***And now for the most moving experience of them all, for me at least. It was the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony on April 4, 1968 before attending an event in Memphis. To see this hotel – which had been frozen in time – exactly how I remembered it from the news, movies, papers, etc, over the years was bonechilling. But, here it was in living color, for real, transported from the past, and right here in true form in the present! It was the Twilight Zone come to life – mindboggling and breath halting – to put it mildly! The Lorraine Motel has since been shut down and turned into the Civil Rights Museum. An attached building houses the history of slavery, racism, and the journey through the Civll Rights Movement. It takes you on an audio tour through two floors of the Movement, into a bus where Rosa Parks sits, shows Dr. King’s journey, then brings you to the room he had been staying in, and to the now infamous balcony where it all ended. To see the actual spot where this man took his last breath, violently and unnecessarily at the young age of 39, was beyond emotional. Though it had been forty-four years since that fateful night, it didn’t lessen the sadness of it all. What this man had accomplished in his short life only made me wonder what more he would’ve achieved had he lived. This unfair, unnecessary act of violence against such a decent and upstanding man can never be justified or forgotten.
Downstairs, in the parking lot of the Lorraine, stood two cars that were replicas of those that Mr. King and his entourage were to drive to dinner that evening. Now called ‘The Courtyard Cars,’ they stand in remembrance of the night a dream ended. Across the street was the seedy flophouse where James Earl Ray had rented a room for the night, in order to play out his plan of killing Dr. King. This was another very moving sight, to see the room, the window, the bathtub he stood in, in order to have a good perch to aim from. It was all still there, set up the way it was that fateful night, and from the window we could see the balcony where Dr. King walked out, said his last words, and took his last breath. It was rather haunting to be in the very location, the actual spot, where this historic man was gunned down. I can hardly describe the emotion, as it was surreal and deeply saddening.
In conclusion, if and when you ever have the opportunity to visit Memphis, Tennessee, the Lorraine Motel and Civil Rights Museum is an absolute must that should not be missed. Give yourself a good two to three hours to go through it slowly and with attention to detail. Yes, I tend to read every word, and stand before each display for some time (hence my nickname “Tammy Tourist”) but, it’s better to have extra time on your hands, than the frustration of having to leave before absorbing the full experience. For more on this amazing tour, see: (http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/)
To sum up my trip to Memphis, I can truly say that it was one of the most moving and educational places I’ve ever been to. The history, the culture, and the ghosts that still inhabit this fabulously, famously, richly eclectic party town make Memphis a diamond in the rough, a nugget of wealth and struggle, and a place where so much happened, from sharecroppers moving in to town from the fields, to the birth of blues and rock & roll. This is a town where blacks and whites came together in brotherhood because of their love for music. But, it is also the place where racism and hatred ran so deep that a beloved warrior for peace was murdered in the name of hatred. There is a lot of spirit in Memphis, as well as lots of spirits, of the spiritual kind. If you stop and listen for awhile, and allow yourself to feel the ghosts of music past, you will know they are still there, happy and content with the town that they helped put on the map. Happy that you are visiting their beloved town. Happy that the music lives on. And happy that their legacy continues to make others happy. Conversely, the deep scar that tarnishes this town, stands still in the memory of a man that stood strong for his beliefs. He will never be forgotten, and the Lorraine Motel may not be a happy place, but it is a place devoted and dedicated to keeping the history of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive and real.
Memphis rocks! Do yourself a favor and walk it’s sacred grounds…Start here to plan your trip: http://www.memphistravel.com. But first, you might want to watch this video by Marc Cohn….”Walking in Memphis.” [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK5YGWS5H84]
***Memphis is home to some of the most amazing places! If you love music, and its history, this is the place to roam. To think that iconic bluesmen and legendary rockers walked these streets and frequented the clubs gives me chills. If only the walls could talk!!! I made tracks around this town and am happy to say I hit a lot of amazing places. From Beale Street (and all its haunts) to Graceland, the Gibson Guitar Factory, Rock & Soul Museum, Sun Studios, Lorraine Motel, Peabody Hotel, the Civil Rights Museum, and more. This place is magic!! And, it’s got a good sense of humor, too! I got a kick out of some of the signs advertising restaurants, food, and drinks, on Beale – “Put Some South in your Mouth,” “There’s a Thrill on the Hill,” “The Best Head on Beale,” “Big Ass Beer,” “Love, Peace & Chicken Grease,” etc. And, the barbecue is to die for! I had two of the most amazing rib meals ever, at Blues City Café, (http://www.bluescitycafe.com) and the Rendezvous Cafe. (http://hogsfly.com/awbbq.php?gclid=CKKu_uCRqLQCFUxxQgodpkcARw) Eat at both places if you ever make it to Memphis!
