If in the beginning of the year, someone said to me "Pete, you can do one and only one of the following things this year: go to The Vatican for three days and attend a mass given by the Pope; Spend three days in Washington, DC to attend a "State of the Union Address" and be entertained by Mr and Mrs Bush; or go to Memphis for three days and attend the W C Handy Awards, after thinking about it for three seconds my answer would be "Watch out Memphis here I come".
I've just returned from my sixth consecutive W C Handy Awards and already have number seven penciled in on the calendar. Other than hitting "Lotto", "Fantasy Five" and "Mega Money", The three Florida State Lottery Games that are played consecutively on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I can't think of anything that can compare to the Wed, Thurs and Fri I just had in Memphis, TN.
The Wednesday before the Handy Awards is when the Blues Foundation holds it's Annual Charter Membership Meeting and Dinner. This year the event took place in one of the Marriott Hotels Ballrooms and immediately after, a jam was held in the hotels cocktail lounge. WOW, what a party! The Jam, sponsored by Gibson Guitars and Baldwin Pianos, attracted many Handy Award nominees as well as an abundance of blues aficionados. The intimate setting provided a good opportunity for some very nice elbow rubbing with many of the blues legends in attendance.
BARBARA BLUE and her band did a magnificent job hosting the jam and show. The band consisted of some of Memphis' hottest and well known players. Along with BARBARA, on the vocals were guitarist COREY OSBORN, bassist E J COLE, drummer MICHAEL BROWN, keyboarder NAT KERR, trumpeter BEN CAULEY, saxophonist LENNY MC MILLAN, and on background vocals were the fabulous "Backhoes", NANCY APPLE and DEBORAH SWINEY.
Once this ensemble heated up the room with some red hot blues, it didn't take long for some of the audience to participate. However, this was not your typical audience and this was not your average open mic night. One by one, WATERMELON SLIM, KENNY NEAL, POPSIE DIXON, ALEX SHULTZ, E G KIGHT and BOB MARGOLIN - mostly all W C HANDY nominees - took the stage and rotated singing, harp blowing and guitar playing. In addition to this, three piano giants took their turns tickling the ivories: MITCH WOODS, DAVE MAXWELL and BIG JOE DUSKIN. Playing from a wheelchair, BIG JOE explained to the crowd that he was hoarse and couldn't sing well. The crowd just didn't want to hear it. They kept calling him back for more and he kept it coming. What a thrill! In the meantime, none other than WILLIE "BIG EYES" SMITH was beating on the skins.
At any other time, in any other place, a night like this would easily be the highlight of any blues lovers year. However, this is Memphis, and the W C Handy Awards and partying on Beale Street were yet to come. Somebody pinch me to see if I'm awake.
Wow, look at that date - 5 5 5 - where is a slot machine when I need one? Oh, it doesn't matter, this is every blues lovers lucky day - it's Handy Day.
Similar to last year, this year - the "Twenty Sixth Annual W C Handy Awards" - ceremony was held in the Memphis Cook Convention Center. Also similar to last year, the event was a smash hit. Once again, kudos and big thank you's to all involved. Everyone from the volunteers (especially the lovely and gracious Charlotte from Southern California) right on up to honchos in the Blues Foundation did one heck of a job.
The evening started off with another great cocktail party. This is the place to see and be seen. As DIUNNA GREENLEAF provided the early evenings entertainment, avid blues fans, writers and photographers, publicists and journalists, sound and technical people, record company big shots and legendary musicians all mingled as peers. Lots of pleasantries, kisses, handshakes and hugs were exchanged while many photos were being taken and lots of autographs were being signed. Although no one offered me any contracts, who knows, a few deals may have been signed here too.
In the midst of all of this fanfare, hoards of very efficient servers circled the room offering a variety of tasty tidbits. The chicken on a stick was so good, I think I personally ate enough to build a log cabin with the sticks. Speaking of eating, lets go inside. The ballroom doors are opening and it is now dinner and show time.
