PrologueFor our second trip to Memphis, we brought along our good friends and fellow music-lovers Kevin and Jenn. We planned the trip around the 22nd Annual W.C. Handy Awards, which are the blues equivalent of the Grammy Awards. [Note: the awards have since been rebranded as the Blues Music Awards.] We bought our tickets over the internet, and because we bought Golden Circle Seats (a bargain at $65 apiece) we were guaranteed admission to the Post-Handy Jam, a party which we were assured would go on long into the night.
Thursday 5/24/2001 - 22nd Annual W.C. Handy AwardsThe Handy's took place on the night of Thursday, May 24, so we flew out earlier that day. We left the house at 8:45 for our 10:15 Delta flight. After a stopover in Atlanta, we landed in Memphis at 2:54. We drove our rental Chevy Lumina downtown, and checked in to the Best Western Benchmark Hotel on Union Ave. It was the same hotel we stayed at on our prior trip to Memphis; we had found it affordable and it had a great location near Beale St.
After checking in and freshening up, we crossed the alley next to the hotel to Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous for authentic Memphis barbecue. Although we had heard that there can sometimes be quite a wait, it opened for dinner at 4:30, and we arrived at 4:20. We were seated right away. The food was amazing. Craig had a full order of dry rub pork ribs, and I got the small order. The spices were incredible! We also had mustard-based cole slaw, baked beans, and a tasty bean/rice/sausage/jalapeno mixture which was served cold. They served delicious fresh Wonder Bread rolls, as most places in Memphis seem to (there is a Wonder factory downtown). At around 5:30, we went back to the room to rest a little bit and change our clothes before the awards.
At 6:45 we met Kevin and Jenn in the lobby and walked over to Beale Street. We did one trip up and down the street to show Kevin and Jenn the lay of the land, and then headed over to the Orpheum Theatre. Many attendees were hanging around outside under the marquee. We went in and found our seats, which were approximately eight rows back on the left side of the theater.
There was a PBS television camera two rows in front of us. It was wild! We have never experienced the behind-the-scenes nature of an event like that. Before the show started, we were coached into doing some fake applause while the cameras rolled. They explained that they could not have the house lights on all night to get audience shots, so they would film us beforehand and splice it in where necessary. We ran the gamut of types of applause (from "polite" to "someone just tore their clothes off") and at one point the camera turned around and was fixed directly on us.
We were also told that there would be "seat-fillers" running around and settling in empty seats so that the house appears full. The show was sold out (for the first time ever, according to the Commercial Appeal), but they want all seats filled, even when people are onstage accepting awards. The show itself started at approximately 7:50. It was simulcast on the web.
The show was fantastic. Dr. John was the host. Robert Lockwood, Jr. won an award for best acoustic blues artist of the year, and he had been seated right behind Kevin, so we got a good look at him.
The show featured performances by the 77-year-old Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Gate's Express, Big Jack Johnson with Kim Wilson and Sam Carr, Bobby Rush (whose performance was even more amazing considering that he had been in a tour bus accident several weeks before), Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater (whose disc we had bought and which we enjoyed immensely. He performed "Winds of Change" and "I Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down" complete with playing the guitar behind his back and doing a little Chuck Berry-esque shuffle), Corey Harris and Henry Butler, Richard Johnston (one-man-band winner of the Blues Challenge, who played a drum and a guitar made of a cigar box), Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band, and the Handy Allstar Band (which was comprised of Bob Margolin, Pine Top Perkins, Duke Robillard, Kim Wilson, Willie Kent, and Levon Helm).
Eddy Clearwater won a Handy for best contemporary male artist of the year, and we saw that he was sitting not far behind us. Susan Tedeschi was onhand to present an award. Presenter Paul Pena demonstrated Tuvan throat singing for the audience.
Shemekia Copeland won contemporary female artist of the year and blues album of the year, and her song "It's 2 a.m." won blues song of the year for its songwriter, Rick Vito. Shemekia wasn't on hand to accept her awards, but we had seen her in Providence a month prior to the Handy's. I asked her if she would be there, and she frowned and said, "No. I gotta be in Poland. But make sure you yell really loud when they say my name. Ok? Yell really loud when they say my name!" Well, we sure did! She earned those awards and we are so happy for her! Someone from her record label accepted them for her, and read a nice letter that she had sent, promising a kiss to everyone that voted for her.
