Friday, June 26, 2015

Ten Questions With......Rusty Wright

Some of the best Southern-styled blues rock currently being played comes from a band based in Michigan.  The Rusty Wright Band combines the blues and Southern rock (his family has roots in Alabama) with the rowdy rock and soul of the Motor City and the combination is irresistible!  He is a top notch guitarist, singer, and songwriter and he's backed by a powerhouse band that includes keyboardist Robert John Manzitti, drummer Marc Friedman, bassist Dennis Bellinger, and singer/guitarist/wife Laurie Wright.

The band's latest CD is Wonder Man (Sadson Music), and, as you might expect, it's a mix of blues, rock, and soul, highlighted by Wright's smoking hot guitar and soulful vocals, the band's seamless interplay (notably between Wright and Manzitti), and Wright's unique songwriting, which puts a cool modern spin on familiar blues topics.  I highly recommend this album to anyone who digs Southern blues and rock.

Rusty Wright graciously agreed to sit down with FBF for Ten Questions and we are grateful that he took the time to do so.  Check out our conversation and when you're done, check out Wonder Man and the rest of the band's catalog below.

The Rusty Wright Band (L to R):  Dennis Bellinger, Marc Friedman, Rusty Wright, Robert John Manzitti, Laurie Wright

Friday Blues Fix:  For starters, can you tell us about the Rusty Wright Band’s brand of blues? 

Rusty Wright:  RWB's brand of blues blends a wide variety of influences. The Wonder Man CD leans on the blues/rock side of things but I am not confined to that limit. Depending on the inspiration the song may be traditional or have a Chicago vibe or even Delta. My music is basically an eclectic blend of diverse influences with Blues infused core.

FBF:  Your new album, Wonder Man, covers a lot of ground……from traditional blues, blues-rock, and Southern rock.  What are some of your highlights from the disc?

RW:  My favorites are "Black Hat Boogie," which is fast paced but experiments with Mini Moog blends, "Gonna Come A Day" which is a soulful traditional blues, Title track "Wonder Man" (I love the horns) and "Whiskey Drinkin' Woman" is a Lo Fi butt kicker that has more experimentation with the Moogs but I really like them all. There's something on the CD for just about every taste of Blues fan.

FBF:  You and the band really fire on all cylinders on the album.  What does it take for a great band to really put it together and work with such unity?

RW:  Either a lot of road touring or somebody who can really CRACK THE WHIP in the studio! LOL! In our case there's BOTH!

FBF:  What about your musical background?  Did you come from a musical family?

RW:  Oh yes, my mother studied opera and then as I grew older, she had a touring gospel act called The Temples that released several records and traveled all over. I got my first gig playing guitar in her back up band. My father was a music promoter in Michigan but came from Alabama to work in the factories up north. He brought a large vinyl record collection with him that I listened to constantly growing up.

FBF:  What else did you listen to when you were growing up?

RW:  My dad's vinyl records when I was very small.  Lot's of Chess records artists like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Etta James, and early Rock n Roll......Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. I would spend summers in Alabama with my Dad's family and my cousins got me into the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels, etc., and as I got older living in Michigan, I got into Detroit artists like Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent, Grand Funk all the way up to prog rock acts like Yes and Rush. I just love unique musical sounds so I've never really limited my focus to one style of music.

FBF:  How did you gravitate to the blues?  What drew you to the music?

RW:  The passion. I could hear this powerful emotion and even though I didn't understand it yet as a small boy, I just knew it was something important. Then there was the great grooves that those guys in the rhythm section could throw down. WOW, you just HAD to move to it.

You play some powerhouse guitar……who are some of your influences as a guitarist?

RW:  There are many, I try to listen and learn from as many players as possible. I don't believe anyone knows everything but some people who really made an impression were Robin Trower, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman for slide guitar, Alex Lifeson of Rush for his incredibly unique approach to chord voicing and lead solo construction. He is the player that really showed me that there are absolutely NO boundaries except your own desire and imagination.

FBF:  Who influenced you as a songwriter?  What is your approach to songwriting?  What inspires you to write…….events in your life?  Current events?   Do you just sit down and start writing or do you do it spontaneously?

