Ever since the late twenties -- when labels like Vocalion, Paramount, Victor, and Okeh sent scouts south to record new talent -- The Peabody hotel has been a hub for blues music. The Memphis Jug Band and local artists like Furry Lewis and Frank Stokes, as well as regional stars like Tommy Johnson, made their first recordings in hotel rooms here. In the late '40s, a teen-aged Ike Turner worked at The Peabody, manning the elevators for a few years before Joe Bihari and Sam Phillips gave him his start in the music biz.
It may be a new century, but you can once again hear the blues in The Peabody -- for the rest of January, at least -- as harmonica master "Blind Mississippi Morris" Cummings and guitarist Brad Webb anchor Capriccio's Corner Bar in the hotel three nights a week.
"We got back from a tour in England on October 17th, and we started at The Peabody a week later," recalls Webb, a fan of the atmosphere at the Corner Bar. "It's more lower-volume -- no drum, no bass, but we do have Robert Nighthawk playing the grand piano. So many people come in and say, 'Ya'll are the real blues,' and buy our CDs. Reba Russell has dropped by to sing with us, and folks from the Blues Foundation come in regularly. It's a little different than Beale Street."
Cummings agrees: "It's really laid-back, like hanging out in someone's den. People watch the game, then they wanna hear us do our thing. It's a lot of fun."
Occasionally, they've looked out into the audience and seen Mayor Herenton enjoying the show. "He drops in on Thursday nights, usually with Ben Hooks," Webb says. "The first time he came, he saw these two white guys on stage, and I know he was wondering who was playing harp. Then he finally saw Morris singing, and he had a big smile on his face. He gets a real kick out of the song 'What Makes Men Go Crazy.' He knows what that song is about!"
It looks like 2004 is going to be a busy year for Cummings and Webb. In March, they'll return to England, then make a trip back to Italy in May. "Europe is so different," Cummings says. "You've got so many people who love the blues. They treat you like gold."
Cummings and Webb hope to get a new album out this year too. "We're just three tunes shy of having a record," Webb says. He's recorded Cummings in his Raleigh-based analog studio, along with blues guitarist Earl "The Pearl" Banks, drummer Teenie Hodges, and 16-year-old guitar player Josh Roberts. Universal Records, which released a live performance of the duo as part of its "Along the Blues Highway" series, also approached them about a DVD project -- "reality blues gigs," according to Webb.
That project would be right up Cummings' alley. "I want to get off in the movie scene and do more commercials because it pays good money," the harp player says. "Hopefully, in 2004, God's gonna be studying my plans."
Catch Blind Mississippi Morris and Brad Webb at the Corner Bar on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, starting at 8:30 p.m.
Jim Dickinson has been busy in his own barn studio (Coldwater, Mississippi's Zebra Ranch) this winter. The famed musician has been co-producing a project with Jim Blake that's close to the heart of many Memphians -- an album by erstwhile wrestler Nate "The Rat" Whitlock.
"Oh, he's a juicer. He can bleed at the drop of a hat," Dickinson, a major wrestling fan, proclaims. "But he's also a guitar player. He played in Black Oak Arkansas for a while, and, of course, his older brother is Bobby Whitlock [of Derek and the Dominoes fame]. You can hear a little Jim Dandy in his voice. He's really bellicose, not like his brother Bobby. He sounds kinda like if Sivad tried to sing light opera."
According to Dickinson, this project has been in the planning stages for years. "Jim Blake was truly the father of the wrestling video," he says, explaining that Blake produced Jerry "The King" Lawler's "Bad News" video long before Cyndi Lauper joined forces with Captain Lou Albano. And, of course, Blake was the proprietor of the local label Barbarian Records, which provided a musical outlet for Lawler and other wrestlers-cum-singers.
"You know," Dickinson muses, "you see wrestlers trying to make records, but you never see rock-and-rollers trying to wrestle. In Nate's case, it's hard to tell which came first. You've gotta hear his version of 'Eve of Destruction.' I don't know if it can stop the war, but it's guaranteed to piss off a lot of Republicans!"
Dickinson's sons, guitarist Luther and drummer Cody, are playing on Whitlock's sessions, along with Lucero bassist John Stubblefield. The album's working title? "I want to call it Rat On," Dickinson says mischievously.