HOME AT LAST - part three: Memphis Blues
It was a rough morning. I was supposed to be in Memphis by 10 o'clock for a Soul Detective thing, only I had one of those cheap draft beer and whiskey hangovers that leave you wondering what the hell you were thinking about in the first place...
Lattimore, on the other hand, was fine - up early and ready to go. We headed out looking for someplace (anyplace) to get some coffee, and ended up at some gas station 'in the 'hood'. Before I knew what was happening, 'Mo was talking with some woman, who was explaining to him how she missed her ride to work, and would it be alright if we gave her a lift... I'll be honest with you, I was in no mood for it, and in a hurry to get the hell out of there, essentially annoyed (in my New York way) that he was even talking to her to begin with. At that moment I realized I had left the charger for my digital camera (with which I was chronicling this epic road trip) back at the Ground Zero, and had to turn around and drive back there. Suddenly, the woman was in the car with us. I was not a happy camper.
As it turned out, the woman worked at one of the casinos in Tunica, some fifty miles away... lovely. Well, it was on the way (more or less) I told myself, and tried to calm down. It was just this sort of thing, however, that made being with Lattimore Brown so interesting. He genuinely cared about others, and would never have left that woman stranded, no matter what I said. He was right, of course, and as I listened to them talk about the reality of present day life in the Mississippi Delta, I began to relax. This was what this trip was supposed to be about, after all, connecting with real people and hearing their stories. As we dropped her off somewhere inside the massive casino complex, Sir Lattimore had made another friend, and I had more or less settled into being along for the ride.
A ride that would take us, (just as it had the year before) up Highway 61, tracing the route Lattimore had traveled almost sixty years ago, when he left his wife and daughter behind in Cleveland, Mississippi and headed for the bright lights of Memphis. He didn't like to talk much about that, and I began to sense that there was more to that tale than he had let on. It was kind of like that, hanging with Lattimore... just when you thought you had heard all his stories, he'd come up with something that left you totally amazed. The ones he did repeat on a regular basis, however, never changed. "That's because I keep it real," he told me, and I believe he did.
One I (and everybody else) heard on a regular basis was about his arrival in Memphis in 1953, when "B.B. King was playing on the streetcorner for nickels and dimes, and Elvis Presley was driving a furniture delivery truck, wearing these raggedy-ass overalls..." Yes, walking the streets of Memphis with Lattimore was like stepping inside an Ernest C. Withers photograph, as his tales of nights spent at the Hippodrome and the Flamingo Room with guys like Roscoe Gordon, Junior Parker, Bill Harvey and Fred Ford captured the imagination, and kind of brought that whole scene back to life. Withers, like Lattimore, was fresh out of the army in those days, and was the only photographer working the crowd on the dark side of the street. I was there," Withers told Daniel Wolf in The Memphis Blues Again, "being seen, making pictures..." His formidable body of work serves as just about the only witness to those heady days that created Rock & Roll. The days when Sir Lattimore Brown first came to town.
When we took him into Royal Studio in 2008, the first person Lattimore asked Willie Mitchell about was 'Sunbeam' ("He's been dead for twenty years!" Willie told him). Andrew 'Sunbeam' Mitchell, the man B.B. King calls 'the Godfather', pretty much ran the roost in Black Memphis in the 1950s, and his fabled Domino Lounge and Mitchell Hotel had become the crossroads for musicians looking for work - and a good time. To Lattimore, it was like a second home, and his mouth watering tales of eating Ernestine's legendary chili at all-night jam sessions made me long for a glimpse of those long gone days. The person I was supposed to meet that morning in Memphis never showed, and so Lattimore and I had a little more time to poke around. I asked him to show me where Sunbeam's actually was. "Hernando and Beale," he shot back, only I soon found out that that intersection no longer exists. As the photograph above (of WDIA disk-jockey Dwight 'Gatemouth' Moore) shows, however, it most certainly did back in the day. After a little more exploration, we finally figured out that Hernando, at the point where it met Beale, was now known as Rufus Thomas Avenue.
...and there it was. How it could possibly be that this place that played such a pivotal role in the development of Memphis Music does not have some kind of plaque or historical marker is beyond me. The Domino, Lattimore told me, occupied the second floor above the Pantaze Drug Store at street level, while the hotel (which always had a few rooms available with 'hourly rates') was up on the third. In the mid-fifties, Sunbeam would change the name of his second-story digs to the Club Handy, but Lattimore was already gone by then. When I asked him to tell me a little more about that, here's what he had to say:
"Above all, you understand, I was a singer. I used to sing with a couple of guys in the army, just for fun, so when I got to Memphis, I wanted to organize me a little vocal group like I had back home with the Shady Grove Specials, only this time I was gonna sing R&B, you know, kind of like The Moonglows or The Drifters, who were all the rage at the time. I knew Louis Williams, and the Del-Rios were just starting out, but the big group in Memphis at the time was The Veltones (pictured in the Withers promotional photo above). I got together with three other guys, and we called ourselves 'The Valentinos'."
After I asked him if he was sure about that, because that was the name The Womack Brothers used when they crossed over to R&B some ten years later, he told me to "Shut up and listen..."