RW:  Things hit me out of the blue. Songs just come like somebody unscrews the top of my brain and pours them in. I can hear all the parts even the lyrics. My biggest hassle is getting them written down fast enough before they evaporate from my memory.

FBF:  Do you have any interesting stories from your career that you would like to share with us?

RW:  Well, when we started the band our 2nd show was opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd which was unnerving in itself but as I am playing I look over and see all three guitar players from Skynyrd staring at me from back stage. I thought I would puke on my shoes. LOL! after the set they all came up to me and shook my hand and said, "DUDE! Where the hell did you come from!?!"  That was a proud moment for me.

FBF:  What’s next for the Rusty Wright Band?  Are there some things that you haven’t done yet that you would like to do?

RW:  Well, I'll continue to write and I hope to do more touring in Europe, but I'll just see how things go. I never plan too far ahead.

FBF:  What and who do you listen to in your spare time?

RW:  I don't actively listen to radio because it clouds my songwriting, but I do like to check out things other blues players are doing just to see where their vibe is at.

FBF:  If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

RW;  LOL! Probably be living in a small cabin or a cave painting pictures of all the things I see in my head! Until the rubber truck came and got me! LOL!

More from the Rusty Wright Band, all on Sadson Music.  Also, check out the band's cool merchandise at their website.

Ain't No Good Life (2006)

Playin' With Fire (2009)

Live Fire (2012)

This, That, & The Other Thing (2013)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Righteous Rhythm & Blues - The Holmes Brothers

The Holmes Brothers (L to R):  Popsy Dixon, Wendell Holmes, Sherman Holmes

Way back in 1990, I was browsing in a record store, checking out the new releases in the blues session, when I ran across an interesting album from a band called The Holmes Brothers.  On the cover were three guys sitting at a bar, having a beer and what seemed to be a generally good time.  I was in the market for some new music, so I picked up their album, In The Spirit, on cassette.

From the opening notes of their first tune, "Please Don't Hurt Me," my doors were blown off.  Their vocals harmonies were just incredible and they not only played blues, but they also did soul, gospel, and R&B.  While they wrote their own material and it was pretty impressive, they also took old songs.....gospel, blues, and soul...and basically transformed them into something totally different from their original incarnation.  It was quite an ear-opening experience.

The Chambers Brothers

While in college, I had discovered a band of Mississippians called the Chambers Brothers, an underrated 60's-era band that combined blues, funk, gospel, and psychedelic rock in a similar manner, with intriguing cover tunes, insightful originals, and the same type of ragged but right harmonies.  They even had a hit on the pop charts with "Time Has Come Today," but they had some great tracks on their albums that were even better than their chart hit.  To me, those tracks have stood the test of time even better than "Time Has Come Today."

When I first heard the Holmes Brothers, my first thought was of the Chambers Brothers with a few differences.......first was the incredible multi-octave vocals of drummer Willie "Popsy" Dixon.  I rarely heard Dixon without getting goosebumps.  It was unlike any voice I'd heard before or since....just breathtaking in it's range and clarity.  The fact that he did that while masterfully manning the drum kit made it even more impressive.  He was particular impressive on many of the gospel tunes, whether as a lead vocalist or with his ghostly falsetto providing exquisite backing for Wendell Holmes gritty lead vocals.

Dixon's life partner, Isobel Prideaux, told Ellen Robertson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "A producer once told me, 'Not every singer can sing every note.'  Popsy could sing anything.  When he was finished singing and was signing autographs, a lot of people would ask, 'Where did you get such a beautiful voice?'  His answer to everyone was, 'It was a gift from God.'"

GIb Wharton

Another difference, at least in the first few recordings by the band, was the presence of Texas pedal steel guitarist Gib Wharton.  Wharton played on three of the Holmes Brothers' recordings in the early/mid 90's.  His soaring, swooping, screaming guitar practically added a fourth "vocal" to the ensemble.  Wharton played with the band until the mid 90's.  In 2001, the guitarist nearly died in a house fire that left him with 3rd Degree burns over half of his body and resulted in him losing most of the fingers on his left hand.  However, he recovered and continued to play pedal steel, using a steel socket over his thumb and retaining his own unique voice on the instrument in the process.

