Sunday, August 07, 2011

HOME AT LAST - part four: Blues for the Brothers

We were headed out on I-40, the well worn highway of hopes and dreams that runs from Memphis to Nashville. It was a route that Sir Lattimore had traveled time and again with John R, a man who knew a thing or two about Soul. Those drives must have seemed quite something to the mid-sixties segregated South, as a black man and a white man shared their stories and the front seat as the miles wore on and the ashtrays overflowed.

It had been about a week since I last spoke with Marion James, so I decided to give her a call and let her know we were on our way. What she told me just kind of blew Mo' and I away. The day after I had spoken with her the first time, Johnny Jones had been found dead in his apartment. Jones, legendary guitarist and leader of seminal bands like the Imperial Seven and the King Casuals, was just such an integral part of the whole Nashville R&B scene, and the focus of much of the renewed interest in Jefferson Street in the wake of Night Train to Nashville. I had been looking forward to meeting Johnny, and now, tragically, it looked like we were on our way to his funeral.

There was something particularly moving about walking the Music City streets with Lattimore later that day... "This used to be my city. This is where my music started at, but things have just changed so much, it's been so many years. It's forty years, man. The whole world changed... the Good Lord has blessed me to be here again and meet some of my old friends. I'm very saddened to lose a friend of mine just a few days before I get here, all the years I knew him. A bandleader, wonderful guitar player... I hadn't planned to be here, but God sometimes will put you where he needs or wants you to be. So I'm here for a reason after forty years... I'm just asking God to please receive my friend Johnny up in Heaven, Father, he was a good man."

I tried to visit some of Lattimore's old haunts with him that afternoon but, like he said, things have changed so much. A housing project stood on the site where Buzzard's apartment used to be - the apartment where he had 'made up pallets on the floor' with Jimi Hendrix. The address that once housed Ernie's Record Mart, where he had cut his first recordings in an upstairs room, had been swallowed up by a municipal parking garage. The run-down storefront that had been The Club Steal-Away, where he had first put the Twirlers through their paces all those years ago, was just barely standing up there on Jefferson Street, but that was about it.

We were sharing a cheap hotel room out on the fringe of downtown (the non-existent soul detective budget being what it is), and once we checked in, I grabbed the local directory and started working the phones. After a couple of wrong numbers, I was able to locate Earl Gaines, who had been friends with Lattimore since his days with Jimmy Beck back in the late fifties. I told him about our plans for a Jefferson Street reunion the next day. He really wanted to make it, he said, especially in light of what had just happened with Johnny Jones, but he couldn't because he was scheduled to go into the hospital for a minor procedure that afternoon. Sadly, he too would pass before the year was out.

I took Sir Lattimore down to the strip on lower Broadway later that night but, just as on Beale Street, the glare of the neon was wrapped around a lot of nothing... only the music was even worse. I don't know, maybe it's me, but these sort of re-manufactured downtowns leave me cold. It feels almost as if they are sneering at whatever actual history they might have had, while insuring at the same time that nothing genuinely interesting will ever happen there again. After an overpriced burger and some warm beer, we hightailed it back to the Comfort Inn.

The next morning, 'Mo asked me to take him to the 'ethnic' aisle at a local drugstore. There was no way he was going to meet up with the old crowd without taking care of something first. He told me that he had schooled himself in the art of African-American hair care back in the day, and had become the go-to guy out on the road for many an entertainer who needed some work on their 'conk'. Over the next few hours I watched in amazement as he emerged, in his words, "fried, died, and laid to the side!" We were ready for anything.

One of the nicest human beings I've met in the course of doing all of this has been Chuck Chellman. Chuck, as you may recall, was the producer of Lattimore's excellent FAME recorded Renegade sides. He has remained a vibrant and energetic part of the Nashville music scene, and was kind enough to buy us lunch at the fabled Pie Wagon which, as it turned out, was literally around the corner from our hotel. He brought along his brother Ed Mascolo, himself a music industry veteran who was currently riding high with his protégés Rascal Flatts. Like his brother, he hadn't seen 'Mo since the days of the Saturday night fish fries at Chuck's house some forty years before. You could feel the genuine love and respect these guys had for Lattimore, and how truly glad they were to see him again. His Music City roots ran deep.

We had arranged to meet at Marion James' house up off of Jefferson Street that afternoon at three o'clock. The first person on the scene was Clifford Curry. He and Lattimore (the man he calls 'the Mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee') had been inseparable back in his K-Town Silver Slipper days. It does my heart good to see that this warm and wonderful man, who has managed to continue working the Beach Music crowd all these years, is finally being recognized as the legend he is with an appearance at this year's Ponderosa Stomp.

Next up was Billy Cox, who came thundering in on his Harley with Albert King's Crosscut Saw blaring over the roar of the pipes. "I come in with the blues, I'm leaving with the blues!" he said, and Lattimore's eyes lit up as he figured out who he was. It was somewhere around in here that I realized how much 'Mo represented to these guys. Almost a decade older, he and Buzzard had kind of paved the way for them as up and coming musicians, and they weren't about to forget it.

Jimmy Church, who has remained active throughout the mid-South with the Jimmy Church Band, rounded out the bill. Jimmy was handling Johnny Jones' funeral arrangements, which were being delayed by some government red tape, so this was as close to a memorial service as we were going to get. It was a privilege for me to stand by and watch as the years melted away, and these brothers got on down.

'Big Marion', as Bob Wilson knew her back then, had become something like a den mother to the gang that hung out at Buzzard's, and you could still see that in her eyes as she welcomed us into her home. The walls were hung with all kinds of music memorabilia but, she said, there are no surviving pictures of her husband. That, my friends, is a lowdown dirty shame.

Jimmy 'Buzzard' Stewart was, in the words of Billy Cox, " mentor [who] was always there to help show Jimi and me the way..." He is about as under-appreciated a figure as you will find in the history of rock & roll. Everything Marion James has done with her Musician's Aid Society has been, in her words, "in honor of Buzzard". To be there with Billy, in that place, with Stewart's widow and best friend was, in a word, priceless.

You know, I don't know what I was thinking, really. When I brought Lattimore back to Nashville, I hoped that somehow he might have decided to stay. But he was too proud for that, I can see that now. There was no way he was going to show up there with his hand out, looking for a favor from anybody. I had initially offered to take him to Knoxville as well, but he wanted no part of it.

"Biloxi is a hard luck town," I told him, "there's nothing for you to go back to but a whole lot of misery. If you go back down there, I'll never come to visit you!"

But it didn't work.

Ultimately, I had to buy him a ticket for the Mississippi bound Greyhound that leaves under cover of the night. It kind of broke my heart to let him go. As I watched him disappear into the seedy bus depot, I didn't know if I'd ever lay eyes on him again. be continued