Story and photos by Ray Proetto
This article is dedicated to Big Jack Johnson and Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, both of whom passed during its writing. They were incredibly talented Blues musicians who will be missed by admirers throughout the world. Descriptions of their performances during the week of the Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival are included in this article. Big Jack’s performance at Redd’s Juke Joint was exceptionally mesmerizing. It was for me, the highlight of the Festival.
AUGUST IN MISSISSIPPI IS JUST PLAIN HOT
I was cruising through the flat Delta farmland just outside of Clarksdale Mississippi on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010. It was 2:00pm and I had driven from Florida half the night and most of the day for twelve hours. I noticed something odd about the outside digital temperature reading in my car. It was fluctuating between 102 and 104 degrees. My first thought was the car must be overheating. Then I realized it was just that hot! Hot is what it was and hot is what it stayed throughout the Sunflower River – Blues and Gospel Festival.
Why would I brave heat such as this to attend a Blues festival? Read on to discover the answer and why I’ll be back next year for sure…
The actual festival did not begin until Friday, August 6th. I chose to arrive two days early because I knew there would be great music on tap in Clarksdale for at least a couple of days before the festival.
My first stop upon arriving in Clarksdale was Stan Street’s Hambone Art Gallery. I parked a little way down the block and placed a sunshade under my windshield. Not that the shade would make much difference with the temperature hovering around 100 degrees. During the short walk to his store, I couldn’t decide if I was experiencing bake or broil? It was good to see Stan and talk about the festival and where he was going to be playing that night. Most weeks he has live music on Tuesday nights in his store where there is a permanent drum kit and some amps at the ready. More important though was the welcome relief from the heat as I enjoyed his Art Gallery’s air conditioning. I made one more stop before heading over to my hotel at The Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store. The store employs some talented local musicians who know the local Blues scene inside and out.
THE RIVERSIDE HOTEL
Later, when I arrived at the Riverside Hotel on Sunflower Avenue, RAT was there to greet me. The first thing he said was, “Doc (that’s his nickname for me) I have your pillow.” He was holding the pillow I neglected to take home during my June visit to Clarksdale. I moved my things into number eight and went back up front to RAT’s sitting room for some conversation. There are many reasons to stay in the Riverside when you visit Clarksdale. First, it is the site of just the third Blues Trail Marker dedicated by the State of Mississippi. You can see the room where Bessie Smith died when the Hotel was a Hospital back in the 1930s. Blues Legends lived and practiced here when it was more of a rooming house than a Hotel. Throughout the lobby and halls are a large selection of photos and memorabilia. In addition, the Riverside’s current patrons are an eclectic group from all over the world. I’ve met Blues fans from Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, England, Ireland, Germany and all over the U.S. at the Riverside. There have been many engaging conversations sitting out front sharing Blues information and adventures with the other customers. RAT makes everyone who stays here feel at home. In fact that’s his slogan, “Come on home.” That is exactly how I feel when I return to the Riverside. Rat is always there to greet you and even if I don’t know the people in the other rooms, it won’t be long before I do. It’s also a short walk from the Riverside to all of the downtown music venues, stores and art galleries. But the real reason you must stay here at least once is RAT himself. Frank Ratliff, aka RAT, is a living, breathing, encyclopedia of Clarksdale’s history and his memory continues to amaze all those who know him. And RAT loves to talk about it all! RAT often holds court in the front sitting room with his guests until two, three or maybe later in the morning. About 70 years of age, RAT continues to work hard keeping up the place and refurbishing bungalows adjacent to the Hotel.
RAT’s mother, Z. L. Ratliff-Hill, opened the hotel as a rooming house and hotel on August 11, 1944 when RAT was four years of age. At the time there were no other hotels in the town for black persons. So naturally, black musicians stayed here whenever they did a show in Clarksdale or when passing through. Some just stayed and lived in the Riverside for months or years at a time.
LET THE MUSIC BEGIN!