Another key factor to the band's sound is singer/guitarist/keyboardist Wendell Holmes.  Holmes also possesses a distinctive vocal style....on the blues numbers, he shows a rough-hewn growl, some of which bleeds over to his soul and gospel numbers, but he also shows an honest warmth on the ballads, especially those with a country flavor.  His guitar work is versatile and often overlooked by fans who can't get past those wonderful harmonies and singing.  In 2008, he was diagnosed with cancer, but he battled back fiercely and was able to overcome it.  The experience enabled Holmes to develop further as a songwriter.  He told Tim Holek, "It made me realize what's important in life and what's not so important."   Music played a big part in his recovery, as he would play music and sing hymns with his family while recovering, as he told Holek, "Music is therapy.  I can sit down feeling sad and get up feeling glad."

Last, but certainly not least, is older brother Sherman Holmes (who sang the above "I'm So Lonely"), who learned piano and clarinet before teaching himself bass as a teen.  He migrated to NYC, where he eventually backed R&B singer Jimmy Jones (of "Handy Man" fame).  When Jones needed a guitarist, he returned to his native Virginia and drafted  Wendell the night his younger brother graduated from high school.  They played together with Jones and other bands and were soon joined by Dixon.  The Holmes Brothers became an actual band in 1979, combining Sherman's rumbling baritone with Wendell's gritty tenor and Dixon's ethereal falsetto to form that incredible three-part harmony.

The brothers have always written interesting and sometimes intriguing original tunes, but what really stands out to me is their awesome reinterpretations of songs that you may think you already know, but are completely transformed by the trio's amazing vocals and musical arrangements.  Each of their albums contains at least a couple of these songs, usually old pop favorites that are completely, for a lack of a better word, renovated. There's a good chance that you will hear all of these songs in a different way after you've heard the Holmes Brothers version.

Sadly, the band recently suffered a huge loss when Popsy Dixon passed away on January 9th of this year from Stage 4 bladder cancer at the age of 72.  A few months later, Wendell Holmes announced his retirement to battle his own health problems.  He issued a statement this week stating that he was going into hospice care and thanking all of his fans and fellow musicians for their love and support.  Sherman Holmes is continuing the band's legacy, forming The Sherman Holmes Project, which will continue those three-part harmonies and that far-ranging repertoire.  

For newcomers to the Holmes Brothers' sound, you can start just about anywhere and discover some fantastic music.  They released four albums on Rounder Records between 1990 and 1997:  In The Spirit (1990), Where's It At (1991), Soul Street (1993), and Promised Land (1997), plus a compilation (2002's Righteous!  The Essential Collection).  My favorite of these, by a narrow margin, is Soul Street, but Righteous is an excellent overview of all four albums, plus a bonus track from their lone release on Stony Plain Records, Lotto Land, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name.  During their tenure with Rounder, they also released a wonderful all-gospel album, Jubilation, on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label in 1992.

In 2001, the band signed with Alligator Records, kicking things off with another outstanding all-gospel effort, Speaking in Tongues, which was produced by their longtime fan Joan Osborne.  They released five subsequent albums with Alligator, 2004's Simple Truths, 2007's State of Grace, 2010's Feed My Soul, and 2013's Brotherhood.  Of this group, my personal favorite is Speaking in Tongues. The fire and passion has always been there for the band, but this disc is just loaded with energy and power and sheer joyful exuberance!

Trust me when I say that your musical existence is incomplete unless you give the Holmes Brothers a listen.  They were good on so many different levels with their talent and versatility.....simply one of the finest ensembles not just in blues and soul, but music in general.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ten Questions With........John Earl Walker

NYC blues guitarist and vocalist John Earl Walker has been playing music for over 50 years.  His band Creedmore State backed many legendary blues artists in New York in the 60's and 70's at the NYC club Unganos as the house band.  Creedmore State eventually evolving into the band Plum Nelly.  Plum Nelly signed with Capitol Records in the early 70's and even played Carnegie Hall in support of the James Gang.  After the band broke up in the mid 70's, Walker formed the first incarnation of the John Earl Walker Band.

Since the early 2000's, Walker has released an EP and six CDs, including his latest, Mustang Blues, which is his best to date.  Walker's guitar work has garnered praise from fellow musicians like Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy, and is always a highlight on his albums.  His songwriting is pretty creative and witty, too, putting new twists on familiar blues themes.  All in all, Walker is a pretty cool guy, and not just because he agreed to answer Ten Questions for FBF.  After you get to know him below, I highly recommend that you check out his website and his catalog for more information.