One completely surprising occurrence that I was unaware of, was that Memphis is the home of St. Jude’s Hospital, Danny Thomas’ Hospital for sick children. I’ve known about it forever, but had no idea it was here, so it was intriguing to come upon it during a tour. “The mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is to advance cures, and means of prevention,
for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of our founder Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion or a family’s ability to pay.” It was quite a place!
Then, there were the honky tonks that my friends in ‘Paula Harris & Blu Gruv’ band, who were here a few months earlier for the International Blues Competition, mentioned that they visited. Kudzu’s Bar is a rustic old place where the gang went to jam a few nights during their stay. I stopped in one night to check out the scene (on blues jam night) and was entertained not only by the musicians, but by the extremely friendly (and funny) bartender. He was an older guy who had probably been there for a few decades, and was the personality of the place. I imagine people come just to chat with him, and become like family there. He had only just met me, but hooked me up with a ride home when he found out that I was going to be walking back to my hotel alone. What a guy! As for the music, I noticed the biggest difference between Memphis and Northern California blues jams was the age of the performers. In California, it seems that the majority of the blues musicians are in their 50s or 60s, however in Memphis there were young’uns in their twenties (and maybe teens.) It was nice to see a few generations jamming together on one stage.
The Rock and Soul Museum and the Gibson Guitar Factory were conveniently located right across the street from each other, and a block from Beale Street! Really? How could so much musical wonderfulness be in such close proximity to
each other? I was in Heaven! Inside the R&S Museum, I found antique memorabilia, such as wood cabinet radios and shareholders’ battery operated radios, circa 1930s; a handcrank record player, a 1934 Selectophone Jukebox, old guitars, radio station equipment and histories, and the list goes on. It gave us a musical tour through the birth of rock and soul music, telling the story of musical pioneers who, for the love of music, overcame racial and socio-economic barriers to create the music that shook the entire world. Much of the focus was on radio, and things that transported music to its listeners via the airwaves, record players, microphones, et al. Immediately after that tour, I took myself directly across the street to the Gibson Guitar Factory, which was a music extravaganza in itself. We got to watch as guitars were taken from their beginning as a slab of wood, cut, sanded, shaped, formed, painted, glued, strung, tuned, shined, and ready for shipping! It was so fascinating, that I seriously contemplated applying for a job to get on their assembly line. Why not move to Memphis and make Gibsons? Then I realized how truly unglamorous it would be to be holed up in a windowless factory performing a repetitive task for hours on end. No thanks! But, I sure do appreciate those who work there and creat some of the greatest musical gifts to the world. Yes, thanks!
The Grand Finale: The Lorraine Motel & Civil Rights Museum…
***GRACELAND! Wow! Elvis’ home! Meticulously kept in its full 1970s décor, this home shows how the man lived. A large home, the
tour groups are not allowed upstairs in order to respect Elvis’ and his family’s private space. However, there was plenty to see on these sacred grounds where the King, his family, friends, and fellow musicians gathered. I have always heard that this home was tacky, and some of it is, but I wonder if people forget that we’re talking the ‘70s here – a time when styles, décor, cars, fashion, had a reputation for being rather cheesy and gaudy. So, of course Graceland was the innocent victim of being decorated during such a tacky time in our interior designing history. But, believe me I’ve seen worse! I think. Maybe. The tour took us through the grand front door, into the foyer which looked into the roped off living room. Furnished in white, with white carpet, the focal points were the bit of color – blue curtains, sleek black coffee table, and especially the stained glass window separating this room from the piano room. With the light shining in from outside, the room was sophistically simple, sleek and sharp. Meandering through the house, the most notable rooms, besides the Living Room, in my opinion, were the Jungle Room, the TV Room, and the Game Room. Individually and uniquely decorated, each room is completely different. The Jungle Room is predominantly green, with heavy wooden furniture, carved in tiki style. I found nothing comfortable or cozy about
this room, and would most likely spend little time in it had I lived there. Downstairs in the basement, you will find the TV Room, with it’s black sectional couch accented with yellow pillows. In the wall are three seventies era televisions side by side, that Elvis watched simultaneously. Elvis’ personal record collection sits next to the wall of TVs, with a small, unassuming turntable, looking almost like an afterthought squeezed into the corner. I expected much more from a musician, but this room looks like it belonged to a newsman, or some other sort of television executive – except for the god-awful color scheme and décor! The yellow and black, with mirrored walls, and just plain ugly artwork painted on the wall behind the couch, is nauseating in this claustrophobic, windowless basement room. I couldn’t get out of their fast enough, but first had to snap some pictures of it, the bar, with its yellow formica counters, mirrored walls and shelves, and black appliances. Truly hideous! I don’t know how anyone spent more than a few minutes in that room! (I know, I know….it was the 1970s and all the rage!!) Anyway, after my stomach settled down, it was on to another claustrophobic underground room – the game room. This room was less tasteless, but more resemblant of