After getting caught up with RAT, I retired to number eight for a well needed thirty seven minute nap! Once I was up again, I had to get ready for the first show on my agenda. Ben Prestage, a Florida Bluesman, was performing at Maddidi’s Restaurant with Stan Street accompanying him on harmonica and washboard. The music began about 7:00pm and Ben played guitar and sang with skill. His songs and style had a very traditional feel which he delivered with a unique intensity. Stan filled the breaks perfectly on his harmonica and added some strong solos of his own. Then Stan switched to washboard for a few songs and spiced things up nicely. After the show, Ben spoke of placing second in the solo category of the International Blues Competition. Just as interesting as Ben’s music was his appearance. He has dark, thick hair and a matching beard that seems out of control as it spills off his face. Add his conductor’s hat and he truly looked the part of a traveling Blues troubadour.
After the show I met Harry and Rich, members of an Illinois band called Triple Threat. I was also fortunate to sit and chat with four Clarksdale residents including Bill Talbot, one of the owners of the Shack Up Inn, Shelley Ritter, Director of the Clarksdale Blues Museum, and two of their friends, Martha and Eva. Shelley is a tireless promoter and defender of all things related to the Blues in Clarksdale. When you visit Clarksdale you MUST go to the Clarksdale Blues Museum. It contains an impressive display of historical information, exhibits, photographs, vintage instruments, artwork, clothing, and antiques. There is a special section dedicated to Muddy Waters which includes a twenty minute documentary video that was both very entertaining and educational.
Bill explained how the Shack Up Inn was started. Many farms in the area were tearing down the old sharecropper shacks on their properties because they were being assessed extra taxes for the dwellings. Bill began salvaging and rebuilding them on the property of the Hopson Plantation on the southern side of Clarksdale. The shacks were rebuilt with the important new additions of plumbing and air conditioning which enabled Bill to rent them out as hotel rooms. Some one in Europe wrote a story about the Shack Up Inn which resulted in a great deal of international attention. This fueled business from beyond the U.S. which has been an important part of the Shack Up Inn’s success. Each Shack on the property has it’s own name and particular style or theme and they are a fascinating slice of history. Another good reason to stay at the Shack Up Inn is the music. Two buildings, the old Hopson Commissary and a barn which is now called the “Juke Joint Chapel” have been converted into music venues. During festival weekends, the Shack Up has its own lineup of Blues artists performing. This means your hotel room, or rather your shack is just a stone’s throw from some great Blues.
REDD’S JUKE JOINT
Now it was time to stroll over to Redd’s Juke Joint. Redd’s is just down the block from the Riverside Hotel and from the outside looks like an abandoned building with large barbecue smokers out front. Once inside, it doesn’t look much better. Plastic sheets hang from the ceiling (in case of rain?). I’ve been told the roof no longer leaks. There is no stage and the band area and dance floor are located on one large rug in front of a long bar. The place is long and narrow and seems cluttered with a lot of unnecessary stuff. The walls are also haphazardly covered. The bar serves beer and water from coolers and the choices aren’t many. Then there is Redd himself. He’s a bearish man somewhere in his 50s who seems to wear shades 24/7. You never know what to expect from Redd. If you arrive early, he might sit down and tell you all about the local blues scene and play some of his favorites for you (as he did for me in June of this year). Or he might insult you and tell you to get a clue. You never know with Redd.
Despite his ornery side, Redd is one of a kind. He’s one of the last real Juke Joint club owners and he knows a great deal about the Delta Blues scene from the past 30 years. Redd also calls it like he sees it and you have to respect a man who speaks his mind. Once, when I was having a beer with Redd in the middle of the afternoon, a Blues musician from overseas came into the place briefly to promote himself. After he left, Redd told me the man “knows nothing about the Blues.” As far as I know, Redd never saw him play. Later that evening, I watched him perform at another club. He had all the technical skills of a blues performer. His guitar technique was strong and his voice was better than average. But his show completely lacked that Blues feeling. The emotion just wasn’t there. Redd was dead on. The man knew “nothing about the Blues.”
