Old Timers Blues

Monday, April 06, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments


CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 13:  Memphis, TN

With nothing planned beyond going to hear ‘Dr. Feelgood’ on Beale Street tonight, we decided to spend the morning planning where to go next.  Reservations made through Saturday night in St. Louis, we finally emerged from our cocoon and strolled over to Rendezvous, hoping to have another shot of barbecue sauce before leaving town.  Alas, Monday is their day off, so we walked to the six-block Main Street Pedestrian Mall, where we ate an adequate meal at Yao’s China Bistro.

Then it was over to Beale Street to explore the oldest business on the street—A. Schwab general merchandise store.  Opened in 1876 by a Jewish immigrant, this old-fashioned mercantile has become a Memphis institution.  Shelves are filled with all manner of period merchandise from rubber band shooters to vintage style toys.  They even sell bubble gum cigars and candy cigarettes.  It was rather like stepping through a wormhole into the 1950s.  

The classic merchandise shares space with historic retail artifacts used in the store during the course of its history.  Items local to Memphis are also featured, including an extensive collection of music.  Even I fell into the memorabilia trap and bought a small Gumby and Pokey to travel with us.

One particularly interesting line of products was in their candle section.  Like voodoo charms or amulets, candles were offered to generate all kinds of spells and enchantments.  There was the Dixie Love candle, said to stimulate love, passion, attraction and desire.  The Jinx candle promised to facilitate hexing, jinxing, crossing, tricking and cursing your enemies.  But my favorite was the Stop Gossip candle.  In the interest of promoting harmony and undermining nasty gossip, I offer its directions here in case you come across the helpful herbs and oils.  Even without them, I may try the shoe thing should the need arise.

The label reads:  "This candle is fixed and dressed with Stop Gossip oil and herbs to ward off backbiting and malicious talk by jealous rivals.  Set this light with your name-paper beneath, face up.  Pray the 91st Psalm and burn the candle straight through, as you spiritually clean your self and home.  Then fold a pinch of salt and pepper in the paper and wear it in your shoe to protect yourself." 

From Schwab, we walked down to South 3rd Street and the Gibson Guitar Factory, hoping to get into the 3:00 tour.  Little did we realize what a popular attraction this tour is.  Not only was the 3:00 filled, the remainder of times today and tomorrow were booked solid.  So we checked out the store, where we saw guitars offered from $100 to $10,000.

Fine axes from Gibson
Crossing 3rd Street, we checked out the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which chronicles the history of the rebellious musical pioneers in Memphis who dared to overcome old prejudices and barriers to forge a radical new sound.  Developed in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibits featured life-size images, artifacts, and a self-guided audio tour.  Fittingly, the best aspect of the museum was the music.  At each of several jukeboxes on display—one for each era—visitors can choose to hear authentic music from that time in Memphis music history, using the audio tour device.

Rock 'n' Soul Museum
Walking back up Beale Street toward the hotel, we stopped at the King’s Palace patio to listen to Sonny Mack and his band.  An interesting crowd had gathered including a thirtyish woman from Mississippi who loved to dance and persuaded two dozen women from the audience onto the dance floor when Sonny dedicated a song to women.  And then there was the silver-haired New Orleans guy who drunkenly offered to buy the band dinner and who kept flicking his cigarette ashes into his beer—and drinking it.

Later, after dinner, we returned to Beale Street to hear our old friend Dr. Feelgood Potts, whose performance we had enjoyed so much in 2010 with my sister and brother-in-law.  By the time we arrived at the Blues Hall Juke Joint, every table was occupied.  We wrangled an invitation to join Heidi and her husband Dave from Buffalo at their table, where we spent the next several hours conversing with them between songs.   Dave is retired and eager to move to Sarasota away from Buffalo winters, but Heidi wants to get their youngest settled in college up north first.

Their older son is a blues musician in Buffalo and helped guide their plans for this trip.  Like us, they have been chasing the blues.  After visiting family in Florida, they drove to New Orleans, then up the Blues Highway to Clarksdale before coming to Memphis.  Whereas we’re continuing on US-61 to St. Louis, their next stop is Nashville, where they’ll check out another kind of music before heading back home to New York.  We were grateful to the fortuitous series of events that put us at the same table so we could enjoy comparing notes on our common paths.

The Dr. Feelgood Potts Band
A longtime fixture on Beale Street, Robert Potts was born into a large family in Greenwood, Mississippi.  He came to Memphis in 1967 and has been treating the city to his soul-infused blues for almost 50 years.  Well into his seventies, Dr. Feelgood seems to have slowed down a bit, and the energy level of his performance has flagged since we last saw him, though his harp playing continues as robust as ever.   And he still appreciates his fans, responding enthusiastically when we told him of our previous visit and happy to sing the song we requested.

Beale Street neon
Over the last couple of days, we've been collecting photos of the fantastic neon signs on Beale Street and offer them up in a collage here.  With any luck, we’ll get back to Memphis and some of its great blues music before another five years passes.  But tomorrow, we’re moving on up the highway toward the next contender for "home of the blues"—St. Louis.

 Before we leave, here's a little bit more Memphis blues.


Sonny Mack on Beale Street