an acid trip with busy patterned fabric pleated and covering the walls, ceiling, furniture, etc. Yikes! The pool table in the middle of the room was the only solid block of color. The rest of the room looked like a paint factory filled with peacocks exploded inside – definitely a visual sensory overload! Enough of the inside of Graceland, now it was time to visit the grounds. Outdoors was the large lawn with Lisa Marie’s swing set still standing, the pool, and buildings that housed many of the outfits Elvis wore in various movies, pictures and paintings, awards, gold and platinum albums, guitars, and a variety of other Elvis memorabilia. He had a car collection, as well as airplanes, but the most moving experience I had here was when I stood before his grave. It gave me goosebumps! But, not only that, it seemed that the ghost of Elvis (and the Universe) constructed a way for me to be there alone. I had been with a group of people in a tour group the entire time, and now suddenly they were all gone. As I stood looking down at the graves of Elvis, his parents, his grandmother, and his twin brother*, I was overcome with emoition. My entire lifetime had
included Elvis, in movies, in concert, in interviews, television specials, his sudden death, his dynasty, the man, the legend, the imprint and legacy he left to the world. And, here I was, standing at his final resting place, the place I’ve heard of for so many years. As I looked down at the graves, tears welled up in my eyes and I was overcome with sadness. The sky overhead darkened, filling with rain clouds and, as the tears fell down my face, they also fell from the sky. Yes, the sky was crying with me, crying over a man who gifted us with his music, his acting, his talent, and who was taken from us too soon. Here lay a man who hit the world by storm, had it wrapped around his finger, but was still lonely and sad. Here was a man who had everything (by the world’s standards,) yet ended up with nothing (in the spiritual sense.) Here was the ending to a sad story, and the skies over Graceland and I felt it together. I thanked him for his music, and I told him how sorry I was that his life ended up as it did. No one was around, so it was just Elvis and I having a moment. I know he was there – I could feel his spirit – and he knew how much he meant to me. It was not a coincidence that I ended up in that spot alone, nor that the sky began crying at the exact time I came face to face with his resting place. These were sacred grounds, a holy place, where the spirit of Elvis remains. It moved me to tears, and it was an experience I will always remember…Thanks, Elvis!
Coming soon: Barbecue, St. Jude’s Hospital, Kudzu’s, Rock & Soul Museum, and the Gibson Guitar Factory
(*This is the second post about my trip to Memphis. To read the first one, go to my ‘Archives’ and click on ‘August’ and it should take you to my original entry dated Aug. 12, 2012. It’s titled “Walking in Memphis.”)
The Peabody Hotel (http://www.peabodymemphis.com/) is a beautiful old hotel around a couple corners from Beale Street. This top of the line, top-notch hotel has been in this historic locale since it opened in 1933. If only those walls could talk – the stories they’d tell!! One story would be about the Peabody Ducks, the fine feathered friends that march (aka. waddle) out of the elevator twice each day to make their way from their rooftop ‘palace’ down to the marble fountain in the lobby for a swim. But, before they make their appearance to a packed house, the ‘Duckmaster’ gives the gathered crowd a bit of history on these quacky critters. It all started back in the 1930s when then General Manager of the Peabody, and his pals, returned from a hunting trip three sheets to the wind, and brought with them their live duck decoys. What better place to keep them but in the hotel’s fountain in the center of the lobby? The feathered quackers caused such an enthusiastic stir amongst the guests that they have become a popular staple here for nearly 80 years! For more info on these cute quackers, see: http://www.peabodymemphis.com/peabody-ducks/.
On the complete flip side of the sightseeing coin is a truly phenomenal place for music lovers – Sun Studios. (http://www.sunstudio.com) I don’t know where to begin in describing this place, but for me it was sacred grounds. And in fact, I found the whole city of Memphis to be. Sun is where blues exploded into rock and roll by none other than the discovery of Elvis Presley! It was started by Sam Phillips, a self taught music lover whose inexperience and lack of recording knowledge is exactly what made it all work. Besides Elvis, whose potential was actually recognized by Sam’s secretary, Marion Keisker (whom he never failed to acknowledge for this,) Sun was also responsible for the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. And, in fact, on one very notable day in early December of 1956, what has now become known as ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’ took
place in this very studio. Coincidentally, on that day, Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee and Carl all showed up at Sun at different points during the day and ended up in an impromptu jam session. This chance occurrence ended up being recorded by Sam, who let the tape continuously run throughout the jam, knowing that something special was happening right in his studio that day. Seeing the opportunity for some publicity as well, he called the local Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper’s entertainment editor to come by, which he did. He wisely brought along a photographer, who took the famous picture of the ‘first fab four’ that hangs in the recording studio to this day.