Ten Questions With......John Earl Walker

Friday Blues Fix:  What kinds of music did you listen to when you were growing up?  How did you gravitate to the blues? 

John Earl Walker:  Growing up in the 50's I mostly remember hearing whatever was on the AM radio, and before rock and roll hit the airwaves there wasn't much.  Once Rock & Roll hit in the mid 50's and I heard Little Richard, Bo Diddley and especially Chuck Berry, I knew what turned me on was the rhythms and the guitar leads in the songs!  Of course Chuck Berry's songs also had great stories!  It would be about 10 years later that I realized that the leads that Chuck was playing when he did his "duck walk" were T-Bone Walker riffs!  My sister was 3 years older than me and she brought home lots of 45's and I played the hell out of them listening for the guitar parts!  When I heard Jimmy Reed doing “Big Boss Man,” It hit me like a ton of bricks and I knew what kind of sound I wanted to make someday!

FBF:  How old were you when you started playing guitar?  Which guitarists influenced you?
JW:  I was 13 in 1964 when I started playing guitar.  My mother wanted me to play guitar and I was ready long before my father brought home an acoustic guitar and I made him take it back.  We exchanged it for a Harmony Rocket, which is a hollow body electric and that was my first guitar! I loved that guitar and would fall asleep playing it every night in bed! 

My main influences at first were Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Steve Cropper, and James Burton.  Then the British Invasion hit and I liked the Stones and the Animals best because they were mostly imitating the blues artists that they looked up to. It took me a couple years to realize that songs I was covering like “I'm Mad,” by the Animals was really “I'm Bad,” by John Lee Hooker, and there are many similar examples.  A few years later around 1968, I discovered the three Kings, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Dawkins, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and they all really got to me, of course.  John Mayall had Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor and I loved the sound and approach they all had as well!

FBF:  Which songwriters serve as inspirations?  Can you describe your songwriting process?  Do you write mostly from personal experience?  

JW:  The biggest inspiration as a writer came from Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry.  You can't top them in my book as writers.  As for my songwriting it's mostly from experiences with a touch of artistic license and imagination!  Sometimes I'll have a theme or subject I want to write about and sometimes I'll have just a chord groove.  Other times the melody comes first or just the first line of lyrics.

Plum Nelly:  Walker is at center

FBF:  Your band Plum Nelly opened for the James Gang at Carnegie Hall in 1971 and signed with Capital Records…….what were some of the highlights of your time with the band and how did it shape you as a musician and performer? 

JW:  Plum Nelly started out as Creedmore State which was a mental institution in Queens, NY.  We were still teenagers and thought it was fun to have a crazy name but changed it to Plum Nelly when we signed with Capitol Records.  Creedmore auditioned for Ungano's, a small club on the upper west side of NYC where all the top named acts played, as it was a record industry hangout.  The Ungano brothers, Arnie and Nicky, became our managers and told us we would open for all the top acts playing there. 

At the time, most acts did 2-4 nights there, and between 1969 and 1970 we played with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, John Mayall, Dr. John, Fleetwood Mac, Bo Diddley, The Kinks, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and even Jimi Hendrix, who came in with the Band Of Gypsys after his NYE show at the Fillmore and played through my amp!  That was the ultimate.  Anyone who was there will never forget it, but we didn't know the rug was about to come out from under us!  We all learned a lot from playing and hanging with all the groups and we quickly tightened up!

FBF:  You’ve been in the music business for over 50 years……do you have any stories that you would like to share with us? 

JW:  In 1974, Plum Nelly reformed with some new members and moved out to LA.  We had some connections at A & M Records and we used their soundstage to get ourselves together whenever George Harrison wasn't using it.  We also did session work for their publishing company, which used to pay about fifty dollars a song and boy, did I need the money!  

One day when I knew they had a check waiting for me, I walked over there, as we lived close by the studio, and who did I see come walking up to me, in LA where no one walks, right near A &M Records but Chuck Berry.  I went right over to him and introduced myself and asked him where he was going.  He said to the airport and there weren't any cabs cruising around either.  Very funny, but I loved it!