The show had one intermission, at which time we got drinks and hung out in the bar area. We admired the fashion of all of the artists in attendance, including brightly colored zoot suits, styling hats, and fancy shoes.
Unfortunately, if there was any signal that intermission was drawing to a close, we missed it. We returned to the theater once Bobby Rush's performance of "Hoochie Man" was already in progress. He brought the house down.
There were a few mistakes during the ceremony (such as when Keb' Mo' wasn't there to pick up his award, and they just went on to the next without even saying anything) but such is the excitement of a live event. At times it was difficult to hear the speeches, and we were able to turn around and read the TelePrompter.
The awards ended at around 11:30, with 84-year-old Rufus Thomas and Ruth Brown presenting Blues Entertainer of the year to an absent B.B. King. Their antics were quite funny, as they goofed on each other repeatedly.
We then walked down Beale Street to the New Daisy Theatre for the Post-Handy Jam. They had chairs set up on the ground floor (there are built-in chairs on the balcony) and we sat and enjoyed the music, which included performances by Blind Mississippi Morris, Richard Johnston, Eddy Clearwater's Reservation Blues Band, Taj Mahal's Phantom Blues Band, Duke Robillard with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Gate's Express, Henry Butler, and others.
Craig pointed out that Eddy Clearwater was next to the bar. I went up and asked him to sign my program. I congratulated him on his Handy (which he had set down on the bar) and told him his set was great. He said "Thank you for your support". My Sharpie wasn't working, so he asked his wife to get one from her purse. She did, and he signed my program "Eddy Clearwater Chief 2001." He then said, "Can I have a hug?" I gladly gave him a big hig and he kissed me on the cheek. I said that we had come from Boston, and he said that his label (Rounder) is in Boston. He asked my name. I said, "Stephanie." He reached out his hand and said "Eddy Clearwater. Pleased to meet you." That man has charisma! He is so nice! He made my night.
I went back and sat with Craig to enjoy the rest of the music. Eddy ended up sitting two rows behind us. He was preparing to leave at around 3:30. We went over and I asked if I could please have a picture. He said how could he resist having his picture taken with a beautiful woman, and put his arms around me while Craig snapped a photo. Craig shook his hand and told him that we have his album. He thanked us again and again, and told us that he is working on his next album.
At one point when Bobby's Rush's band was playing, Vasti Jackson took his guitar and started playing over by the soundboard. As that was near us, I took out my camera. He saw me and stood right in front of me (about three feet away!) while I snapped a photo. He was so close that I couldn't get my camera to focus at first! We stayed until the end of the concert (around 4:10), and then walked back to the hotel, exhausted, but still pumped up with adrenaline from our wonderful evening at the Handy's.
Friday 5/25/2001 -GracelandWe were woken up at 9:00 by the dumpster-removal truck, but managed to sleep until 10:00. We left the room at 11:30, met Kevin and Jenn, and the three of us walked over to Huey's to eat. I had the incredible baked potato soup, and Craig had a salad. We each had a Señor Huey burger as well. We didn't get to see our graffiti from the prior visit (one unique thing about this restaurant is that they encourage patrons to write graffiti and shoot toothpciks into the ceiling), as the booth was occupied.
After lunch we drove to Graceland (about a 20 minute drive). We arrived around 1:00. We got the "Platinum Tour" for $25, which included the mansion tour, the car collection, the airplanes, and the museum. Luckily, it wasn't very busy, and we only had to wait about 20 minutes to catch the shuttle bus that crosses Elvis Presley Blvd. from the visitor's center to the mansion.
They had a wonderful audio tour, and we were able to tour the ground floor and basement of the mansion. It was really interesting. I think my favorite room was the "TV room", which was decorated in yellow and blue. There were mirrors covering the ceiling and walls, and there were three TV's, so that Elvis could watch all three networks at once. Other interesting things were the 15-foot white couch in the living room, and the muticolored fabric on the walls and ceiling of the pool room. The jungle room had a waterfall on one wall, and was decorated with jungle-themed furniture. Elvis recorded some songs in there from time to time.