Sun has been kept in almost its exact state since the 50s, with secretary Marion’s front office still furnished as she had it when she worked there. The studio, just on the other side of the window from her office has not been renovated, modernized, or anything since the days when Elvis recorded there. And, they still even had the very microphone he sang into! Upstairs was a museum that told the musical story of Sun and all its famous clients – Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Roy Orbison, and all. This was the place where musical history was made, not only because it was the first studio ever to represent both black and white musicians side by side, but also because it introduced us to a new sound – one that combined blues, with gospel and country – that was eventually called ‘Rockabilly’ and ‘Rock & Roll!’ For a detailed history of this amazing place, see: (http://www.sunstudio.com/). Before, and after, the tour, you can peruse the malt shop, which acts as the gift shop, café, and waiting area. My favorite thing in this room was the old-time Wurlitzer jukebox that continuously played old 45s, flipping them
on and off the turntable, just like the good ol’ days! This was the real deal, a truly vintage jukebox from a 1950s era malt shop! Not the kind you find in bars today that play CDs and/or MP3 songs off the internet. This was as old-school as they come, and I was twinkly-eyed over it. In fact, a man had to ask me to move out of the way so he could take a picture of his kid standing next to it! Oops! I was snapped out of my trance, unaware that I was hogging the Wurlitzer! Needless to say, I walked out of that historically rich building with my head in the clouds. I was so moved that it hurt to leave, but…the rest of Memphis was calling, and there is a lot to see!!
Next up: Elvis’ Graceland
(See my Country Music Festival album at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nadinerocks/sets/)
Back in February, when this blog was in it’s infancy, I wrote about the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Because my good friend, Al Diaz and his band, Paula Harris & Blu Gruv competed in the Challenge, and shared his experience there, I became fascinated with that city. Although I was unable to attend the competition, I made sure to visit Memphis when I was out that way for the Country Music Festival in Nashville. It made no sense to me to fly all the way to Tennessee and bypass the wonderful city of Memphis. (http://www.memphistravel.com/) So, I went there. And, what an unforgettable experience it was!!
The Double Tree Downtown Memphis (http://doubletree3.hilton.com/en/hotels/tennessee/doubletree-by-hilton-hotel-memphis-downtown-MEMDNDT/index.html) was perfectly located for my interests – directly across the street from the Triple-A ballpark, which is home for the Memphis Redbirds,(Redbird site) and about three blocks from world famous Beale Street! Walking towards Beale, I knew I had arrived when I spotted the ‘Rum Boogie Café’ on the corner of 3rd and Beale. It was a happening welcome to this bustling street! But, I couldn’t stop here – I had to see what all of Beale Street was all about. Besides that, I was really hungry! I had heard that eating ribs at the Rendezvous Cafe was a must, but they were closed today. So, the next best place was where the ‘best meal on Beale’ is served – Blues City Café. http://www.bluescitycafe.com/ This place was as down home as it gets, like an old-time, small town barbecue joint. And, my meal of ribs and potatoes, beans and coleslaw, with buttered bread to top it off…Scrumptious!
After filling my belly, I visited Beale Street, (“Home of the Blues; Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll!”)as I did a number of times
during my stay, and will sum it up from my perspective. It is lively and exciting, with tons of activity! Though the street runs from the Mississippi River to midtown, the three blocks between 2nd and 4th Streets (which are barricaded to keep out motor traffic) is where the acton is. Bars, music venues, restaurants, and gift shops dominate these blocks that glow with numerous neon signs at night. There are many tourists roaming around in search of the area’s history. But, there are also many locals hanging out at the bars, listening to bands, socializing on the street. You can take a walking tour by following the brass musical notes imbedded in the sidewalk, which lead to informative markers describing the history of specific locations. This is appropriately called, ‘The Beale Street Walk of Fame.’And, while learning about the area, don’t forget to look carefully at the architecture of what used to be the original buildings, but are now just the fronts being propped up by steel beams and supports. Though it may be a bit of an eyesore, it preserves the historic Beale Street from the days our musical icons walked through their doors.
Some of the highlights of this street are the Beale Street Flippers, a bunch of urban acrobats that jump and flip down the middle of the street. The nights I visited, they were a group of men and boys, ranging from about 5 years old to adult. With their boom box blasting, they entertain pedestrians by flipping hand stands down the street. But, don’t think this is all fun and games, folks! These guys are in business and expect to be tipped, so make sure to keep your wallet handy while watching this show.
Wednesday nights are ‘Bike Night on Beale,’ a tradition for about ten years that runs from April through September. Hundreds of motorcycles rumble down the street, revving up their engines, and causing quite a spectacle, with an array of all sort of cycles of every size, shape and color! After a cruise, they park along both sides of Beale, for all to admire. It’s quite the sight!!
I happened upon Clyde Hopkins, the Godfather of the Blues, out in front of the Memphis Music Store. He was hard to miss in his dapper suit and wing-tipped shoes. Of course, I stopped to chat with him and ended up with a CD that he autographed for me.
