Folks can complain all they want about the dearth of good live music in this town -- Monday through Wednesday, that is. But come Thursday, they'd better shut up and head on over to Wild Bill's, the city's friendliest juke joint. Located just north of Rhodes College at the intersection of Vollintine Avenue and Avalon Street, Wild Bill's packs 'em in four nights a week.
Most nights, the club is so crowded that patrons have to wait for William Story -- Wild Bill himself -- to clear a path for the door, which opens onto the dance floor. Until then, you stand outside, a $5 bill in hand, getting your last few breaths of fresh air before diving into the steamy, smoke-drenched sweatbox of a club. Just 70 feet deep, Wild Bill's nevertheless sees at least 100 patrons on any given night.
The setup is simple: Three rows of tables that run the length of the room, with a bandstand just inside the front door and a bar and jukebox in the back. The walls are painted a cheerful orange, which complements the paintings and photographs of Bill and his patrons, which are thumbtacked throughout the room. A ceiling fan keeps time above the band, while Bill watches over the scene from his stool just inside the front door.
Students from Rhodes come over, as do older residents from the surrounding Klondike and Hyde Park areas. And, as Bill points out, "We have people in from overseas every week." It's hardly a surprise. Wild Bill's has been listed in everything from The New York Times' "Sophisticated Traveler" section to Shangri-La Records' Kreature Comforts' Lowlife Guide to Memphis. As one of the only "sure things" happening in Memphis, Bill's has become an international destination.
Most nights, the house band, the Hollywood All-Stars, provide the music at Wild Bill's. Led by bassist Melvin Lee, the loosely knit group has been a pivotal force on the local blues scene for the past two decades. Guitarists come and go, but Lee -- along with drummer Don Valentine -- holds down the rhythm section with pride. The group plays a variety of music, from hard-hitting, gutbucket blues to unadulterated Memphis soul.
Buddy and his friend Mike are the two waiters at Wild Bill's, clean-cut first-name-only men who cater to the neighborhood crowd. It's up to them to keep the party rolling, and they do their best in the cramped room, moving at least six cases of beer a night. And the kitchen is open until 2 a.m., selling cheeseburgers, hot wings, and fish sandwiches to a hungry late-night crowd.
One recent Saturday night, it occurred to me that I've clocked in nearly 1,000 hours here over the years, but I don't know much about the man at the door at all. I approach him at his post, and after a shouted conversation, arrange a meeting for the next afternoon.
I am surprised to see nearly as many cars parked outside Wild Bill's on Sunday afternoon as there were the night before. Inside, I notice a dozen people enjoying a soul-food luncheon: fried chicken, greens, field peas, and cornbread. Wild Bill is seated on a stool at the bar, drinking a cup of coffee. I realize that in all those nights of drinking and dancing, I've never seen him truly relaxed before. He waves me over, and we begin to talk.
"Not too many people know my story," Bill says with a wink. He sips his coffee and sighs, then sets it back onto the bar, wiped spotless after a busy night. "I was born down in New Albany, Mississippi," Bill says. "When I was growing up down there, they had a little racetrack. I was just 7 or 8 years old, and I ran the rest of those kids down. That's why they call me Wild Bill," he says with a sly smile.
Bill moved up the Delta to Memphis in 1937. "The high water ran me away," he says, referring to the devastating Mississippi River flood of that year, "and I've been in Memphis ever since. I started driving a cab in '48, and I haven't retired from that yet. I'm a co-owner of Citywide Cabs, and that keeps me pretty tied up."
Bill Story has been running nightclubs since 1964. "I've always loved music," he claims. "I never wanted to play. I just like to sit back and enjoy it. My first club was at 2110 Chelsea, not too far from here," he recalls. "It's been so long that I can hardly remember what it was called The Pink Cat -- that's it. Then I had a club called the L&H on Avery Street. When I left there, I came here, and that was 10 years ago."
For a man who's spent a lifetime inside nightclubs, Bill has little to say about the scene. "We have as many white people coming in here as we do black. And they mix well. We don't have any trouble," he says. I ask him about a few legendary juke joints on the Memphis scene -- Club Manhattan and the Plantation Inn -- but Bill shrugs in reply. "I don't have time to go anywhere else in Memphis," he says. "I've never even been to the casinos. I went to the dog track a few times when it first opened, but never went back."
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.