(Back to Redd’s-the place)… If I’ve scared you away from Redd’s so far, read on…
One reason not to miss Redd’s is because, upon closer examination, Redd’s is a historical landmark. All the “stuff” in the place and on the walls will be part of the Blues Museum someday. From the large Fan on the floor next to the stage to the vintage posters and pictures on the walls. The place is just dripping with Blues history. Much of it is like a scrapbook of Redd’s time with the Blues. You can walk around looking at it all for hours. Each time you walk in you notice something you didn’t see or appreciate before. One item you are sure to notice right away is a guitar hanging from the wall just past the bar. On it are the signatures of a long list of blues artists who have graced the stage, no make that… the rug… at Redd’s. (below – Redd relaxing midday)
But most importantly, Redd’s is all about the music. Redd gets all the true blue local performers and many others as they tour the country. And Redd’s is the place musicians like to stop in late at night to jam. You never know who will show up and tear the house down. The musicians also jam later at Redd’s than anywhere else until one or two in the morning. This allows you to catch an early show elsewhere and still enjoy the late night party at Redd’s. And party they do! You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve seen crammed onto the small dance floor bumping and grinding until late in the evening. One of the other charms of this dive with fantastic music is the very fact that it is so small. No matter where you are in the place, the band is never very far from you. I’ve often found myself sitting right next to band members or dancing within a foot of them. This place has real crowd interaction! At times the crowd can be more entertaining than the musicians. On a packed night It’s hard to tell where the gyrating crowd ends and the band begins.
The band at Redd’s that Wednesday night was the “All night Long Band” which included Dixie Street on drums, Sean Apple on guitar and vocals, Martin Grant on harmonica, and just for tonight, Terry Big T Williams on bass. They played an electrified version of the traditional Hill Country Blues sound. Sean Apple, a devoted performer and student of the various Hill Country and Delta guitar styles, delivered an authentic groove on guitar and inspired vocals while Dixie kept my feet tapping all night. Martin Grant simply blue the Hell right out of his harmonica!
Later in the evening, the band changed gears with Mary Ann Action Jackson joining on vocals to sing a number of R & B covers. If you’ve never seen Mary Ann perform, you are missing the campiest, most
over the top performer who frequents the stages of Mississippi. She takes it all to a level that will leave you grinning no matter who you are. She closed out the set with “Walk the Dog” and boy can she walk it! Her performance defied description. You’ll just have to come to Clarksdale and see for yourself.
On one of the band’s breaks, I spoke to Antonio, a large brick wall of a man who works at Redd’s. He told me he knows a thousand jokes. So I told him the only really funny joke I knew, and of course, he beat me to the punch line. When the music ended, I strolled down the block toward the Riverside Hotel. It was my first night in Clarksdale and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Arriving at my room around midnight, I finally crashed for some well earned sleep.
THURSDAY AT THE GROUND ZERO BLUES CLUB
Thursday I slept most of the day. After waking up at 11:00am for breakfast, I snoozed again from 2 to 4:00pm. When I finally left the hotel, I walked about three blocks through the heat to the Ground Zero Blues Club. There was a special event called the Boogie Woogie Piano Extravaganza. It was a benefit conert for the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. The show was the culmination of a Blues workshop for young musicians who learned from successful recording artists including Eden Brent and Anna Rabson.
(Note: While writing this article, it was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. He was 97 years old. Not only was he an extremely talented musician but his contributions to the Blues and his place in Blues history is well known among his many fans.)
Upon my late arrival, Eden Brent, was on stage encouraging a young student playing piano. After the Blues Workshop students performed, there was a set by the elder statesman of Blues piano himself – Pinetop Perkins. Mr. Perkins had recently celebrated his 97th birthday and sported a pair of piano key socks that caught my eye as soon as he sat down to play. He was accompanied by Lee Williams, a talented drummer from Clarksdale, Cassie Taylor on bass, and Bob Margolin, a name that speaks for itself on guitar. They provided smooth and stylish backing for Pinetop’s mellow Blues piano set.
Pinetop may have slowed some in recent years, however, he put on a show that demonstrated he hadn’t lost his feel for the music nor the original styling and skill of his famous playing. After Pinetop finished his set, Bob and Lee closed out the show with some rowdy blues numbers. They seemed to gel together creating an intense but seamless sound despite never having played together on the same stage before.
BACK TO REDD’S
After the show, it was time to head over to Redd’s again. Tonight’s performer was Terry Big T Williams. He played guitar and sang vocals. Backing him up was the ever-present Lee Williams on Drums, Jeremy Horton on bass, and two sax players – Dick Lurie and Alfonso Sanders. Terry put on a riveting show of various Blues and R & B styles. The pair of sax players added quite a bit of swing and extra flavor to the proceedings.
