For one week each year, there is a sudden, temporary population spike in the number of blues musicians on Beale Street. This year, it's January 16-20, and Delta blues cats, aficionados of the bottle-neck slide, and 12-bar and 16-bar enthusiasts of every variety will descend on Memphis from all over the globe to compete in the International Blues Challenge (IBC).
They will come from the Oslo Bluesklubb, the Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association, France Blues, and Mojo Station — and from Austin, Texas, and Tampa, Florida. Each year, for 34 years running, Memphis' own Blues Foundation has brought the most talented musicians from its affiliate organizations to the Bluff City to compete in the IBC.
In addition to hosting the IBC, the Blues Foundation has tasked itself with preserving and celebrating the legacy of the blues, a uniquely American musical tradition. The Foundation has 200 affiliated blues societies spread across the globe, and it is from that pool that the entrants for each year's IBC are drawn. Bands and solo performers compete in regional competitions held by Foundation affiliates and are whittled down until only the best and bluesiest bands remain. Those 200 blues players then head to Memphis for a week of wailing saxophones, screaming guitars, soulful harmonicas — and tearing up the dance floor — until, at last, the IBC judges — industry professionals distinguished by their knowledge and experience — crown a winner.
With 200 competitors in both the full-band and solo/duo categories, it's a near impossibility to interview every performer. One story among many is that of the Tampa-based Souliz Band featuring Sugar and Spice — returning this year for a second bite at the proverbial apple.
Last year, the sextet came within a hair's breadth of snagging the first-place prize in the IBC. They went home to Tampa with second place — second out of 200 competitors being nothing to scoff at — but this year, bassist/multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Tony Fullwood wants to win the ultimate prize. "We need to win first place. Second place is first-place loser," Fullwood says before he chuckles. "Second place is great, don't get me wrong. I'm just a type-A personality. I don't like to take a back seat."
Originally from upstate New York and with roots in jazz and fusion, the multi-instrumentalist took note of the talent on hand at the IBC last year. "There was some great competition there. Everybody had a different style, and I was quite impressed.
"To me, it's not about who's better; it's about what you do and how you do it," Fullwood says. "Everybody has a different style. Everybody has their own creative flow." Souliz Band's style, Fullwood says, tends to lean toward a Southern soul sound. But the blues is always an influence. "The singers, [sisters Myra and Velma Glover] their mother [Loretta Glover] was a blues singer," Fullwood says. "She was very prominent here in Tampa. She passed away onstage singing, actually."
Loretta passed on her serious vocal chops to her daughters, whose confident and heartfelt take on Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" at 2017's IBC elevated the now-classic soul song to a frenetic assurance.
"Of course, it's all one style," Fullwood says of jazz, soul, and R&B, all of which have a common root in the blues. "After you hit Virginia, everything coming down is basically blues until you hit the West Coast."
But the well-traveled bandleader of Souliz says he's excited to be in Memphis. His voice sounds determined and confident, like a boxer on the eve before a big match. "Just know that Souliz is coming back to town," Fullwood says. "And we need to have that Number One."
The 34th National Blues Challenge takes place in multiple venues on Beale Street, January 16th through 20th. (blues.org/international-blues-challenge/)