The Handy Awards has grown to a three day celebration of blues excellence past and present, attended buy hundreds of aficionados and music business people. BMI's Dr. Sanjek, a member of the Blues Foundation Board of Directors, gives his eyewitness account of this year's festivities.
For me, Memorial Day weekend has come to be associated with the Handy Awards and a trip to Memphis, Tennessee. When BMI first became involved with the Blues Foundation five or more years ago, the awards ceremony was held during the first weekend of the month. That coincided with a major annual event in the city, "Memphis in May." The festivities include a weekend of concerts along the banks of the Mississippi and many more people than usual visiting the city. Recently, it was decided that the festival took attention away from the Handys, so a change was made. All in all, it has been an appropriate decision. Each year, the Handy Awards attract more and more people, and the Memorial Day weekend now is firmly identified with the blues in the eyes of the city.
While I'm not prone to being starry-eyed, Memphis is a special place to me. It has a unique rhythm and mood: languid, friendly, loquacious and fun-loving. Invariably, something interesting happens to me when I'm there. I either meet someone or hear something spectacular or have an experience I would not anywhere else. Part of the pleasure of being in Memphis in particular and the Deep South in general is that one's body rhythm slows down from the hectic craziness of New York City. It's not just the weather but really the pace of the people. No one seems to be in a hurry. If you ask them a question, you have to be ready for a conversation and not just a curt reply. Some people find this aggravating; I take it as a welcome alternative to cell phones and car horns and the cacophony of city life.
Thanking the Charter Members
I ran into Steve Berkowitz from Sony Legacy on the plane, and we spent the short flight catching up on music. Steve has been involved with some of the exciting reissues Sony has marketed in the past several years, including the Robert Johnson material, the Miles Davis back catalog and the recent Louis Armstrong tracks that won a Grammy Award this year. Talking about records was a fine transition from the office to the blues. That evening, the weekend took off with a Charter Members Dinner. This is something new for the Blues Foundation that began last year: a special event to thank individual contributors to the organization that allows them to mingle with performers and other dignitaries. I was seated at a table along with several musicians, including the ace guitarist Duke Robillard (winner this year of the Best Guitarist award) and keyboard player Mike Finnegan, who was playing with Taj Mahal's band. I had met Mike once before at an L.A. Blues Foundation event, and he was pleasantly surprised that I knew his first major album, as lead vocalist with the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, that he recorded in the early 1970s.
Inducting the "Blues Hall of Fame"
The "Blues Hall of Fame" awards are given out during this dinner. This year, they included the performers Etta James, Junior Parker and Rufus Thomas as well as the recordings "Shake, Rattle & Roll" by Big Joe Turner and the Plantation Recordings of Muddy Waters. The "Blues Literature" award was given to Helen Dance, author of a memorable biography of T-Bone Walker, and the "Non-Performer Award" to the late writer Robert Palmer and Theresa Needham, who ran a famous club on the South side of Chicago. Ms. Needham passed away several years ago, but her family was present. Their genuine, heart-felt enthusiasm at being honored was a joy to behold. Many, many people who never become celebrities are absolutely crucial to the continuation of any form of music, blues included. Theresa Needham's club was a stage for the best of the blues and a centerpiece of the community of Chicago. What it may have lacked in glamour, it more than made up in soul and sass.
Ruth & Bobby Are Back!
Another highpoint in the evening was the appearance of Ruth Brown, who has been off the scene since a recent stroke. The Foundation had successfully kept her attendance a secret, and many of us, myself included, took time to greet her and congratulate her on how well she looked. As I left the event, I ran into Bobby Rush, one of the most popular and talented performers on the soul blues circuit. Bobby and his band were seriously injured in a recent road accident - one of his dancers was killed - and many in the blues community have poured out to assist in the musicians' recovery. BMI had sent flowers to Bobby's home and put a support organization, BluesAid, in contact with both NARAS and the R&B Foundation. Bobby looked on the mend, and his appearance the next night at the Handy show abundantly illustrated what a trouper he is.