About a year later, December of 75, I was asked to go to the Guitar Center in Hollywood to film a pilot for Channel 9 KHJ playing guitar with BB King.  It all went great and we jammed two blues instrumentals.  BB was the nicest but the pilot never was aired and they say it was in the can in Vegas.  Hope it gets released, especially now that BB has left us!  It still was one of my happiest days getting to play with BB. RIP!

FBF:  You and your band have played together for many years, something that’s fairly unusual for most bands.  How do you all manage to keep things fresh and interesting after so many years? 

JW:  After so many years, I've managed to keep things because I've been a frequent visitor to Australia, where I've been playing with many different players who bring a different slant to the music, which helps me to get new ideas for songs when I get back to my band in NY. I usually have a bunch of new fresh songs to try out!

FBF:  Mustang Blues is your best recording yet.   All of your albums have been great, but the songs really stand out.  You and the band faced a lot adversity in the years before its release.  Can you tell us about some of the songs and what inspired them?    

JW:  Mustang Blues is getting a great reaction and I came up with most of the songs last year on my stay in Australia. 

The Devil Follows Me” is about the anxiety every man faces when he wakes up each day you just know sometimes that the devil is gunnin' for you that day and wants you to make the wrong choices! 

“Mustang Blues” is the true story of me and my Mustang GT in the 90's! Just the sound of the 5.0 engine roaring down the block made cops want to give you a ticket! This is why it took me nearly 20 years to make a joke out it! 

“Superstorm Sandy Blues” was of course a real life trauma for me, being displaced and losing almost everything I owned! What hurt most was losing my memorabilia and all my old lyrics, pictures, and masters to a lifetime of recordings!  Only someone who has gone through it can imagine what it's like!  In the song I tried to color the disorientation in the solos! 

“Even Up The Score” is a song that I wrote and have been performing since the mid 90's about a girl I had an obsession for and kept running into her on purpose, never getting anywhere but never giving up either!

FBF:  What’s next for you and the band?  Do you have any future projects in the works that you can share with us?

JW:  What’s next for me is I will be going to perform in Sweden for the first time at the Kristenhamn Blues Festival in July but not with my own band with the Mess Around Band led by my good friend harp player Bruno Yxenholt.

Future projects I have in mind to do are an all-instrumental album and an acoustic album.  These are possible and even a bio type book where I can tell the really juicy stories!

FBF:  If you weren’t making music, what do you think you would be doing?

JW:  If I wasn't making music I think I would have been a retired baseball or tennis player turned sports sports announcer, but gave up sports for the guitar! 

I ran marathons from ‘88 till ’98, when my back blew out around 2001, but I was just taking out my frustrations on myself in my first year of high school at an all-boys Catholic school (Nazareth).  The football/track couch saw me beat my friend at a half mile 2x around the track and said, “You’re gonna join my track team, aren't you?”  Brother Russell was a huge monster football/track couch and I told him no, because I had band practice every day after school.  Well, then I was on the shit list.  He called me “farmer boy” because I had longer hair, and would have put up with it if I won races for his team, but not as a musician, so I always ducking him when he patrolled the cafeteria at lunch break (I left after the 10th grade for a public school with girls!

FBF:  What music do you like to listen to in your spare time? 

JW:  What I listen to is still mostly blues 24/7 since around 1968!  I used to also like country music in the 80's and 90's when it was heating, no way!  Also some smooth jazz if it has a groove!  I still love to listen to BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, Albert Collins, Albert King, Son Seals, Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Robert Cray.....these and many others are the ones that I still listen to and always will!

John Earl Walker - Discography

I'm Leavin' You (2003)

Friday, June 5, 2015

It All Comes Back To The King

Last weekend, B.B. King, the King of the Blues, was laid to rest in Indianola at the museum which bears his name.  Mississippi's public TV station broadcast the funeral live on Saturday morning, and video of the service can be seen at MPB's YouTube site.  A wonderful service, one of the highlights was a magnificent medley of gospel songs from Otis Clay and the Soul Stirrers' Willie Rogers.  

I was not able to attend the funeral or any of the other events that accompanied it......I lost a close friend earlier in the week and attended his funeral on Saturday......but our humble correspondent Joe, who is one of the biggest B.B. King fans on record, was able to take part and he filed this report on the events and offers his reflections on the passing of a legend.  Check it out below and when you're done, be sure check out Joe's previous posts here and here.  