MITCH WOODS is already at the keyboard as the crowd enters the hall. What a tasteful entrance. Eventually in the time it took to fill the room, DAVE MAXWELL and JON CLEARY also took their turns at the very colorful pianos supplied by Baldwin. Considering the large amount of dinners that needed to be prepared and served, all within a relative short period of time, the servers did a noteworthy job and the food was excellent. Believe it or not, the buzz around my table centered around the potato salad. It was unanimous that it was the best we had all tasted. If anyone reading this knows that recipe, please contact me - seriously.
Once dinner was over, it was all about the music. Although the purpose of this gathering was the presentation of the awards, they some how got a bit lost in the shuffle. Bouncing back and forth several times throughout the night, between presenting a few awards then watching a few performers seemed, in my opinion to cause a slight bit of confusion. I think it was around Midnight when I was questioned by someone at my table as to who had won a particular category. As of that point, they still hadn't announced it. Nevertheless, this slight and easily solvable problem took nothing away from the night.
Just as last year, when BETTYE LAVETTE gave her speech and there were not many dry eyes in the room, this year also had it's emotional moment. After winning a Handy Award for "Acoustic Blues Album of the Year", Mr KENNY NEAL gave a heartwarming speech as to how it was, along with his remaining family members, the music and the fans that kept his drive going during a horrific year in which he lost three of his loved ones. The crowds response was thunderous and I'm sure those loved ones of KENNY'S heard us all.
Getting back to the music, the nights performances were 'pop' - 'pop' - 'pop', like corn popping in a pan in rapid succession. One right after another, current and future legends of the blues put on a several hour spectacle. Even just a few sentences on each would take pages, so I'll just run through some names and mention a few of my own personal highlights.
As dinner was winding down, things got off to a blaring start. CALVIN OWENS opened the show with some serious big band blues. And I do mean big band. There were so many people there that between trying to count them and keeping my eyes open for any left over potato salad on my table, I kept losing count.
By far, the highlight of the evening was the musical chairs-rotating-piano orgy. MITCH WOODS, BIG JOE DUSKIN, ANN RABSON, DARYL DAVIS, MARCIA BALL, JON CLEARY, and DAVE MAXWELL took turns bouncing back and forth from one piano to the other until they ultimately had six players simultaneously using 12 hands to lay down some of the coolest boogie woogie these ears have ever heard.
Another moving moment was just watching Miss MARCIA BALL escort the nights Guest of Honor, Mr. PINETOP PERKINS to the stage. No words had to be spoken, no notes needed to be played. The audiences reaction told it all.
Another one of my personal highlights, and truthfully it came as somewhat of a surprise, was the stunning performance by WATERMELON SLIM. This mans few moments on stage gave me a thirst for more, which ultimately led me to interview him and see his Friday night show on Beale Street.
It was also good to see the reemergence of GREG PICCOLO. His absence from the scene over the past few years had definitely left a void. GREG seems to be back with a vengeance though - this night he performed with at least four different ensembles. One of those was with Miss E G KIGHT who closed the show at 2:00 AM. Unfortunately, by now about 80% of the crowd was gone, but E G had that small crowd sounding like a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden as they howled for more.
It was also a joy to see Mr. BOB MARGOLIN being handed a Handy. Why wait, just give this man the Lifetime Achievement Award now and get it over with. What BOB does for the blues goes beyond words. He is a virtual blues employment agency. His tours keep some of the older legends busy and his jams propel some of the future legends into the limelight. A big congrats from me to you BOB.