The garage has been converted into a display area, where we could see Elvis' gold and platimun records, as well as his Grammys. We learned that he was a great philanthropist, and had donated a lot of money to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. There was an outbuilding which served as a party room and racquetball court. The court has been converted to display space, and held numerous gold records and costumes.
The grounds were beautiful. When we finished touring the mansion and outbuildings, we had drinks at the ice cream shop and then went to the car exhibit. Highlights were the pink Cadillac, the white Rolls Royce, and Priscilla's white Mercedes convertible. There were also some beautiful Harleys.
We toured the museum (and saw the infamous TV with a bullethole through it). We watched the Walk a Mile in My Shoes movie, and then toured the planes: the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II . Each was a study in excess.
I had always thought of Graceland as somewhat of a tourist trap, but it was captivating! We spent 5 hours there just taking it all in.
We left at 6:00 and drove to Shangri-La Records. I bought a Sun Jerry Lee Lewis 45, and Kevin bought Moody Blue, an Elvis album which included several tracks recorded in the jungle room. We then went to the Piggly Wiggly on Madison Ave. to buy tickets for the BluesAid concert the following night.
We then went back to the hotel and ate dinner at Buckley's Fine Filet Grill on Union Ave. at 8:00. We had mushrooms stuffed with crab meat and salads to start. Craig had Memphis' best (pepper-crusted) steak, and I had raviolini in meat sauce with garlic toast. We each got a "cow chip" for dessert (a warm chocolate and toffee chip cookie topped with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge). The ambiance was nice (it was quiet and dark) and we were able to sit for a long time talking after dinner.
At 10:40 we left the restaurant for Beale St. Because of all of the Handy performers in town, clubs had $10 wristbands. We decided to forego that and just enjoyed the street. We got drinks and wandered around, listening to the music that was being played outside. As usual, people watching was the most fun, and there were lots of kids dressed to the nines for the prom (top hats, tails, and canes). For the first time, however, we noticed the police asking all people under 21 to leave the street. We went back to the hotel at 1:05 a.m.
Saturday 5/26/2001 - Sun Studios and BluesAidWe met Kevin and Jenn in the lobby shortly before 11, and bought breakfast to go at the Expresso Cafe at the Peabody Hotel across the street. We had breakfast while walking down Union Ave. to Sun Studios. We arrived in time for the 11:30 tour. This time there was a gallery open above the gift shop, and it contained merchandise, records, and displays (including one of U2's Sun sessions). It was very interesting. The tour was excellent, and Craig and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. We learned that Jerry Lee Lewis had been in the studio two weeks before, recording with Matchbox Twenty. After the tour, we did some more gift shopping and then walked back downtown.
We ate lunch at the Blues City Cafe on Beale St. I had the crab au gratin with fries, cole slaw, and Texas toast. Craig had a 16 oz. steak, new potatoes, and cole slaw. The service was a little bit slow, but the food and atmosphere were wonderful, and we were in no rush anyway.
After lunch Craig and I went to the Gibson Guitar Factory, to try to catch a Handy-weekend-only tour. However, we missed the last tour by 20 minutes. So we went into the gift shop and looked at the guitars, banjoes, and mandolins, and then went into a free traveling Jimi Hendrix Red House Tour museum. They had a small surround sound theater where we watched a clip from an upcoming DVD release of the Isle of Wight. After that, we did some shopping at Schwab's and some gift stores on Beale, and then headed back to the room to freshen up.
At 5:45 we headed over top the New Daisy for the BluesAid concert, which benefits blues musicians without health or life insurance. Performers included Sam Carr with Dave Riley, followed by Doug MacLeod, and then Pine Top Perkins (who sang a great verion of "Got My Mojo Working") with Dave Riley. Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney and Bonnie fame) performed with the Cate Brothers and Jimmy Hall. She said she was glad she went on early, so she could do the first version of "Stormy Monday". She also did a song that she wrote for Janis Joplin.
John Kay and Steppenwolf (who looked a bit out of place with their huge amps) delivered a great set just the same. Jenn and I got our photo taken while dancing to "Magic Carpet Ride", and it may be used in a publication called Elite Memphis.)
Then the 86-year old Robert Lockwood Jr. played a great set on a beautiful turquoise-colored guitar. One of the highlights was his version of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down Blues". It was kind of fitting as the roadies were breaking down Steppenwolf's equipment in the background. Levon Helm and the Barnburners were joined by and Lee Roy Parnell and Ronnie Earl. Then the Kentucky Headhunters played, followed by "uppity blues woman" Ann Rabson, and then Kurtis Matthew.