As always, Graham presented a fantastic and thorough tribute to BB King in his May 22 post.  The videos attached to it are some of BB’s best performances and represent many phases in his career.  The tributes to BB King have been pouring in from all over the world by people much more important and articulate than me. I read a lengthy article yesterday diagramming BB’s technical ability on guitar and it blew me away.  The author was able to describe in great detail why BB just sounded so different from everybody else…   

All blues fans have their own personal connection to BB and his music. For me, my connection to BB King and love for his music is very personal.  Every true blues fan has a particular artist/album that caused you to suddenly “get it” and become not just a casual fan of the blues…But, to become passionate about learning all you can of the history, influences, genres, and true icons of blues music.  You want to learn who influenced your favorite blues artists and their contemporaries.... You’re trying to listen to every performer connected to particular genres of the blues…One blues performer leads to another and before you know it, you’re making special trips to find blues trail markers and searching for a particular headstone in isolated cemeteries in the MS delta. You are drawn to sit in a field on a ridiculously hot summer day in Bentonia to hear Jimmy “Duck” Holmes play guitar and you’re making hotel reservations a year in advance for the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale.  Late night pilgrimages to Ground Zero Blues Club, Red’s, Po’ Monkey’s, F. Jones Corner, The Blue Biscuit, Club Ebony and Blue Front Café are mandatory. You appreciate these places because you know they are disappearing and you’re genuinely bothered that you didn’t get to go to a legendary juke joint like Junior’s Place before it burned down…. All of this usually starts with one blues performer and a particular song or album.  For me, it happened to be BB King.

A friend gave me a cassette of BB King’s Blues Summit in 1997 and I was hooked.  It coincided with a job that at that time required frequent and long trips to the MS Delta.  I had the perfect opportunity and view to begin my blues education, especially when it came to BB King.  BB led to Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Son Seals, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, JB Hutto, Magic Slim….Blues fans know the drill.  Hill Country blues, folk blues, blues rock… All the different genres of blues.  But, I would always come back to BB.  It started with him and there was nothing that ultimately compared to his voice and the way he played Lucille. 

I saw BB in concert 13 times.  In Vicksburg, Memphis, twice in Jackson, and many times at the Club Ebony in Indianola.  I was able to meet him and he posed for a photo with my son when we attended the 2008 Medgar Evers Homecoming.  I was in the audience at his club in Memphis when BB King Live wasfilmed and recorded in 2006 and I was at the Club Ebony for his duet with Kenny Wayne Shepherd on "The Thrill Is Gone" in 2004. Every BB concert was special to me.  Some were frankly better than others (His 2008 show in Vicksburg was full of older songs that had long been retired from his standard set list.  He was focused and his guitar playing was spot on for his 2006 Memphis club show and his 2008 Club Ebony show to open the museum was also very special.)  Even the shows when he seemed tired or more interested in interacting with the audience had moments of pure guitar genius.  Either way, you were in the same room with BB King and that was something to appreciate and celebrate. 

Like many other blues fans, I was angry when I heard about the treatment BB received during his April 2014 show in St. Louis.  As Graham said at the time, it’s a matter of respect…. I know it was a small part of the crowd, but you just don’t boo BB King.  I watched a video of the performance and became just as upset that he was still out on the road performing night after night on lengthy tours.  It was very difficult to see BB struggling as he was that night.  Musicians nearly 20 years his junior (Clapton, McCartney, Van Morrison) have greatly reduced their concert schedules, why couldn’t BB King?  If BB was going to continue to perform, why couldn’t he just play at the occasional weekend festival or set up for multi-gig residencies at theaters, such as Tom Petty or the Allman Brothers?  Legitimate concerns were being raised whether BB’s performance schedule was in his and his fans’ best interest.  BB later issued an apology for his performance in St. Louis, citing health reasons and some rust from being off the road. 5 days after St. Louis, he was back on tour performing 8 concerts in 10 days. His ticket prices remained fairly high and he continued to receive mixed concert reviews.    