Johnny Bilington arrived late at Redd’s and played a few numbers with the band on
guitar and vocals. Johnny commands reverence wherever he goes as the elder statesmen of Blues music teachers. He runs a Blues Music Academy for children in Lambert MS. His alumni include the drummer Lee Williams and Anthony Big A Sherrod, a guitar player/singer who arrived even later that night to jam at Redd’s.
After Johnny played, we talked for a while and he told a joke about a woman whose car drives her home. Then I cracked him up with the one good joke I knew. This is the essence of what makes Clarksdale such a special place to visit. Everyone is approachable, friendly and happy to speak with you no matter who you are. This includes the fans, musicians, and local residents. You can never feel alone in Clarksdale for very long.
Next up on the rug was Anthony Big A Sherrod who stepped to the microphone to sing and play a couple songs on guitar. He put on quite a show in the brief ten minutes he played and then left the stage. Finally, Terry did a few more songs to round out the evening. Just as the the music ended at 2:00am, I spoke to two women who had just met each other and become friends earlier in the day. The three of us agreed to meet the next day in front of the Museum at the Main Festival Stage.
Looking back upon my first two days in Clarksdale, I attended four separate events and listened to at least twenty talented Blues musicians perform. This included the legend, Pinetop Perkins. All this and the Sunflower Festival had not yet begun!
THE SUNFLOWER BLUES AND GOSPEL FESTIVAL BEGINS
Sleeping late again on Friday, I eventually wandered downtown around noon and stumbled upon a dedication ceremony. Clarksdale has dedicated a “Walk of Fame” for its more accomplished citizens. Each site in the walk around downtown includes a plaque set in the sidewalk for each dignitary. As I approached the Main Festival Stage directly in front of the Clarksdale Blues Museum, I stopped at the sidewalk ceremony. Shelley Ritter (Delta Blues Museum Director) Panny Mayfield (Chief Sunflower Festival Planner) and some other local dignitaries whom I did not know were dedicating a new sidewalk plaque. The Plaque was to honor Ike Turner and his major contributions to modern music. I was relieved the ceremony was brief because I thought I might melt in the midday sun. At this point the Main Stage lineup for the festival had not yet begun. I set up my chair in front of the Main Stage and retreated into the Ground Zero Blues Club for some water, air conditioning, and Live Music!
The Ground Zero Blues Club hosted its own lineup of top quality musicians throughout the festival. Many artists played on one of the festival stages and also in Ground Zero. For example, Super Chikan burned up the Main Festival stage Friday night and played A nonstop dance marathon of music in Ground Zero on Saturday night. In addition to the Main Festival stage, there were also two acoustic stages which featured a lineup of talent that would impress any Blues fan. If names such as Robert Belfour, T-Model Ford, Big Jack Johnson, Jimmy Duck Holmes, Kenny Brown, and Sharde Thomas are not familiar to you, a trip to Clarksdale and other North Mississippi locations is definitely in order. You don’t know what you are missing!
The Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store also features a sidewalk lineup of performers throughout the festival. Their shows include a few rows of chairs supplied by the store and a large canopy to block the sun. And don’t miss an opportunity to go inside and check out an amazing selection of local and international Blues CDs, books, DVDs, T-shirts, art and other really cool stuff. Then on Sunday, the store has the “Cat Head Delta Mini Blues Festival” which features a full lineup of performers beginning in the morning and running most of the day.
THE GROUND ZERO BLUES CLUB
The Ground Zero Blues Club is a short walk across a parking lot from the Delta Blues Museum where the Main Festival Stage is located. As you enter the club, there are pool tables in the back and a long bar on the right side wall. There are twenty or more large and medium sized tables throughout and a large dance floor in front of the stage. The stage itself is raised and also quite large. The club is owned by the actor Morgan Freeman, local businessman Bill Luckett and entertainment executive Howard Stovall. Ground Zero opened in May of 2001. It attracts Blues fans from all over the world. Sometimes tour buses even stop here and give their customers a chance to hear the Blues. According to many locals, the club has helped Clarksdale by attracting international attention to its Blues history and has played a key role in the town’s efforts to attract tourists and revitalize the downtown area. Ground Zero also serves food which includes a list of mostly southern specialties including catfish and fried tamales. I went with the catfish sandwiches more than once and enjoyed them thoroughly.
