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COMMENTARY: THE HARDEST WORKING MAN IN SHOW BIZ

COMMENTARY: THE HARDEST WORKING MAN IN SHOW BIZ

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After getting out of the army in 1946, Ernest Withers took his first photo of a bluesman, Memphis Slim, who was visiting from France and playing on Beale St. “He had a buddy he played with who played so bad they called him ‘Slopjaw.’ I took the photo for him to send back to Paris. His daddy had seven wives show up at his funeral!” Mr. Withers laughs today. Fifty-eight years later, Withers is going strong, still taking pictures every day and reminiscing about the sights and sounds he has seen and heard in his almost sixty year photography career.

Last week Withers picked up the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service of Journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, an award reserved for the likes of Winston Churchill and Gloria Steinem. This week, Withers will be one of eighteen recipients of the Keeping the Blues Alive Awards from the Blues Foundation. Blues Foundation Director of Administration Jay Sieleman proudly commented, “Clearly Dr. Withers has long been deserving of this award. His photographs--blues and otherwise--rank up there with the greatest of all times. The Keeping the Blues Alive Awards are proving to be an uplifting experience because people like Dr. Withers and others like him rarely get notice for their work.” (The Awards luncheon is open to the public Saturday at the Gibson Lounge at 11:00 a.m. but is sold out).

Awards are not the only thing in Withers’ life right now. He has just released another volume of amazing photographs entitled Negro League Baseball, yet another feather in his cap of great American genre photo books, which also includes Pictures Tell the Story and The Memphis Blues Again. Negro League Baseball begins with an introduction by the “Say Hey Kid” Willie Mays. “He knows me very, very well. I was taking his picture when he was just a child. The scouts were looking at William Perry in Birmingham, and then they saw Willie Mays and picked him out as well.” Upcoming book signings for Withers include one in Boston at Panoptican, one in New York at the International Center for Photography in mid-February, as well as one here in Memphis at Burke’s Books at an undetermined date.

Withers is the living history of Memphis as well as Beale St., having spent the last sixty years working on the street or in the nightclubs. Withers has taken entertainment photos (as well as others) from the 1950s and 1960s up until today for national newspapers like The Chicago Defenderand Memphis’ Tri-State Defender. He also snapped romantic shots for on-the-spot sales at the clubs on Beale St. back when it was the center of African-American nightlife for the South. It is virtually impossible to write a book on Memphis history (music, civil rights or other) or open a museum on Memphis history in the 20th century without tapping into Withers’ archives, which grow every day as he continues to take the pictures that tells the story.

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