The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
The Southern Heritage Classic Parade is a lot more than just another parade. Held on the early Saturday morning of the Southern Heritage Classic game, the parade proceeds down Park Avenue through the historic Orange Mound neighborhood, and becomes a rallying point for the neighborhood. Parade entries include local school bands, the bands from Jackson State and Tennessee State, custom cars, Memphis fan clubs for NFL teams like the Steelers and the Cowboys, drill teams, drumlines and politicians. The Melrose High School Sound of the Mound band always brings up the rear, and draws a large cheer from the crowds along the sidelines.
Although Memphis’ Black community has an old and deep history of drumlines, the phenomenon has been fading in recent years. A reduced interest on the part of young people, lack of access to drums, lack of available instructors and the preference of dance squads and majorette teams for recorded music and DJ’s have all been factors in reducing the number of drumlines and drummers in Memphis. But a few of the high schools still have drumlines, and this fall, my homeboy Otis Logan is coaching the drummers at Manassas High School, the legendary school where the great big band leader Jimmie Lunceford was the first band director. The Manassas drummers sound good, particularly for it to be as early in the year as it is.
This has been a relatively rough year for Memphis, and yet one of the more uplifting things I have noticed has been the spreading of neighborhood-based outdoor artworks and murals. While this has been going on for several years, it has virtually exploded this summer. I was not pleased with the demolition of the historic W. C. Handy Theatre in Orange Mound, but it did cheer me to see the orange-and-white public art on the bricks that remain from the foundation at the site. The slogans emphasize pride in the Orange Mound community and its high school, Melrose. A brightly-colored mural a few blocks away carries a timely message: “Dreams Matter, We Matter”. Just north of the railroad tracks, the historic Beltline neighborhood is celebrated in a building-length mural on the wall of a grocery store. In Binghampton, the artwork near the basketball courts celebrates the game of basketball, for which The Hamp is known, being the neighborhood of Anfernee Hardaway. But perhaps the most striking effort was the long series of murals on the inside flood wall along Chelsea between McLean and Evergreen in the Evergreen neighborhood. The different panels celebrate many different aspects of hip-hop culture or Memphis culture, with the word “REVIVAL” prominently featured in the first one. It is an appropriate slogan for a city that is long overdue for renewal.
Despite Memphis’ well-deserved basketball reputation, Memphis is also traditionally a strong football town, particularly at the prep level. People turn out to see both the ball game, and also the battle between the bands and drumlins as well, and certain stadiums are historic locations for Memphis Black high school football, such as Booker T. Washington Stadium in South Memphis or Melrose Stadium in the center of Orange Mound. On Friday, September 19, 2014, I went out to the latter stadium to see the game between Whitehaven High School and the Melrose High School Golden Wildcats. Both schools brought their marching bands to the game, which isn’t always the case in Memphis these days, but Melrose seems to have declined in numbers in recent years, and its band, though it sounded good, was far smaller than I remembered in the past. Whitehaven, on the other hand, is one of the city’s premier high schools, academically, athletically and musically. Its band marches more than 100 members, and looks and sounds better than many colleges. The football game was a runaway for Whitehaven, but the band battle was more evenly matched, although I would have to give Whitehaven the advantage there too. Both bands pleased the crowd by playing a number of current hits, including Memphian Snootie Wild’s “Yayo”.
The annual Southern Heritage Classic is far more than a football game. Each year, on the Saturday morning of the game at 9 AM, the Southern Heritage Classic Parade begins from the corner of Park Avenue and Haynes Street, and proceeds along Park through Orange Mound to the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center. The parade usually includes the Jackson State University and Tennessee State University bands, along with majorettes, drill teams,drumlines, Cowboys and Steelers fan clubs, car clubs and many others. There used to be more marching bands in the parade as well, but for the last few years, the parade has conflicted with the Southern Heritage Classic Battle of the Bands in Whitehaven, so there have been fewer bands recently, but the hometown favorites, the Melrose High School Sound of the Mound Marching Band always closes out the parade. It’s always a lot of fun, family and food.
Memphis musicians were shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of a young drummer, Mario “Yoggi” Stewart, but on September 10, a number of musicians and relatives came together to honor his memory in the most appropriate way possible, with music and song. The setting was the Blue Worm AKA The Blues Night Club, a neighborhood fixture on the backside of the Lamar/Airways Shopping Center in Orange Mound. The band was anchored by three drummers playing three sets on stage, with “Cowboy” Neal on guitar and my homeboy Danny Peterson on bass. I had intended to observe, enjoy and film, but I got called to the stage to play keyboards. Other guest musicians and singers included Tony Gentry, Deij’rah Terrell, Gerod Rayborn and Terry Wright. The night closed with a drummers’ shout shed in memory of Yoggi, and Cowboy thanking all of those who came out. It was a great night of Memphis music, with nothing but love and respect between the musicians.
Memphis has exceptional talent in all sports, but our city is particularly known for basketball, and much of this is due to the frequency and quality of street ball in the city. Each summer, the Orange Mound neighborhood sponsors a basketball tournament at a neighborhood park that pits the best hoopers from the neighborhood against each other. Although the competition can be fierce, it’s always nothing but good fun and good food. This year, Memphis R & B artist Iyse Gibson also performed a couple of songs for those who weren’t in the thick of the game.
Friday night was only the second week of the high school football season in Memphis, and Melrose High School was playing Booker T. Washington High School at BTW’s stadium in South Memphis. Although the weather was extremely hot and sticky, a good crowd showed up for the game, and both schools had brought their marching bands. Melrose’s band is called the Sound of the Mound in honor of the Orange Mound neighborhood where the school is located, and this year’s version shows a considerable amount of talent and potential. Booker T. Washington’s band seems smaller and more youthful this year, but they also have something to work with.
Sadly, the football game continued a trend I’m seeing this year of one-sided blowouts. All three of the North Memphis Classic games last week ended in lopsided scores, and Melrose won last night’s game 64-6. Perhaps out of frustration, a young man, evidently a BTW supporter, threatened to bring a gun to the stadium and shoot the Melrose band, which led to the latter having a sheriff’s escort out of the stadium at the end.
Memphis artist N J Woods grew up in Orange Mound, and has transformed the fond memories of her childhood there into vibrant, colorful art works in an exhibition that opened at her new gallery space in Binghampton on Friday May 17th. The paintings emphasize familiar shops and people of the neighborhood’s past, opening a window onto a place that few Memphians know as well as they should. The Woods Gallery is located at 2563 Broad Avenue in the Broad Avenue Arts District.