The late Jim Dickinson was passionate about Memphis’ Beale Street. He carried on a running feud in song with the Memphis Housing Authority and Memphis’ city government over its rough treatment of Beale Street during so-called “urban renewal”, and it was almost certainly at Dickinson’s suggestion that Alex Chilton’s early working title for Big Star’s third album was “Beale Street Green”, a reference to the green fields that surrounded the entertainment district once the surrounding neighborhoods had been destroyed (the poetic title would later resurface as a movement of instrumental music on one of Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects). So when the Orpheum Theatre commissioned Dickinson to put together an album as a fund-raiser, he responded with a recorded paean to his beloved street, now endangered by civic ineptitude, an album called Beale Street Saturday Night. The album was somewhat bizarre, consisting of two unbanded sides that played continuously. Songs and interview clips faded seamlessly into one another, more like a radio documentary than an album. For years, the album was a highly-sought collector’s item, but it has now been lovingly reissued by the Omnivore label, and to celebrate that fact, Shangri-La Records in Midtown sponsored a performance of Sons of Mudboy, that most elusive group of Memphis musicians and folklorists, centered around Cody and Luther Dickinson and Steve Selvidge, along with Jimmy Crosthwaite of Mudboy and the Neutrons, the supergroup that started it all. Hearing a Sons of Mudboy concert is like taking a crash musicology course in Memphis music. First, there are no genre barriers, as the group works seamlessly from blues, to rock, to bluegrass, folk or gospel. Some of the songs are originals, or at least songs that were original to Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvedge or Lee Baker of Mudboy and the Neutrons, while many others are covers, which range from Furry Lewis to Sleepy John Estes to Mississippi Fred McDowell. This performance was somewhat unusual in that it opened with Jim Dickinson’s “Power To The People” which is usually a closer, and so it closed with the Hill Country blues standard “When I Lay My Burden Down”, where they were joined by the great Sharde Thomas on the cane fife. A crowd of about 100 people enjoyed the unexpected sunny weather (storms had been predicted) and pleasant temperatures, the perfect setting for a great afternoon of Memphis music.
Buy Jim Dickinson’s Beale Street Saturday Night here if your local store doesn’t stock it:
Keep Up With Sons of Mudboy here:
After two albums that had done little on the charts, Memphis rock band Big Star was basically falling apart when Jim Dickinson, Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton went into Ardent Studios to start work on an untitled new album. By some accounts, the album was tentatively named Beale Street Green, an indirect protest of the city’s demolition of the Black neighborhoods around legendary Beale Street. By others, the album (or perhaps even the band) was to be called Sister Lovers, since Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton were dating two sisters, Lesa and Halladay Aldridge. Today we know and love it as Big Star Third, but nothing prepared me for the experience of hearing that music played live by an all-star cast of musicians including a string orchestra to kick off the Levitt Shell’s Summer Music Concerts in Memphis. After a brief introduction by John Fry, the owner and founder of Ardent Records, all the songs from the album were performed by a whole host of great singers and musicians, including Pat Sansone of Wilco, Star and Micey, Van Duren, Jody Stephens and Lesa Aldridge herself. This presentation highlighted Alex Chilton’s amazing talent and the timeless quality of his songwriting. It’s just a pity that he didn’t live to see Memphis honor him as they should.
I never got to hear Mudboy and the Neutrons in person, the rather bizarre Memphis supergroup consisting of Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, Jimmy Crosthwait and Sid Selvidge, but I have been fortunate enough to hear their records. The spirit of Mudboy lives on in the form of Son of Mudboy, formerly Three-Legged Puppy, consisting of Luther and Cody Dickinson, Steve Selvidge and Paul Taylor. At their Minglewood Hall performance last night, Son of Mudboy performed traditional songs like “Casey Jones on the Road Again AKA Natural Born Eastman”, “Didn’t We Shake Sugaree”, “The Dark End of the Street” and “Going to Brownsville”, all songs that would be familiar to anyone who has heard the recorded works of Mudboy and the Neutrons. The rousing second set closed with Jim Dickinson’s feel-good call to civic revolution “Power to the People”, with its famous line “Lucille was there, but Beale Street was gone.” The crowd of a hundred or so demanded an encore, and the band obliged with the slow and mournful drug ballad “Codine” and a final joyful reading of “Hey, Bo Diddley.” Son of Mudboy will appear each Wednesday at Minglewood Hall during the month of April, starting at 8 PM.
Breakfast with Charlie Braxton and two of his sons at Broad Street Baking Company. Then I drove back to Memphis, but detoured into Water Valley to meet Justin Showah, the owner of Hill Country Records, who had an order of Eric Deaton Trio CDs for me to pick up for Select-O-Hits. The talk in the little grocery store there in Water Valley had been about the weekend death of Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson.