A record number of blues musicians is scheduled to perform at the 26th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards, held at the Cook Convention Center on Thursday, May 5th. The artists expected to appear run the gamut from local faves (Little Milton and The Bo-Keys), Mississippi originators (Jessie Mae Hemphill and David "Honeyboy" Edwards), ax grinders (Hubert Sumlin and Guitar Shorty), harp blowers (James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite), piano players (Ike Turner and Pinetop Perkins) on through gospel shouters (Mavis Staples) and soul-blues powerhouses (Shemekia Copeland and Bobby Rush). There is something for everyone at this year's awards.
"Some of these artists wouldn't miss it," says Jay Sieleman, executive director of The Blues Foundation, the Memphis-based nonprofit behind the event. "A lot of them don't typically get to hang out together and see old friends or watch each other perform, so they look forward to it. We're thankful they want to come, and we do our best to treat them as well as possible."
This year marks the second year the Handy Awards has forsaken former home The Orpheum for a more intimate setting anchored by a sit-down dinner. "It was really [board president] Kevin Kane's idea to change our format. He wanted to make the event more social and give attendees the ability to move around," Sieleman says, comparing the event to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
"There are so many different aspects to the Handys now," Sieleman continues. "We have over 40 nominees performing this year, and when they're not playing, the nominees sit at tables among their fans instead of hiding out backstage. Everything's more relaxed."
But that's not the only change at the Handy Awards. This year, only members of the Blues Foundation were allowed to vote for nominees. "We did that for two reasons," Sieleman explains. "We wanted to reward members and encourage new membership. It certainly had that effect. We got approximately 400 new members during the voting time frame this year."
Things certainly do seem to be looking up for the nonprofit, which, just a few years ago, was mired in debt and considering a move out of Memphis for a new home in Baton Rouge. "In terms of our programs -- the International Blues Challenge and the Handy Awards -- and the number of our affiliates, we're in good shape," Sieleman says. The Blues Foundation currently has 136 affiliate organizations -- a network of blues societies spread throughout the world -- which doubles the number of affiliates in 2003.
"But we continue to be underfunded and understaffed," he cautions. "Like many nonprofits, our corporate sponsorship and government support have gone down. Improving our programming -- revamping the Handys and getting the IBC going strong -- has helped us keep awareness up while cutting expenses."
Blues fans can help the Blues Foundation by purchasing advance tickets for the 26th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards. The cost ($100 per person) includes admission to the 5:30 p.m. pre-party, a seated dinner, and all the gritty, down-home blues your ears can handle. For more information, go to blues.org.
Little Milton's new album, Think of Me, won't be eligible for a Handy Award until 2006, but that's no reason to overlook the disc, his first for Telarc. "I'm reaching for a wider audience," the artist explains. "I'm going with a new company [Telarc], and they're already on the right side of the tracks, getting the white audience and wider exposure."
More rock than soul and more stripped-down than his last offerings on Malaco Records, Think of Me pushes the boundaries of the blues, eschewing traditional horn blasts for Jimi Hendrix-inspired excursions.
"Horns have traditionally been part of my work, but if you notice, you don't hear a lot of horns [on contemporary records] unless they're computerized. I don't like that," Little Milton says. "There's one thing about a machine: You can't program soul or feeling into it. So rather than make this an expensive production with a live horn section, we decided to do the album this way. With the songs we chose to do and the times like they are now, it's gonna turn heads and ears regardless. We maintain the Little Milton identity and the Little Milton flavor and come up with a refreshing sound on our own."
In addition to the Handy Awards, Little Milton will be appearing at the Renaissance Gala benefiting LeMoyne-Owen College Saturday, April 23rd, at the Cook Convention Center. Other artists on the gala's bill include Hank Crawford, The Soul Children, Con Funk Shun, Latimore, and Preston Shannon. •