By the time I left Beale, I think I had been in and out of each building at least once. For a quick list of the fun places you will find there, here it is: B.B. King’s Blues Club, Rum Boogie Café, Blues City Café, Memphis Music Store, Silky O’Sullivan’s (Home of the Beer Drinking Goats,) A. Schwab (established in 1876,) Alfred’s, Wet Willie’s, Elvis Presley’s, Black Diamond, Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall, Pat O’Brien’s, Hard Rock Café, King’s Palace Café, Pig on Beale, and the list goes on.
Coming up: Peabody Hotel & Ducks, Sun Studios, Graceland, Lorraine Motel, and much more!!
Hot off the IBC bandwagon and straight into Redwood City’s infamous Blues Jam at the Club Fox, came our third place (yes, third in the country!!) winners, Paula Harris and Blu Gruv to host the evenings show on February 8! It was an awesome celebration with Paula giving the audience a wonderful narrative, in between songs, about their experiences in Memphis. Oh, to have just been there with them! But, this was the next best thing! They entertained us thoroughly all evening long, and capped off the night with the sweet song, ‘Georgia On My Mind’ in honor of Paula’s hometown of Atlanta. Perfection…
Paula Harris & Blu Gruv @ Club Fox in Redwood City, California
After an exciting week in Memphis, and terrific correspondence from Al Diaz – drummer for Paula Harris & Blu Gruv – I am proud to post this last, and final excerpt. This talented band represented the Golden Gate Blues Society of San Francisco (http://www.tggbs.org/newsfests.cfm) in this national competition. We are very proud here and congratulate them for all their hard work…and a job well done!!
Here’s the last entry from Al:
“Well, after hearing the news that we made it to the finals, a strange thing happened. All the adrenaline and butterflies I expected were gone! I was surprisingly calm. On the other hand, the week of carousing and this damn cold, that I’ve never really shaken since last December, is back in full swing. Instead of hitting jams and staying out to network with other musicians, or celebrating, I went to bed. So much for being a rock star…
Saturday morning was just like the rest…a routine has set in…we head back to Cockadoos for coffee. My brother-in-law, John, pulls out a $10 at the same time I do. The waitress grabs John’s money, looks at me and says, “You paid yesterday”, and turns with a smile. Yep, it’s official, we’ve become “regulars”.
After grabbing some breakfast, we say our goodbyes to the in-laws, they’ve got a plane to catch. Unfortunately, they’re going to miss the finals.
Before I know it, it’s time to head to the Orpheum Theatre. The Finals start at 2:30 pm, but we’ve got a band orientation meeting there at 1:00. The Orpheum Theatre is a grand venue, with 3 levels of seating, ornate plaster, a grand lobby, and a huge stage. Looking around at pictures of past acts, I see all the greats, from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers thru to modern times. Comedians, theatre productions, musicians, it’s rich in history, but a fully modern and current venue. For some, maybe it’s not such a big deal, but looking at that stage, the back line with top notch gear, the sound system, drum riser, and monitor mix engineer, I’m stoked! This is gonna be one helluva show! It’s at the other end of the spectrum from the local bars I’m used to playing.
But still, no butterflies. it’s like a surreal calm has taken over. We know the material cold. The band is tight. Paula’s singing is confident and amazing. It really doesn’t matter anymore if we win. Sure, I’d like to. But, I’ve seen some really good bands go home. We’ve gone from 119 bands in the Quarterfinals on Day 1 in Memphis to just 9 bands in the Finals. We were all winners!
We played our set, the crowd response was awesome! I had the time of my life playing drums for that 20 minutes, on that stage! When the votes came in, we finished 3rd. I’m sure it would have been very exciting to have won 1st place, but I can’t explain how little that even mattered. What an honor to have been able to participate in the IBC and meet so many wonderful musicians from all over the world, and to experience Memphis, with it’s proud musical heritage, as a musician. Like the saying goes, “No black, no white, just the blues”. So long Memphis!!”
~Al Diaz Drummer for ‘Paula Harris & Blu Gruv”
Here is some more GREAT news and information on the happenings in Memphis! It is so electric, so buzzing, so exciting, I can feel it through his words here in California! I so wish I was there to experience this with them, but with the way Al writes – his enthusiasm and humor – it’s the next best thing to being there!!!
GO AL! GO PAULA HARRIS AND BLU GRUV!!!
“Hi Nadine. Okay, we got some catching up to do…here goes:
**Thursday morning…we’re feeling pretty good about our first set last night. Broke the ice. Band was tight, but so is our budget…so we head across the street to Denny’s with a coupon. Today is gonna be a slow day…we hit a couple souvenir stores, but my feet are sore from walking and my head hurts from spending the last three nights in smokey bars…go figure.
Afternoon in the hotel went by real quick…headed back to the club at 5pm to get ready for Round 2 of the quarter finals. After tonight they pick 4 bands from each club to advance to the Semi-Finals. We’re relaxed, played well, but it didn’t have the same punch as our first night. Finished early tonight…it’s only 7:30, so we head out to check out the other clubs. There are literally over 20 bands playing within 2 blocks at the same time, with one after the other all night long!! After awhile, it really occurs to me that there are a lot of really good bands with great guitar players, or harp players, and horn sections, but after awhile they all sound the same. There’s not too many bands with a front singer that can belt it like Paula Harris!