"We had trouble getting work in Memphis because the Veltones pretty much had things sewn up. I was talking with some of the musicians at Sunbeam's, and they told me things were wide open down in Houston, Texas, so I set out there and found myself a place in the Fifth Ward. Before long I had me a car and a regular job, so I sent for the other three guys to come on down. I was living with a pretty young lady named Lavern, and she welcomed those boys in like they were family. We rehearsed every night, and before long we got good enough so that I was able to borrow some money to buy us matching uniforms. Now in those days, there was an amateur night and talent show at the Club Matinee run by a disk jockey named Trumpet Kane."
"We were so good that we won it five weeks in a row, which earned us the top prize, a chance to compete on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on the TV. This was gonna be our big break, I thought, only I come home from work one day, and I find Lavern crying. She wouldn't tell me what was wrong. I come to find out later on that J.D., one of the group members that was staying with us, tried to climb into bed with her every day when I left to go to work in the morning. This J.D. was just a nasty person, and mean. When I asked him about it later on, he had the nerve to tell me 'F@#k that bitch' I had to beat him up, man"
"One day soon after that I came home with a mess of crabs and crawfish to boil up for everybody, and I sent Lavern out to the bar down the street to pick up some drinks. She was gone a long time, so I went out looking for her. Here she comes walkin' barefoot along a ditch on the side of the road. She's cryin', and she won't tell me what's wrong. I go down to the bar, and there's J.D. drunk as hell. He tells me that after Lavern bought the bottle I paid for, he told her to give him and his friends a drink. When she refused, he took it from her, poured drinks all around, then spilled the rest on the floor. 'F@#k that bitch!' he says, and grabs for his pistol. I just saw red, man. I pulled out my knife and just kept stickin' him. When I seen what I'd done, I set out runnin'. Lavern found me and hid me in the back of the car. We didn't stop driving till we got to this little town where her people lived - Marshall, Texas, over near the Louisiana line."
"I got work in a sawmill there, but I was always looking over my shoulder, waiting for the law to catch up with me, man. After a while, a carnival train from the James E. Strates Shows came to town, and I got me a job in their minstrel show. When that train pulled out, I was on it, and I never looked back. Years later, when I came through Houston with my band, I was still nervous, but a cop I recognized from back then saw me and told me the only thing I done wrong was to not kill that son-of-a-bitch, that they'd been locking him up ever since."
He went on to tell me that the house band that backed the Valentinos up at the Club Matinee in those days included Grady Gaines and Clifford Burks, who would go on to form Little Richard's incendiary road band, The Upsetters.
Meanwhile, back in present day Memphis, we continued on with our Soul Detective Fact Finding Mission, and I took Lattimore with me to visit with original Memphian keyboard man Kurl McKinney, and Charisse Sales, the daughter of Memphian drummer Oscar Sales, to lay the groundwork for Case Seven (which is still ongoing, by the way). Our meeting was held at the home of my compadre Preston Lauterbach (author of the soon to be released blockbuster The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'N' Roll), who helped put the whole thing together. Thanks, Pres!
That afternoon, Howard Grimes invited us over to his house to hang out and listen to music with him and Darryl Carter, and I'll tell you, 'Mo had a blast! "This is just what it was like back at Sunbeam's, or hanging out at Buzzard's place in Nashville," he said, "When musicians get together they know how to have a good time!" They sure do, and both of these guys have gone on to get some of the respect they deserve in their hometown, thanks to Scott Bomar and Electraphonic Recording. Howard has since become the drummer for The Bo-Keys (whose killer new album Got To Get Back is due to be released on June 21st), while Darryl continues his songwriting and producing, and has just completed a Gospel two-sider on Spencer Wiggins at the studio (both sides of which Darryl sang for Lattimore and I that day - to which 'Mo replied, "The hell with Spencer Wiggins, man. I want to cut them myself!").
We went down to Beale Street later that night, but nothing much was going on. It was, once again, kind of poignant to see the glitzy tourist trap it has become through the eyes of somebody who can actually remember when the strip really had it goin' on. Wobbly Wahoos with Big-Ass Beers stumbled by as terrible music spilled out of over-priced dives and built into this cacophonous wall of sound all around us.
We went back to the hotel and got some sleep.
The next day was Sunday, and I awoke to the sounds of Sir Lattimore singing Gospel in the bathroom. Songs like The Canton Spirituals' 'Send Me I'll Go', brought me right back to Mississippi, and what it must have been like at his backwoods Shady Grove Baptist Church. This was real Soul, right there in front of me, man. I asked him if he wanted to go to Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle, and he got kind of quiet. He told me no, and that he meant no disrespect, then proceeded to tell me a couple of stories that stood my hair on end... I decided to leave it alone.
I left Lattimore back at the hotel while I took care of some more Soul Detective business. I didn't want to leave Memphis without paying my respects at O.V. Wright's grave, and checking on the headstone we all worked so hard to put in place the year before. While I was out there in Germantown, I stopped by to visit with O.V.'s wonderful sister Ada Bell, and left with some previously unseen photographs of him for inclusion in Reel Music's excellent reissue package of A Nickel & A Nail and the Ace of Spades.
This was also the day that my good friend 'Blade', who had opened so many doors for us in the past, made it possible for me to speak with both Julius Bradley (who, I had just recently found out, was the bass player for The Memphians), and Willie Mitchell one last time. Both men would be dead within a few months, and he knew it. I really can't say enough about how much that meant to me. Thank you, my brother.
When I got back to the room, Lattimore was already asleep, which was just as well. We had a long drive in the morning...
...continued in Part Four