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Blues in the Night

Is Memphis losing out to Seattle in the battle for the blues?

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BB. King was a headliner for Martin Scorsese's gigantic "Salute to the Blues" concert at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan on February 7th. He was the last act on stage, following more than 30 other entertainers who filled the night with blues.

Before the show, I spoke to King and noted a large artwork in the lobby by Memphian, George Hunt. In the collage, which is typical of Hunt's work, was an original, yellow Pepticon Energy Tonic box. Pepticon sponsored King's first radio show on WDIA more than half a century ago. I asked King how far it was from WDIA to Radio City Music Hall. His answer, "a long, long way," was accompanied by a long thoughtful sigh. I know that sigh represents at least 5,000 performances logged from 1949 to 2003.

"But the blues have come a long, long way too," he added. At that moment, as if on cue, Scorsese walked into the room to accentuate the point.

I asked King, "What about Memphis?" as he was pulled away for a photo with "Marty." His reply: "Memphis will always have the blues." But will it?

The New York event was essentially a Handy Awards show times 10, but without the awards. The show had an eclectic blend of blues performers, with a smattering of rock, R&B, New Orleans gumbo, and rap. No more eclectic than a lot of Handy shows. The major difference was scale, sophistication, and a very obvious abundance of money.

The stated purpose was threefold. First, it was a kickoff event to celebrate the U.S. congressional resolution declaring 2003 the Year of the Blues. Second, it was being filmed as part of Scorsese's upcoming, seven-part PBS series The Blues. All well and good and reason to celebrate, but somewhere among the celebrating, the powers that be were sending a message to Memphis, the self-proclaimed "Home of the Blues."

Who are these powers, and what is their message? I had to pay close attention to find the answers. Two weeks before I went to New York, I had the impression that the Memphis-based Blues Foundation was working with Seattle's Experience Music Project to produce the event. That's when things started to get confusing. After some frustrating phone calls, I realized that there was another player in the game: The Blues Music Foundation, also based in Seattle, Washington. The new foundation was an element of the show's third purpose: Profits from the show and other activities will go to the Blues Music Foundation, and that group will distribute money to various blues organizations and projects around the country.

Yes, the Memphis-based Blues Foundation has fallen on hard times and is languishing between executive directors. Is that sufficient reason to ignore it and start a whole new organization? Not unless there are other reasons, like personalities, power, politics, and, of course, money. The stated purpose of the new Blues Music Foundation is very similar to that of the 23-year-old Blues Foundation. But the Blues Foundation was surprisingly absent at the New York event, even though I was told by Memphis sources that it would be the recipient of some of the proceeds.

I've been backstage, on stage, or sitting in the audience for more than a dozen Handy Awards shows. I attended the Radio City Music Hall rehearsals and show with a certain sadness that Memphis was not officially involved.

The 6,000-seat venue held 4,000 patrons, out on a snowy night, eager to see this "Salute to the Blues." They were not disappointed, even though many eventually left before the end of the four-and-a-half hour show. Honeyboy Edwards, Ruth Brown, Robert Lockwood, Shemekia Copeland, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, B.B., Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Keb' Mo', Andrew Love, Levon Helm, Gregg Allman, Solomon Burke, Buddy Guy, Kim Wilson, and Dr. John are all Handy veterans who played their hearts in New York. It was indeed a success, but the question stands: Has the Home of the Blues now become Seattle?

David Simmons is past president of the Blues Foundation and founder of Blues & Legends Hall of Fame Museum.

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