The night culminated with a jam session consisting of Lee Roy Parnell, Ronnie Earl, the Cate Brothers, and Greg Martin. They did "Dark End of the Street", "Statesboro Blues", "One Way Out," and a killer version of "Ain't No Sunshine", during which all the guitarists formed a tight circle and played while watching each other intensely. It ended at 2:40.
Sunday 5/27/2001 - Al Green, Gibson Guitar Factory, and the Sunset SymphonyWe left the hotel at 9 am and drove down Elvis Presley Blvd. , past the Mississippi border, and ate breakfast at the Country Skillet. Craig had an omelette, sausage, and toast, and I had a ham and cheese scramble with biscuits and sausage gravy.
We arrived at the Rev. Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church shortly before the 11 am service started. There were many more visitors than the last time that we were there. We signed the guest book and saw the tail end of the adult Sunday School lesson.
Rev. Green was in fine form, and was singing, jumping, and yelling "Yahoo!" His smile really lights up the entire church. His sermon was very good, with messages about giving rather than receiving and being happy with what you have. To paraphrase one quote that I liked very much: "Let go and let God. If you don't let go, then your hands are full, and God can't put anything else in them."
He didn't read from the guest book, as there were too many visitors. But he did welcome everyone. There was also no Communion this time. But he did take the offering, during which everyone walked to the altar and put their offering into a brass plate. If people had nothing to give, they were to walk up anyway, because maybe they would have something to give next time.
Rev. Green did a great sing-along of "One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus." The choir was wonderful, and the band consisted of electric guitar, drums, a trombone, a soprano sax, keyboards, and some parishioners' tambourines.
After the service (which got out at around 2:00 p.m.), we went to the Gibson Guitar Factory, and managed to catch the 3:00 tour. We were two of the first 200 people to tour the facility, as it is not open the the public yet. Even the gift shop had just opened two days before. Although the woodwork is done in Nashville, the guitars are assembled and painted in Memphis, and the hardware etc. is added there as well.
We saw guitars in all stages of development. We saw a bright purple custom guitar being produced for Macy Gray. There were two blue guitars with the Blues Foundation logo. There were only four made, and the other two had been featured at the Handy Awards three nights prior. We saw the only two existing BluesBurst prototypes (they are like the classic Gibson SunBurst guitars, only in two shades of blue rather than black and yellow).
We learned some interesting facts about Memphis: up until the mid-80's all of Beale Street was closed. Schwab's was the only business still open, but you had to enter through the back. The Peabody hotel was in disrepair and was sold on the auction block for $900,000. The Vancouver Grizzlies NBA team is moving to Memphis, and they are planning to build an arena.
We freshened up back at the hotel and then headed down to the Mississippi River for the Memphis in May Great Southern Food Festival. There was a $3 admission charge, and then you had to buy tickets to get food ($5 for 9 tickets). We used all of our tickets at the Bozo's Barbecue booth. We each got "pig sandwiches" and iced tea. I also got some barbecue baked beans. It was delicious.
We then sat at the base of the hill to listen to the Sunset Symphony. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra played "Guadalcanal March", "Overture to the Flying Dutchman ", "Carmen Suite No. 1", "Bacchanale from Samson and Dalila", "Washington Post March", "Crown Imperial", "Beatles Hits Medley", "1812 Overture", and "Stars and Stripes Forever." There was a breeze which made things difficult for the musicians, but the sound was very good and we had a great time. The night culimated with a massive fireworks display. It ended at around 9:30.
We walked to Beale Street. We decided to eat at the King's Palace Cafe, because the ambiance was nice (as Jenn said, it kind of looked like a fortune teller's booth) and there was nice jazz playing. We got drinks (they had beer and I had an "iced mojo") and appetizers (delicious crab cakes and tasty fried green tomatoes). We ordered cajun meals that took FOREVER to come. They arrived about an hour and a half later. Nothing had the cajun sauce it was advertised to have. My chicken kabobs were cold and my cole slaw was about 90 degrees. Craig's chicken was dry as a bone. We just couldn't eat it, and for the first time ever, we sent our meals back. The manager was very apologetic and gave us some gumbo on the house (that was way too spicy for us to eat much of it). He also took the meals off of our bill. It was just a very disappointing experience, as it had started out so well. We left the restaurant at midnight.