The Main Event
Thursday was the Handy show, held at the elegant Orpheum theater at the base of Beale Street. This year, the venue was completely sold out! An enthusiastic crowd cheered on all the acts, and the nearly three hour show was memorable on all accounts. Dr. John hosted and brought his bayou gris gris to the proceedings. The highlight of a Handy show is without a doubt the live performances, and this year was no exception. All were outstanding, but I'd have to single out the show-stopping appearance of Bobby Rush and the duets of Corey Harris and the splendid, blind pianist from New Orleans, Henry Butler. He has the kind of command of the keyboard that his local predecessors Professor Longhair and James Booker brought to the instrument. Amazing. Also, it's exciting to see a veteran like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown still showing the energy and fire of his younger days now that he's in his seventies. Last but not least, the Handy All-Star Band should not be forgotten. Each year, the winners of the separate instrumental categories are brought together on stage, and the wealth of talent is staggering. Charlie Musselwhite was unable to appear, and Kim Wilson of Texas took his place, stealing the scene with some spirited vocalizing. I hung out at the post-Handy jam until about 2AM, then ended a long and exciting day.
Building The Audience For The Blues
Much of my Handy weekend involves meetings. I've been a member of the Foundation board for four years now, one year into my second term. I also attend meetings of the Blues Music Association [BMA], the professional business organization now in its third year that BMI helped to organize during a strategic retreat several years ago. The BMA helped to organize a Town Hall Meeting on "The State of the Blues" on Friday afternoon. It was held at B.B. King's club on Beale Street, and the room was packed with interested participants. A panel of industry professionals responded to people's comments and concerns. While the general consensus was that the blues still lacks the kind of public visibility that it deserves, the music is healthy and thriving. The need for more of it to be heard on the radio and television is crucial. One of the major enterprises of the BMA is the completion of a business survey that will point out how the audience for the music comprises some of the major clients of advertisers. One hopes that, in the future, the impression that blues is a "downer" or that its audience is small, or that its performers are dying off will be erased. Certainly, the enthusiasm and commitment of the people at this meeting indicated that it will eventually happen.
I went from this event to the final film of a blues series that highlighted the work of Robert Mugge. Having already seen his features on the delta, "Deep Blues," and Robert Johnson, "Hellhound On My Trail," I wanted to catch the new one on the music of Louisiana, "Rhythm and Bayous." Afterwards, I grabbed dinner and caught part of a set by a blues lap steel guitarist, Freddy Roulette. Another fine and full day.
The Hills of Como Are Alive With Music
Saturday brought the Foundation board meeting, but was capped off by probably the most memorable event of the whole weekend. The Memphis Tourist & Visitors office had planned a musical event for visiting journalists to which I was invited. It was held at a farm in the hill country of northern Mississippi in a town called Como. After dinner, we drove out to a grassy field under a striking, clear moon. The owner of the property has held such events before and built an intimate stage for musicians. As we arrived, a young teenage guitarist from Clarksdale was playing. If you read the recent and wrong-headed article about the "death of the blues" in the delta featured in the New York Times, she was mentioned as one of the exceptions to this supposed "rule." Actually, the amount of activity in the delta if not throughout the deep South is abundant as was illustrated by the next act, the fife and drum band of Othar Turner, now in his 90s. He was seemingly the last proponent of this form of music, but now his young granddaughter is following in his footsteps. She commands the stage with ease and assurance. Then, an unexpected turn of events. The blind guitarist and songwriter Paul Pena, best known for writing Steve Miller's hit "Big Old Jet Airliner," had been at the Handys and came along for the evening. He ended up playing a spectacular set along with a Japanese bass player who is studying at University of Memphis and a drummer related to the great guitarist R.L. Burnside. Paul was very close with the late Fred McDowell, a resident of Como. He had not been in the town for quite a long time, and it was magical to hear him play Fred's most famous tune, "You Got to Move." The night ended for me as a group comprised of the slide guitarist Kenny Brown and the rockabilly pioneer Paul Burlison, lead guitarist of the Rock & Roll Trio, were jamming. An amazing night. Not just the music but the ambience. A diverse crowd of many races and ages and backgrounds, all enjoying a rich stew of unique self-expression underneath the delta moon. Like I said, it's hard not to have a good time in Memphis.