I saw impressive young talent early Friday afternoon in the Ground Zero Blues Club. Anthony Big A Sherrod performed and featured Sherita Lynch on vocals for quite a few songs. Anthony played guitar and also sang while Marcus Williams (bass) and Willie Williams (drums) rounded out the band. Anthony looks more like he just stepped off a Greyhound from Chicago than a typical Mississippi Bluesman. He sported a
stylish hat with dark shades, a goatee and dress clothes. His guitar playing also reminds one more of Chicago than the Delta. Although still only in his twenties, he imparts the cool demeanor and confidence of an older performer. When Ms. Lynch joins him on stage, you can feel the chemistry between them and see how much they enjoy performing together.
Although this was a Blues show, there were no tears tonight. Big Jack played hard driving, in your face, infectious Blues that picked you up out of your seat and forced you to move. The rest of the band followed Jack’s lead and played their instruments with the same high powered raunchy groove all night. Almost everyone in the joint responded by getting up and shaking what God gave them for all it was worth! There were so many of us dancing I couldn’t move my feet and we became one packed mass of bumping and grinding to Dale’s infectious beat. Big Jack’s slide playing (on a homemade box guitar) intensified the bawdy groove while Dick and Alfonso’s sax solos whipped the crowd into further frenzy. When the first set finally ended, we were all soaked with sweat and collapsed on the couch for some well earned rest. I noticed RAT had come into Redd’s and he tapped me to say hello. He gave me a big smile when he noticed what good company I was keeping.
Somehow, Big Jack and the band managed to burn it up for two more full sets! The music ended at 2:00am. After walking my friends back to their hotels, I finally arrived home at the Riverside by 3:00am. When I walked in, RAT was still in the front sitting room talking to a group of hotel patrons who had also been at Redd’s until the music ended. There were five of us in addition RAT in the room. Everyone was talking about what a great time they had and how Big Jack Johnson at was so amazing! One man complained he hadn’t been able to meet any women while the rest of us shook our heads and agreed… WE WERE ALL IN CLARKSDALE FOR THE MUSIC!
At 3:30am I excused myself and finally made it to number 8. Somehow I had survived one full day and night of the Sunflower Festival and I had no idea how I was going to get up the next day and do it again?
SATURDAY AT THE MAIN STAGE:
It was well past one pm when I finally crawled out of bed. After eating some breakfast, I mean lunch, I got myself together and arrived downtown at the Main Stage. I had already missed quite a few acts and settled in to watch a young female performer named Venessia Young. Her band was called Venessia Young and Pure Blues Express. Venessia was a perfect wake up call for me. Her set was lively and plenty loud. She snapped me right out of my energy slump and I was ready for another exciting day. Somehow I lost track of my new friends from Redd’s but everyone at the festival was friendly and eager to talk about what a great time they were having. I ran into a number of friends I’d met at a previous Mississippi festival and made new friends throughout the day.
I had already missed the Bill Abel Band, All Night Long, and the Philip Carter Band. Never mind the Acoustic Stage #1 which had a lineup beginning at 9:00am consisting of Arthneice “Gas Man” Jones, Robert Belfour, Eddie Cusic, Pat Thomas, T-Model Ford, Big Jack Johnson, and Sharde Thomas of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. I’ve seen many of these artists at other times and this lineup alone would have been worth a trip to Clarksdale. Plus, there was an afternoon Acoustic Stage #2 with Charles Fowler, the late Foster “Tater” Wiley, Bill Abel and Cadillac John, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Kenny Brown, and Johnny Lowe Bow.
Next up on the Main Festival Stage was Terry Big T Williams and the Family Band. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the other band members but I did notice the ever present Lee Williams playing drums for Terry. Being on the Main Festival Stage inspired Terry to a rousing performance. The entire set consisted of one intense Blues song after another. Terry seemed to be in his own private zone playing the best I’ve heard from him. Sweat poured off his face in sheets as he kept his guitar working with screams, moans, and endless bending strings!