I skipped his Indianola Homecoming show in 2014.  I found many sorry excuses not to go…There wouldn’t be a late night Club Ebony show, just the performance in the field beside the museum…No reserved seating meant getting on the road early that morning…It was hot…I had a lot to do that day and he’ll be back through Jackson or Memphis for a “real” concert soon…It won’t really be his last Homecoming show as had been announced…Again, all lame excuses.  Truth is, I was worried about his potential performance.  I just didn’t want to see BB possibly struggle as he did in St. Louis…  He continued to play shows in the summer and early fall of 2014, but things went terribly wrong on Oct. 5 in Chicago.  The show was ended early and his remaining 8 dates were cancelled. Somehow, you just knew that we wouldn’t see BB perform again and even future public appearances were in doubt.   I immediately regretted my decision to not go to his last Homecoming show.  I should have been there.  Then came the hospital trips, the announcement he was in hospice care and the statement he had passed away.  There was no way I was going to miss BB’s final Homecoming to Indianola and when the May 29 viewing was announced, I made plans to go.  

I have 2 sons and they were raised on blues music, especially BB King.  We made numerous trips to Memphis when they were younger for Redbirds and Grizzlies games.  We would stay downtown, go to the Peabody Place mall, listen to Big Jerry play the blues in front of the New Daisy Theater on Beale and we ALWAYS ate dinner at BB King’s Club.  We listened to BB on the way to Memphis and on the ride home.  In fact, most rides anywhere in my car involved listening to BB King… They are now in law school and college and have developed their own appreciation for the blues. They have branched out from BB’s music, just like I did.  For my oldest, it is currently Gary Clark Jr, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Derek and the Dominos-era Clapton, and the Allman Brothers.  For years, my youngest son was all about folk blues: Son House, Skip James, MS John Hurt and Robert Johnson.  That led to Hill Country music by RL and T Model Ford. He’s now into the Chess era Southside electric sound of Otis Rush, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.   Next week, they may be listening to and reading about another performer, or era, or genre of the blues.  That is the great thing about beginning a blues education, it never ends.        

I sent my sons a text of BB’s final arrangement plans.  My job and their class schedules wouldn’t allow us to go to Memphis on May 27, but we all immediately agreed that we would be in Indianola on Friday, May 29.  There really wasn’t any discussion whether we would go.  We were going.  I quickly made hotel reservations for May 29 and we coordinated our trip to Indianola.

Like everybody else, I watched the reports of the memorial in Memphis.  The sight of Rodd Bland carrying one of BB’s treasured Gibson guitars down Beale Street in front of his hearse was incredible.  People lined Hwy 61 as the hearse made its way to Leland and then east on Hwy 82 to Indianola, finally arriving on Wednesday. 

We got to Indianola late in the afternoon on Friday.  The line of cars parked on 2nd street began shortly after we turned off Hwy 49.  The long lines (an estimated 4,000 people passed by his casket and the lines began at 6:00 am) had dwindled by the time we arrived, but there were still many visitors at the museum.  The streets were closed several blocks surrounding the museum and law enforcement directed people to muddy parking lots around the area. It was very hot and muggy.  A storm had passed through shortly before our arrival and the sun had now come out.  This was the steamy MS delta where BB lived alone as a child, raising his own cotton crop after his mother and grandmother died.  His Homecoming shows were always in the summer and I can remember many times sitting in a warm, packed Club Ebony waiting on his arrival.  It was fitting that it would be a hot and muggy day for BB’s memorial.  People were lined up to pose for pictures by Lucille’s statue and by the sign for the museum.  The mood was frankly a little odd…. Many people had somber expressions and were well dressed.  For others, their mood was also serious, but they were dressed in shorts and t-shirts.   Some people were acting rather festive and t-shirts honoring the weekend were being sold by vendors on many of the streets.   BB’s music was everywhere.  It was playing in many of the cars lined up to turn off of 2nd street to park and also outside the museum.  Appropriately, the Gibson Guitar Bus was there and parked across the street from the museum at the Blue Biscuit.  

There were two lines as you approached the museum.  An officer would periodically shout, “Museum to the left, viewing to the right…” At that time, most of the crowd had already passed through the viewing line and were now waiting their turn for the museum.  There was a long line just to buy tickets for the museum and even longer wait for people to then enter the theater room for the start of the tour.  They didn’t seem to mind, many had travelled long distances to be there and they may not have another opportunity to visit the museum. There was even a long line just to get in the gift shop. 