Others putting on memorable performances, or scheduled to anyway (it gets hard to keep track while taking pictures, asking for autographs and drinking a lot) were ANDRA FAYE, BOB MARGOLIN, BOBBY RUSH, BOB STROGER, CHARLES WILSON, CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE, DAVID "HONEYBOY" EDWARDS, GARY US BONDS, GUITAR SHORTY, HUBERT SUMLIN, JANIVA MAGNESS, KOKO TAYLOR, LURRIE BELL, MAVIS STAPLES, MICHAEL POWERS, MOOKIE BRILL, NORA JEAN BRUSO, PAUL OSCHER, ROBERT LOCKWOOD JR, SAM CARR, SAM LAY, SMOKIN' JOE KUBEK, TAD ROBINSON, ALEX SCHULTZ, THE HOLMES BROTHERS and WILLIE "BIG EYES" SMITH.
All this for a $100 ticket. This is by far the best value your blues dollar will ever see. It was indeed, one heck of a memorable night and I am already looking forward to next year's event.
Of course, Friday afternoon found us hovering around Beale street. And I do mean hovering. Still buzzed from the two previous nights entertainment extravaganzas combined with a few of those frozen drinks from Wet Willies and we were on automatic pilot.
As we strolled into W C Handy Park we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of listening to a street band called "THE JUKE JOINT ALL-STARS. These guys were hot. They did it all and did it all well. They played any style of music: soul, jazz, pop or blues. You named it - they played it - after you threw some money in the jar of course. Our good friend PAT PEPIN, an accomplished sax player herself, was with us and it wasn't long before she worked her way to the stage. With all this going on and Wet Willies right across the street, there was no need to wander.
Friday night found us back on Beale Street. Where the heck else would you be in Memphis on a Friday night? For us the party started at the Rum Boogie Cafe. While enjoying a delicious dinner, we caught a show billed as the "Harmonica Showdown with BILLY GIBSON and special guests". We saw several of the areas finest young harp players who one day may be Handy nominees themselves.
As the band took a break, we didn't. Across the street we headed to see a set by Wednesdays Jam Mistress, BARBARA BLUE. She apparently left off right where we remember seeing her a few nights ago. As it turned out, we also got to see PAT PEPIN jam for a second time today. BARBARA had invited PAT to join in for the evening and a rockin' evening it was.
It was getting late, and almost time for what we had labeled as our main event of the night. Having interviewed him earlier, I knew that it was getting close to the last set of WATERMELON SLIMS show. This, we did not want to miss. I don't know how to describe the effect that SLIM had on me and apparently everyone else that filled the standing room only crowd at Blues Hall other than to say it was hypnotic. Putting shaking to the music aside, no one moved. For over an hour, no one came in or out of Blues Hall. Those who were in didn't want to leave and those who were out couldn't get in.
SLIM is marvelous to watch and listen to. He plays a mean harp that should start getting him noticed for a possible nominee in that category one day and his vocals are gritty and witty. However, it is more of his characteristically chaotic performance that makes him mesmerizing to watch. He reminds me of "Sach" playing the blues (Sach was a zany TV character played by Huntz Hall). Sorry, but you'll have to be old enough to remember the "The Bowery Boys" a.k.a. "The Dead End Kids" to be with me on this one. SLIM'S band this night, which he claims will be his band for a real long time because they are the best band he has ever had, consisted of IKE LAMB on guitar, MICHAEL NEWBERRY on drums and CLIFF BELCHER on bass.
WATERMELON SLIM, had told me earlier that this was his first time at the Handy Awards. He claimed he had no reason to come because he had never been nominated before. My blues instincts tell me SLIM will have reason to be in Memphis this same time each year for many years to come.
If you are reading this and you have never been to the W C Handy Awards, hopefully this little rant of mine will be the push you need, because you really do need to go. Early planning and a bit of budget shopping and a trip like this can be enjoyed for about $1000 for two. So the next time "Dubbya" asks you "would you'd like to sleep in the room JFK slept in" or the Pope says to you "he mein Freund, warum nicht, kommen Sie zum Vatican und sorgen sich eine Masse, die ich geben werde", tell them both that ya can't make it 'cause your Memphis bound.