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Listening to Ernest Withers

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I have a print of an Ernest Withers photograph hanging on my office wall. It's a portrait of Bilbo Brown, a sad-faced clown who worked with the circa-1940s entertainment troupe called the Brown Skin Follies. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this image of a wearied and wary entertainer, his brown face further darkened with cork, serves as a perfect avatar for other misguided African-American talents ranging from Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, and Sam Cooke to Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and T.I., both predicting and predicating their missteps by decades.

When Withers died at age 85 on October 15th, a huge portion of this city's history died with him. Google the Brown Skin Follies and scant information is returned; had you queried Withers on the subject, you'd have gotten remarkable tales about long-forgotten clubs like the Flamingo Room and the Hippodrome, two venues that were part of what the photographer coined "a separate America," where he could augment his policeman's salary making "fifty, sixty dollars a night — maybe a hundred, being seen, making pictures" for a buck-and-a-half apiece.

I doubt anyone wandering down Beale Street with a daiquiri in their hand this weekend could give a damn about the history of that storied district, but Withers, who rented a space for his studio at 333 Beale for the last decade, would often pause to explain, "When people go to blues shows now there's a combination of all people. But [in the old days] it was ninety-nine and forty-four hundredths percent African American people. It wasn't a mixed crowd.

"The Hippodrome was at the east end of Beale, between the Hunt-Phelan home and the Martin Luther King Labor Center. It was originally a skating rink. When that declined, they turned it into a one-night-stand facility. At other places, black people had to go up through the back to see the big acts," he said, referencing once-segregated venues like Ellis Auditorium and the Orpheum Theatre. "The acts were African-American, so why did the African-American people have to sit up in the gallery? So the Hippodrome was opened for blacks only. It held five or six thousand — and it was always a packed house."

Withers also told me stories about the Flamingo Club, which was located on Hernando Street between Beale and Gayoso. "For a number of years," he said, "the Flamingo Club was the legendary Hotel Men's Improvement Club, a group of Negro men who were waiters or what-have-you, who worked in the hotels. The management sold it to Clifford Miller, who changed its name to the Flamingo Club. This is after the early days of corn whiskey, but before the liquor-by-the-drink period. The club sold set-ups and you brought in your own bottle. Or you could make a deal with a bootlegger — go outside and buy a bottle of whiskey from him.

"White people," he explained, "used to come on Beale Street to the Palace Theatre on a special night for white attendance at the Midnight Ramble. At a given night at the Midnight Ramble, the black theater switched to whites only. They didn't put signs up. It was just understood: no black people. And the same thing would happen for black people at North Hall."

Despite segregation, Memphis' music scene in those days was wide open, and Withers captured it all: B.B. King and band lined up in front of their tour bus; Howlin' Wolf performing at a grocery store; Elvis Presley and Rufus Thomas backstage at a WDIA Goodwill Revue; Lionel Hampton onstage at the Hippodrome; the Finas Newborn Orchestra hamming it up at the Flamingo Room; the Teen Town Singers with a young Isaac Hayes; Ray Charles at North Hall; and hundreds more pictures that have become an indelible part of the American music psyche.

"Being backed by good players can strengthen your confidence," says Jeff Hulett, drummer-turned-guitar slinger, who plays a free show with his group Jeffrey James and the Haul at the Blue Monkey Thursday, October 25th.

"At first, it was kinda nerve-wracking, but now that I've been doing it awhile, I'm pretty comfortable with it," says the perennially good-natured Hulett, who formed the Haul two years ago after his other band, Snowglobe, went on hiatus.

"I picked up the guitar in 2000 or 2001 and learned a few chords from friends," Hulett says. "We started playing at Kudzu's, and eventually graduated to the Hi-Tone and the Buccaneer."

For more on the Haul, who plan to record a follow-up to their 2006 debut Win the National Championship this winter, go to MySpace.com/JeffreyJamesAndTheHaul.

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