If God had made a day to explain what the blues is all about, it would have been Sunday, December 4, 2011 in Memphis: cold, constant dreary rain pouring out of melancholy skies, the kind of damp that gets under your skin and drags your mood into what might be a dangerous place if you stay with it too long.
I’m not sure if Pete fully realized what he was getting himself into when he agreed to a sideways route that would incorporate Memphis ahead of a trip we’d planned to meet his sisters in Branson for music of a different sort. The 15-hour drive from Minnesota began with a defensive move, outflanking a winter snow squall barreling across Iowa by heading east. It turned to driving rain around Springfield, Illinois, and shortened daylight made for a miserably dark and unfamiliar arrival at our hotel just across the state line in Southaven, Mississippi.
The next morning, Sunday, Pete accompanied me the short way to Graceland, and indulged my time with the memorabilia and kitsch. We both agree the most remarkable thing about Elvis’ dream home is its physical modesty. Elvis comes across as a simple Southern boy who loved his family, his country, and his music. It’s the early Elvis we like much more than we ever expected, not the pathetic caricature we had remembered prior.
The rain continued as we took Highway 61 up from Graceland, headed toward the crossroads with Beale Street. This is the same highway 61 that Bob Dylan claims and revisits in our neck of the woods, and then follows the Mississippi here to the Delta. In Memphis, U.S. 61 is designated B.B. King’s Highway. South of town, heading toward Clarksville, Mississippi, there’s a stretch where Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, met her demise in 1937. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated Bessie’s “Downhearted Blues” as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock n roll.
Bessie Smith Downhearted Blues
Jerry Lee Lewis The End of the Road
The raw authenticity of this recording was a perfect audio match as we traveled north from Graceland through grim, soggy, recession-decimated South Memphis. Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle is just a few blocks east. Modest shotgun houses (like the one in which Elvis was born in Tupelo, southeast of Memphis) line both sides of Highway 61 (3rd Street in Memphis) heading downtown. Interspersed are Memphis barbeque places like the Interstate and Don Don’s Hot Wings. The New Allen AME Baptist Church’s parking lot is guaranteed to be full on the Sabbath. But our religion was blues music on this particular Sunday and we pressed on toward the crossroads of 3rd and Beale.
Beale Street has long been a Bucket List destination for me. Most of my music idols cut their teeth on Delta blues, and Beale Street, the figurative crossroads between rock and roll and the blues, is a performance epicenter since the early 20th century, when W. C. Handy broke ground by performing black ethnic music set to a southern rag beat. Noting its effect – “The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels.” – Handy went on to a prolific career in music publishing and representing artists of the day.
According to Wikipedia, “’Delta blues’ is also a style as much as a geographical appellation,” with musicological differentiation primarily derived from the use of the “bottleneck slide” guitar. The influence is pervasive, with regional variations in the Midwest (Chicago and Detroit) and derivative riffs showing up not only in early rock and roll, but rockabilly, pop, and later in electrification.
Key to the Highway Little Walter:
Key to the Highway Rolling Stones
Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, indulged a developing passion for the blues about the time he left grammar school, citing the influence of Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, and other early blues artists, “When I was a kid I used to hide behind the curtains at home at Christmas and I used to try and be Elvis… I left home at 16″, he said “and I started my real education musically, moving from group to group, furthering my knowledge of the blues and of other music which had weight and was worth listening to.” Plant’s partner, guitarist Jimmy Page, points to rockabilly influences, most notably on “Baby, Let’s Play House” which inspired him to take up the guitar.
Baby Let’s Play House – Elvis Presley, 1955
When The Levee Breaks – Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – New Orleans – March 11, 1995
Page’s bandmate in The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, synthesized Chicago blues by riffing on B.B. King and Buddy Guy, citing Robert Johnson as his most profound influence:
Clapton paid tribute to the ageless aspects of the blues in his album, “From the Cradle.”
Robert Johnson Crossroads
Eric Clapton Crossroads
I think of Blues as man-on-the-street music, humble and unprepossessing. The 12 bar musical progression takes you around and predictably brings you home again. In people, predictability and modesty are often misinterpreted as nondescript, unworthy of note. Nobody, after all knows you when you’re down and out.
Bessie Smith Nobody Knows You
But underneath the surface, everyone feels. The collective soul aches and yearns, hopes and attempts, spends time in cold, dark places, dwelling on wrongs, dreaming of bliss, celebrating it upon arrival.
Eric Clapton Nobody Knows You
At the crossroads of 3rd and Beale Streets, the nondescript person you pass or sits on the next barstool is likely to simply get up and make his way to the stage for a set. You can’t help but be moved.
Blind Mississippi Morris – B.B. King’s, Memphis Dec 4, 2011
Further down Beale, at its crossroads with 4th Street, you could run into another man on the street with incomparable talent at presenting the message:
Brandon Santini – Rum Boogie Café, Memphis Dec 5, 2011
After a two-year stint in the Army, Elvis famously answered a question from a local reporter: what did he miss the most about Memphis? “Everything,” was the one-word response. At the conclusion of our short visit, Pete wanted Memphis added back on the Bucket List, too. We’d begun our relationship with multiple dates to Minneapolis, Chicago, and even Vegas blues joints, and now we’d gone closer to the music’s roots.
If you’re headed to Memphis and Beale Street, you may want to avoid the crowded summer months, and plan to go instead when we did, in early winter. The seasonal backdrop added the right amount of atmospheric element to our pilgrimage to the crossroads of blues and rock‘n’roll. With relatively few people out and about, a front row seat was easy to get, and there was more time for chitchat with everyone we encountered.
Next we headed to Branson, Missouri, to meet up with Pete’s sisters. The original plan had been to see Andy Williams’ Christmas Show, on Pete’s Bucket List. But alas, Andy is sick this year. We decided we’d see rock’n’roll great Chubby Checker instead.
Born in 1941 in South Carolina, Chubby started his musical career right at the crossroads of rock’n’roll and the blues by doing impressions of Fats Domino, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and received his first break from Dick Clark. Billboard Magazine declared Chubby’s 1960 version of “The Twist” as the biggest chart hit of all time.
Keith Richards, Chubby Checker, Jerry Lee Lewis Twist with John Fogerty, Julian Lennon, Billy Joel, Sean Lennon, Steve Winwood, Paul Schaffer, Will Lee, David Sanborn, Sid McGinnis, Steve Jordan:
Our decision proved to be fortuitous. There were less than 100 people in the theater and Chubby put on a very personal show, as evidenced by this photo of us together on stage after he called me up to dance! This was a Bucket List item I didn’t know I had!
Classic rock’n’roll and the Blues are here to stay. The enthusiastic response from the clearly older crowd at Chubby’s show in Branson is proof, but even better proof is the interest and enthusiasm younger people have for this music. Performers such as Brandon Santini above, and other young blues musicians, such as Shemekia Copeland, as well as young retro rockers, are keeping them alive. There’s so much more that could be said about the relationship between the Blues and rock’n’roll, as well as the many artists who have been influenced and promoted these related genres. This all bodes well for continued longevity, and many more performances at the crossroads of rock’n’roll and the Blues.