About 2am, wake up and check for news. It’s official, we made it to the Semi Finals…!!!
**Friday Morning….text messages buzzing….Facebook’s lit up. Paula’s manager relays a message…mandatory band meeting at 1pm. Shit, we got tickets to Graceland at noon. I call and move our tour to 10am. No time to spare, wake up the wife, call over to her sister’s room, me and my brother-in-law head down the street for our morning coffee from ‘Cockadoos.’ There’s a homeless guy on the park bench who recognized me from the day before…I gave my change to his “rival” across the street yesterday…so I had to tell him I was cleaned out. Today, he was ready for me. “Good morning Sir. Would you happen to have any change for me today?”. What can I say, even the “bums” here have southern manners!
Anyway, we catch our bus for Graceland. Great tour, actually the house is much more humble than I expected. Oh sure, it had Elvis’ taste, which was a combination of the 50’s and 70’s. The “Jungle Room” had green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling. But what blows you away is the hall of gold and platinum records…It’s like the walls had sequins on them!
Back at the hotel, I meet up with the band to go through tonight’s set. Want to clean up a few breaks, intros, and arrangements. It’s getting serious now. Lots of good bands already going home. Afternoon passes quickly.
We head over to the ‘Superior Bar’ around 5pm for our Semi Final round. It’s Friday night, Beale Street is buzzing! The locals are coming out in masses! The club is packed! We’re up against some good bands. The adrenaline was pumping. It’s not a good thing to play so amped up. I’m just trying to calm myself down so I don’t push the tempo.
But when we started the first song, something happened, we just clicked into the pocket and stayed there. Maybe it was the fact that the bass amp was next to the drums tonight, and I could hear Joey, but whatever it was, that shit was tighter than it’s ever been. We all felt it. And the crowd reacted to Paula like never before. She was trying to keep from crying during the set. We left the stage with a standing ovation. But it ain’t over yet…
After the bands finished, it took over an hour for the judges to compile the scores from all the clubs…but then the announcement came…from the Superior Bar…advancing to the finals…Miss Paula Harris!! Woooohoooo…we all went nuts!! We made it to the Finals! Tomorrow we’re playing at the Orpheum Theatre, top 9 of over 120 bands…each representing their respective home Blues Society from all over the world. We had to beat out 12 bands to earn our spot to represent The Golden Gate Blues Society. it’s starting to sink in…we got a shot at winning this thing…but really, I’m just kinda numb. -Al”
“Wednesday morning – Found our way to Cockadoos. Okay, well barely morning…it was before noon anyway. But, finally found a good cup of coffee and a great menu. I skipped breakfast and went for the Catfish Po’ boy…that was THE BEST sandwich of any kind that I’ve had in a long while. Anyway, it turned out to be the place to meet up with Paula Harris and her husband Michael, Marty and Susan from The Golden Gate Blues Society, and others from the SF Bay Area. And they serve espresso and latte’s!! OMG, I am SUCH a Californian! Definitely going back.
Anyway, it’s time to register, so we’re heading down to Beale Street to sign-in. We hook-up with Joey Fabian (bass), Terry Hiatt (guitar), and Doug McKeehan (keys), so it’s a good sign, the band is all here and all the instruments arrived in one piece. We got our passes and program. Playing at Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street (http://rumboogie.com/) for our first two rounds of the quarter-finals. Between solo-duos and bands, there are over 200 acts in the IBC, all gonna be on Beale Street within two blocks of each other…trucks are loading in back-line gear and the bars are getting food/booze deliveries… The vibe is just like when you’re setting up to play a big party…preparations under way…the party hasn’t started, but it’s definitely in the air!
We head on back to the hotel…it’s not the same place we left a couple hours before. The lobby is full of musicians from all over the world…okay…Canada. But there was one band we saw from Finland. Anyway, the tables and counters are filling up with fliers, buttons and newsletters from all over the place. Everyone that arrived the day before appears to be wandering around looking for a good cup of coffee and a place to eat. (Been there!)
Now for a little back-story. Remember that Tuesday night jam at Kudzu’s? Well, we had a blast, met a lot of great local musicians. They invited us to follow them over to Beale Street, where the jam was going to continue at The Tap Room. So, we called a cab and went there. No problem. But, shortly after we got there, the drummer from the Kudzu’s jam, Brian, showed up and, very nicely, mentioned that we forgot to pay our tab! He was laughing about it, said they knew we didn’t do it on purpose, but that Martin, the bartender, would appreciate it if we dropped by there to settle up tomorrow. Well, tomorrow is today, so we walked back to Kudzu’s to pay up, with a nice tip mind you. Nice long walk, sort of a cross between exercise and penance.
