Memphis’ music reputation was built on blues long before gospel or soul, but authentic blues in an authentic setting in Memphis is not so easy to find. A few juke joints still exist in rougher Memphis neighborhoods, and one of the most long-standing is Wild Bill’s, a North Memphis institution on Vollintine Avenue that had a long run of popularity before closing abruptly last summer. It reopened under new ownership in December, and I read that on weekends, the Memphis Bluesmasters play there, often with Memphis blues queen Ann Hines.
So even though we were under a winter storm warning, I drove down to the rather tiny juke in a non-descript strip shopping center not far from Northside High School. When I arrived, there was already a good-sized crowd in a jovial mood. Despite the new owners, Wild Bill’s still has the funky juke joint ambiance that I remembered from my previous visit a couple of years ago, and the only real difference is that they have added a hot-wing menu and have started opening for lunch.
The Memphis Bluesmasters are a seasoned group of Memphis musicians with years of experience playing blues and soul music, on Beale Street and elsewhere, but here in North Memphis, they can let their hair down and play to the local crowd, some of whom come up and make a small dance floor in front of the musicians. Ann Hines wasn’t singing with the band on this particular night, but the female vocalist was called Miss Nickki, and she was an attractive singer with a fine and powerful voice. The material was largely taken from the standards of southern soul, with covers of Tyrone Davis, Shirley Brown and O. V. Wright songs.
At the end of the band’s first set, it was 1 AM, and I walked outside to discover that the whole neighborhood was draped in a coating of white snow that was still falling. The music would continue until 3 AM, but I decided it was best to make my way home.