We got in the viewing line to the right and made our way into the museum’s entrance.  I learned later that Buddy Guy had been through earlier in the afternoon… I recognized several well-dressed MS legislators immediately in front of us as the line turned to the right, proceeding through the museum’s lobby into the restored 1920s cotton gin connected to the museum’s lobby.  We hadn’t said much as we got in the line for the viewing, but when we started up the steps to the cotton gin room, I mentioned that BB worked in this gin when he was a young man.  The significance of the moment really began to hit me.  I couldn’t help but tell my sons that they would one day tell their grandchildren about this….

The line continued through the room and you could see the flowers and Gibson guitars on each side of the bronze coffin.  Law enforcement was all along the line, keeping a close eye on everyone as we approached the casket.  The Mississippi Highway Patrol color guard officers on each side of the casket were VERY impressive, providing almost a head of state feel to the scene.  The mood was very somber as we approached and then stood in front of the casket.  BB was dressed in a purple shirt and colorful tuxedo jacket and was wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to him in 2006 by Pres. Bush.  We slowly made our way past the coffin and out the doors of the cotton gin.  

We didn’t say much as we walked through the muggy delta heat to downtown Indianola.  We went to BB’s blues trail marker downtown and took pictures by his hand imprints in the cement on the street corner where he performed as a 17 year old tractor driver.  We walked to the Club Ebony and took pictures at the blues trail marker, talking to several locals along the way.  We then drove to Holly Ridge to visit Charley Patton and Willie Foster’s graves.  BB was our soundtrack as we made our way through the hot delta.  You can’t help but picture him as you ride through these fields… Playing guitar on the weekends and sharecropping during the day.  A young man, married to Miss Martha, just trying to survive.  Knowing he had a desire and possibly even the ability to stake a bigger claim…

That evening we had dinner at the Blue Biscuit.  If you haven’t been, I encourage you to go.  The Biscuit has a real deal delta juke joint atmosphere.  Great music and they slow cook their pulled pork for 72 hours!  We had BBQ, catfish and enjoyed talking with owners Trish Berry and her husband Stan.  I met them many years earlier at my first Homecoming.  Their parties before BB’s show at the park and Club Ebony were pretty legendary and it was always a part of my Homecoming experience.    

We ended the night by going to the Club Ebony.  It is now owned by the museum and apparently only open for special occasions.  The band had unfortunately just finished when we arrived, but my sons got to see the inside of a legendary blues club.  The thought of Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King and BB having played in such a small venue is incredible.  I told them stories of many past BB shows there…When their uncles flew in from Fort Myers, FL, Jacksonville, FL and Indianapolis IN, to the 2006 Homecoming and the wild time we had that night… Their mom buying rib tips outside The Ebony at 2:00 am and bringing them back in the club during BB’s show in 2009….That first time I experienced the Homecoming weekend, especially BB’s late night Club Ebony show.  My brother Gary was with me and it was the most enlightening and authentic experience I had ever had.

The next morning, I was able to meet Ruby Wilson, the Queen of Beale Street, in the hotel breakfast area.  Ms. Ruby, several more of BB’s friends, and even some of his nieces and cousins began telling stories about BB and his life-long friend Norman Matthews. I enjoyed every minute of it…. We arrived home just in time to watch the funeral service on MPB.  Kudos to Ronnie Agnew, Executive Director of MPB, and his staff for their hard work preparing for and broadcasting the service.  The world was able to see a beautiful delta tribute to BB King.                      

The previous day, after leaving Holly Ridge, we continued down Hwy 82 to Leland.  We found Johnny Winter‘s blues trail marker and I was able to tell my sons about him and his roots in Leland.  In due time, their blues education will lead them to Winter’s 1968 Progressive Blues Experiment… That’s how it works.  You have to follow your own blues path, discovering new/old artists and their recordings along the way.  My blues education began with BB King.  It sounds a little cliché when we hear people say that BB will live forever through his music, but it really is true.  Many years from now someone will hear Live At The Regal, Indianola Mississippi Seeds or, maybe the recording that started me on my way, BluesSummit, and begin their blues journey…And like me, they will always go back to who started it for them, BB King.