Okay, so it’s Wednesday afternoon and 4pm arrives way too soon. Time to get dressed, grab my gear, and head down to the Rum Boogie Cafe to check-in for our first round. We don’t play until after 9pm, but we gotta be there before 5pm…kind of a long wait, but hey, we stake out a couple tables and settle in. I’m too nervous to eat. I have a Red Bull and club soda. After that kicked-in, I was like, OK, 3 hours for this to wear off. Note to self: don’t drink Red Bull before you play. Hey, I’m getting old, there’s all kinds of supplements to help me stay up…I mean awake! 9pm is when my body thinks I should be in bed. Turns out I don’t need any help…adrenaline works wonders. We sat through 7 bands before it was our turn to take the stage…we’re number 8 out of 11 bands in just the one club…there are 19 clubs hosting the IBC…the party has begun!!
Anyway, there are some good bands here. And some are great bands. Every band is here to represent their respective Blues Society. In our case, The Golden Gate Blues Society from the SF Bay Area. (http://www.tggbs.org/ibc.cfm) The point is, there are no bad bands. It’s not easy to stand-out in this crowd, but I got tell you, Paula Harris has the “it” factor. Joey and I locked tight, Terry screamed on guitar, and Doug layed down some nice key runs to give Paula the platform she needed to shine. We brought the house down. So, Round 1 ended with us feeling pretty good. But, the bands after us were damn good too. I think we got a good at being one of the four bands from our club that will advance to the Semi Finals on Friday, but we won’t know for sure until after Round 2 on Thursday night.”
PAULA HARRIS AND BLU GRUV @ The Pioneer Saloon in Woodside, California 1/29/12
The International Blues Competition is on! Since I wasn’t able to attend this exciting event, and my pal Al is there in person, and is competing in it, he has agreed to keep me updated on his adventures! He arrived two days ago and here is his first report:
“Woke up early, went for a walk, in search of a decent cup of coffee. There’s a Starbuck’s on every corner in other cities, but NOT in downtown Memphis!
Went back to the hotel empty handed. Gathered ourselves together and headed down the street to grab some breakfast. Frequently approached by harmless, homeless people. But it’s diffferent here – instead of sitting on the pavement with their hands out, they will walk alongside and sing you a tune or strike up a conversation. So, this one guy hears us trying to decide which way to go and recommends a cafe down on Beale Street. Feeling the need to impart more culinary clues, he recommends the Rendezvous (http://www.hogsfly.com/TheRestaurant.php) for BBQ. So happens, that’s the place our cab driver mentioned, but we didn’t know where it was. So our new friend backs us up a few steps and points to a nearby alley…half way up, there it is. Turns out, it’s practically across the street from the hotel. So, this is when the hand came out, he and his quiet friend were looking for $8 to get breakfast. Tipped him a $10 and we both went our separate ways happier for having run into each other. But, like I said, we were looking for breakfast, not BBQ, so we turned our direction to Beale Street. Found a great little cafe…had a BBQ omelette.
Later that day, took a cab down the street to Sun Studio. Took the studio tour, which was great, but the real adventure started after we decided to walk back to the hotel along Monroe Street. We look up and see a big neon guitar neck sticking out of a building, so it looks promising. We stumbled onto to the home of St. Blues Guitar Workshop, a local manufacturer of custom electric guitars and basses. Owners are real nice, very welcoming, ended up hanging out and visiting for quite awhile. We head on down the road past a lot of vacant run-down buildings. We can see the hotel in the skyline 3-4 blocks ahead, no big deal, but not a soul in sight on this street. We walk past a beat-up old building with a bar & grill called Kudzus (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kudzus-Bar-Grill/122460351100634). We stopped, thought twice about stopping, but hey, it’s starting to rain a little bit, so we go in for a beer. Turns out, it’s lovable shit hole! My kinda place! The folks are nice and glad we stopped…they watched us walk past and were kinda surprised we turned around and came inside. Anyway, it’s Tuesday…and Tuesday night is Jam Night. Apparently, this is where the local “Beale Street Musicians” come on their off night to have a jam. So we down our beer, head back to the hotel for a spell, grab some INCREDIBLE BBQ ribs at the Rendezvous for dinner, and find our way back to KUDZUS for the jam. We played, jammed and partied with some great musicians, complete with the “Plantation All Stars” horn section. The jam closed down at 11:00…everyone was heading over to The Tap Room on Beale Street. So, of course, we called a cab and followed them. The next jam was jumping until after 1am where we stumbled home. What a day!!”