After that we hung out on Beale for a while. At 1:15 a.m.we decided to head back to the hotel, as we were to fly out in the morning.
When we got to our room, Craig walked over to the sink and found that the floor was literally drenched. Puddles were forming in the carpet where he stood. We listened and heard a faint dripping that seemed to be coming from the vent. Craig called the desk and they sent security up. He told us they would try to get us another room.
So we kicked into gear, packing everything up. All of a sudden a bubble formed in the paint of the bathroom ceiling. A hole appeared, and water started pouring through the ceiling, splashing down into the toilet. You could see the seem in the drywall of the ceiling. We called the desk again, and the clerk came up to see. It seemed to be overflow from the bathroom upstairs. After he called the room upstairs (and got no answer), it subsided. So much for going to bed on the early side!
After packing everything we moved to another room on the same floor. The hotel staff treated us very well, and took care of us immediately. We certainly have no complaints about their service. We finally got to bed soon after 2:00.
Monday 5/28/2001 - DepartureWe woke up at 7:00 a.m., did some last minute packing, and checked out at 8:10. It was Memorial Day, and the Expresso Cafe across the street was closed. So were all other coffee shops. So we drove down Elvis Presley Blvd. and found that the Elvis Presley Rock 'n Roll Graceland Cafe was open. We ate their buffet, which included eggs, French toast sticks, pancakes, sausage, biscuits and gravy, bacon, and hash browns. After that, it was off to the airport for our 10:45 flight. We arrived in Boston at around 5:30 p.m.
EpilogueI am looking back at this post 16 years later. A lot has changed in the interim. The Handy's have been rebranded as the Blues Music Awards. Although the name is more easily recognizable to the general populace, I prefer the original.
In the intervening years, we were lucky enough to meet many of the artists that we saw on this trip when they subsequently played in the Boston area: Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Eddy Clearwater, Taj Mahal, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Corey Harris, Ronnie Earl, Kim Wilson, Bob Margolin, and Pine Top Perkins. We also met Willie Kent in Chicago.
I recall that when we were planning the trip to Memphis, I knew that B.B. King was nominated for an award for "Riding with the King." I remember thinking how cool it would be to be in the presence of the King of the Blues at the Handy's, and was slightly disappointed when he did not attend. Little did I know that just a couple years later, we would find ourselves very close friends with B.B.'s former bus driver, Frank Brown, and Frank would introduce us to both B.B. King and Buddy Guy!
A CD called Live at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards Vol. 1 was released which contains two performances from the 22nd Handy's: "Señor Blues" by Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band and "Hoochie Man" by Bobby Rush. The ceremony was simulcast on the web and was also broadcast on PBS, though our local affiliate didn't carry it. We would love to see it someday.
Many of the artists at the 22nd Handy's have now passed on, and so have Frank and B.B. King. We are so grateful to have had a chance to see them perform, and in some cases to have met them. They certainly don't make 'em like that any more!
The Handy Awards logo used for the background of this page was downloaded from the Blues Foundation's Media Center.
Craig, Kevin, Jenn, and Steph at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous
Steph, Craig, Kevin, and Jenn in front of the Orpheum Theatre prior to the Handy Awards
22nd Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards
Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Duke Robillard at the Post-Handy Jam
Eddy Clearwater and Stephanie at the Post-Handy Jam
Vasti Jackson serenades a sleepy Steph at Post-Handy Jam
Jenn, Kevin, Craig , and Steph at Graceland
Kevin, Jenn, and Craig hanging out on Beale St.
Kevin, Jenn, Craig, and Steph at Sun Studios
Craig, Jenn, and Kevin in front of the Blues City Cafe on Beale St.
Pine Top Perkins on the keyboards with Dave Riley on guitar at BluesAid
The Cate Brothers, Bonnie Bramlett, and Jimmy Hall
Robert Lockwood Jr. at BluesAid
Levon Helm at BluesAid
The Rev. Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on Hale Rd. in Memphis
King's Palace Cafe
Steph, Craig, and Kevin on Beale Street