haven't made your way down to Beale Street or any of the other countless music venues in town, let me tell you: B.B. King's thrill is not gone. It lives on, in fact, it thrives and it is being breathed new life again every single night in Memphis.  I spend a lot of time with our local blues, soul and R&B musicians and I can attest that they need YOU. They need you to show up, to drop some cash in their bucket, to buy their merch, to tell a friend about them, to show them love and support in the same way that tourists all over the world travel thousands of miles to Memphis to do the same. They need you NOW, not when they die. We're sitting on a literal goldmine of local talent here. Some of them are old and some of them are sick, and we really ought pay our respects to them before they go.  But it's not only the older musicians, the ones who actually played with B.B King and Al Green and Otis Redding and the like, who need your help.  We also have a wealth of young musicians who are not only serious and dedicated pupils of our blues and soul tradition, but who are also ingenious re-inventors of that legacy. 

Because there are too many to name, I'm just going to pick one from the "younger" generation to tell you about here. Meet Suavo Jones (pictured above), trombone player for Ghost Town Blues Band and all-around amazing guy. Suavo is the living, breathing example of what a hardworking Memphis musician looks like.  I first met Suavo when I was finishing my documentary film (WORKING IN MEMPHIS) that Sophie Osella and I made a few summers ago about working Memphis musicians.  That was just before GTBB blew up (they're now a chart-topping, touring blues act so check them out in a city near you!) and, back then, Suavo was still working the hustle&flow, pounding the pavement up and down Beale Street several nights a week.  Suavo is not only a genuinely top-notch human being, but a consummate professional and bona fide showman.  Over the last few years, I've seen him perform in the clubs and on the streets all over Memphis, and I have no reservation whatsoever about saying that Suavo, along with his GTBB bandmates Preston McEwen and Matt Isbell, are nothing short of exemplary cases of Memphis legends-in-the-making. I should tell this story first about all three of them (Suavo, Matt and Preston), which is that when I decided only a few days before Christmas last year that I wanted to record a Memphis-version of "Ode to Joy" as a holiday song, those guys (Preston especially) literally moved heaven and earth to make it happen.  (You can see the result, "JoyfulJoyfulOdeToMemphis" here, which was literally and miraculously completed in less than 48hrs, Big ups also to Arean Alston, Brendan Eso Tolson, Carla Barnes, Jeremy Powell, James RigneySiphne Sylve, Robbie Randall, Shane Watson for that project!)  But back to Suavo...

After the crowds had dispersed yesterday following the B.B. King tribute, I was grabbing a bite to eat on Beale, saw Suavo across the street, so I holla'd at him.  As is his way, Suavo walked over and we chatted for a while about this and that. And it occurred to me while we were shooting the sh*t that there are  really precious few artists like Suavo, who can so easily traverse the musical divides of blues, soul, R&B, rap and hip-hop with such ease and aplomb, and also just hang out on the side of the street and be a genuinely good guy. What I'm saying, if it's not already obvious, is that you NEED to see this kid play. Suavo is 28 years old, practically a baby in blues-years, but he's already like the trombone version of a Memphis dry-rubbed rib. The guy is seasoned deep, smoked long, his meat is literally dripping-from-the-bone with soul. And what's more, the thing about Suavo is that he gives back to Memphis as much as he takes. I've seen this kid play with so many people, young and old, from whatever genre happens to be making sounds that night. Suavo Jones is nothing short of the real deal.

Here's the thing, though: Suavo is really just one among so many young Memphians who are keeping the musical legend of this city alive.  If you were there on Beale Street yesterday for B.B. King's homegoing, you saw many of them (even of you didn't recognize them or know who they were).  You probably stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them, legends young and old, those who play and perform and work and create and make their living too often from the tip bucket alone on that very street where you were paying tribute to a legend just like them.  

One of my favorite live acts in Memphis, Chris McDaniel, was there, as was his guitar player, the inimitable Clyde "the Slide" Roulette.  And every week on Beale Street, if you're so inclined, you can see Don Valentine and his band, which includes the force of Nature that we all know as "Baretta" on bass. Among other legends in the making is the lovely and infectiously spirited Joyce Henderson (featured in my documentary WORKING IN MEMPHIS). And I'd be remiss not to mention Queen Ann Hines, who is now fronting the Memphis Blues Masters.(shouts-out to BluesMasters Freddy, Johnny, Ralo and Jesse!) regularly at the Blue Note every weekend on Beale. And how can I not mention that incredible ball of dynamite, Mandy Nikides, and her Low Society band? Lawd almighty! Or the ingenue and by all accounts heir-apparent, Will Tucker, holding down the fort at B.B. Kings Blues Club.. And no true Memphis music accolades would be complete without acknowledging the truly God-given and Memphis-honed phenomenal force that is Miss Nickki (Nicole Whitlock). You want to talk about legends? Kick your shoes off, take a drink and click the link on any of the above artists I've mentioned above.   

If Memphians put just "a teeny-weeny bit bit of our love" (as our old friend Tony C might say) into cultivating, nurturing, advocating for and, yes, funding the actual working and living legends who are still in our midst, we could make Memphis something other than the triple-A training camp for musical stardom that it is now. Instead, Memphis could be the place where legends-in-training come to settle down instead of pass-through (or, as is too often the case, work their whole lives and die in obscurity).  We need to spend more time AND MONEY trying to be the home of the Blues and less time trying to commemorate ourselves at its birthplace.  

Shameless self-promotion here, but I want to encourage you all to take a few minutes (less than a half-hour) to watch the WORKING IN MEMPHIS documentary below, which not only will introduce you to a number of living, working Memphis musical legends, but also might make you aware of the fact that our local "legends" work for almost nothing.  If you take nothing else away from this short film, please know this: the musicians working on Beale Street today earn barely as much (and often less) than B.B. King did when he worked the street more than 50yrs ago. It ought to be a shame on us all that we allow such talent to go unacknowledged and unrewarded  (Please see Christopher Reyes' excellent column "Played Out" in the Memphis Flyer to this effect.) We need to do better by our musicians, Memphis.

Working in Memphis: A Documentary from Leigh Johnson on Vimeo.

Rest in peace, B.B. King,  Yours was a long, complicated, and hard-earned battle for fame, which you won and which you deserved.  I hope the city that loved and honored you at your passing yesterday learns to love and honor those who carry on your legacy.

And I hope the city that loved and honored you learns that those who carry on your legacy, every day and every night, cannot wait on love and honor to pay the bills. They need to get paid.

Love them while they live, Memphis

1 comment:


Many thanks, on so many a Memphian, as a blues fan, and as a working blues musician. My secret wish is that Wednesdays outpouring of love for BB King awakens a little more appreciation for Beale St and its working musicians among our neighbors. This article goes a long way towards making that wish a reality, and for that I'm deeply grateful. Everyone needs to share this!!