**After the two winning groups of musicians, Wendy & Kirk and Paula Harris & Blu Gruv started the show off with a blang!, the audience was then treated to more electrifying music that was infectiously delivered by three big Bay Area talents – Chris Cain, Kenny Neal, and Tommy Castro, who came out individually to accompany last year’s winner, ‘Tip of the Top.’ (http://tipofthetopmusic.com/home) The gorgeous gold sparkly Gretsch drum kit was removed from the stage to make way for the foot-stompin’ Tip of the Top band – Jon Lawton (guitars/vocals,) Frank De Rose (bass,) Aki Kumar (harp/vocals,) and Carlos Velasco (drums,) who sat side-by-side in their dapper dress and stylin’ shoes! They got down and dirty, playing like a house on fire, and mesmerized the crowd. At one point, the drummer blew on his fingers to keep them from burning! Smokin’! This band is tight, with a musical style that is reminiscent of the 1950’s. They delivered primitive pulsating rhythms, repetitive chord changes and gritty amplification that was felt to the core. Aki’s harp steals the show with his passionate and captivating performance that gets everyone tapping their toes and stompin’ their feet!
After four terrific songs, the band was joined by Chris Cain (http://www.chriscain.cc/Cainband.html) a master guitarist described by Blues Revue like this: “Cain is a phenomenally gifted musician who has refined the pure match of strapping guitar and husky vocals. If his string attack doesn’t devastate, his voice will.” I concur!
After Chris’ enthralling set, on came another very talented, yet very different musician, Kenny Neal (http://www.kennyneal.net/family.html.) Kenny began playing music at a young age, having come from a very musical family. He is known as a modern swamp-blues master and multi-instrumentalist, that draws musically from the sizzling sounds of his native Louisiana. His charismatic charm and big smile drew the audience in with delight.
And, to cap off the night with the piece de resistance, was none other than our own Tommy Castro (http://www.tommycastro.com/.) He is an award-winning blues and R&B guitarist/singer/songwriter who has become the honorary Captain of The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises, where famous blues stars perform together on the open seas of the Pacific and the Caribbean. In his jeans and sneakers, he sat amongst the dapper gentlemen of Tip of the Top and filled the room with spellbinding tunes that enthralled the crowd.
It was a night filled with the love of music, especially the blues. There was so much talent in the room that the walls were vibrating and the audience was buzzing. The packed house was hypnotically entertained for the duration and not a chair was empty until the last notes were played. Thank you, performers for bringing us your heartfelt music!
**Blues musicians from around the world will compete for cash, prizes, and industry recognition, performing in 18 venues along Beale Street, as The Blues Foundation (http://www.blues.org/ibc/#) presents the 28th Annual International Blues Challenge January 31-February 4 in Memphis, TN. The 2012 International Blues Challenge will be the 28th year of Blues musicians competing for cash, prizes, and industry recognition. The world’s largest gathering of Blues acts represents an international search by The Blues Foundation and its affiliated organizations for Blues bands and solo/duo Blues acts ready to take their act to the international stage. In 2011, 110 bands and 83 solo/duo acts entered, filling the clubs up and down Beale Street for the competition. They are expecting at least that many this year.
Two Bay Area acts, Wendy DeWitt with Kirk Harwood (solo/duo) and Paula Harris & Blu Gruv (band) will be representing San Francisco in Memphis, having won the competition at SF’s Biscuits & Blues (http://www.biscuitsandblues.com/aboutus.html) in November. To send these wonderful musicians off, and for a night of fun and fund raising, B & B held ‘The Road to Memphis’ show on Sunday, January 8. Three of the Bay Area’s finest guitarists/vocalists—Chris Cain, Kenny Neal, and Tommy Castro—were joined by this year’s winners, as well as last year’s winners ‘Tip of the Top’. All proceeds from the evening will go directly toward airfare and hotel costs for the winning. ‘Tip of the Top’ who represented The Golden Gate Blues Society (http://www.tggbs.org/home.cfm) at last year’s IBC. Scoring criteria categories included Talent, Vocal, Blues Content, Stage Presence and Originality.
Because a good friend of mine happens to be the drummer for Blu Gruv, I went to support him as well as get my fill of excellent San Francisco Blues at the very cool and happening, Biscuits & Blues. The night started off with the very energetic and upbeat sound of Wendy DeWitt and Kirk Harwood. (http://www.wendydewitt.com) This put everyone in the house in a boogie mood and the positive ions began to fly! Check out Wendy’s lightning fast fingers and Kirk’s quick hands in action here to see what I’m talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQyBBupxU3Y
Next up was the powerful and sexy Paula Harris, who belted out her blues with determination and pizzaz and was backed up by great guys in behind her: the fabulous Terry Hiatt on guitar, with Joey Fabian on bass, Al Diaz on drums, and Doug McKeehan on keys.They continued the evening, delivering a totally different sound than Wendy and Kirk, but highly talented and equally as engaging. Check out their video to get a feel for what they offered: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ0Y6e3nZH8
These two bands were thoroughly entertaining, lots of fun to watch and hear, and we all here in the San Francisco Bay Area wish them the best of success in Memphis! I’m just sorry I can’t be there to join the festivities…
Next post: Tommy Castro, Kenny Neal, and Chris Cain.