Where the music came from by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 11/16/2009 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) Earlier this year I wrote about my dear departed friend, Jim Dickinson, and I received a link to this fascinating YouTube clip this week which features Jim speaking to the subject of where the unique Memphis sound originated.

Jim Dickinson
photo by Joe Teri

It explains a lot about the Memphis horn sound and the genesis of STAX records. Jim is still teaching us all music history, albeit after his death. As he said himself, "I may be dead but I am not gone."

Jim gives credit to horn player Packy Axton for bringing West Memphis' Plantation Inn sound across the river to Memphis and STAX recording, which was owned by his mother, Estelle, and uncle, Jim Stewart. STewart + AXton = STAX.

original STAX sign hangs in the Rumboogie Cafe
3rd and Beale Streets, Memphis

Check out this short clip of Jim Dickinson and thanks to Brad Webb of I55 Productions for the link:

The clip is a featured sneak peek from an upcoming release by True Story Pictures. In essence, Jim relates the story of the Plantation Inn which was across the Mississippi in West Memphis, Arkansas, a city which was originally dubbed Esperanza by the Spanish explorers who discovered it. In 1888, when the land there was replatted, they changed the name to West Memphis in order to cash in on highly valued Memphis timber. They then stamped their timber "West Memphis" and the name stuck.

This was once one of the largest neon signs in the South

The Plantation Inn was built by Morris Berger at the site of an old gambling hall sometime in the 1940's. In the early 1950's, West Memphis was "wide open" and it was possible for young people to enter the club(sometimes underage), buy drinks and hear live music. This was a rarity in the age of segregation and it was the first real exposure many white audiences had to such legitimate blues and R & B artists.

The Plantation Inn club was located adjacent to the site of one of the area's first Mexican restaurants, Pancho's, which began its life with hard dirt packed floors. Pancho's is still there in West Memphis, and has tile floors today. It was a favorite of Elvis Presley. Pancho's was opened by the Berger family in 1956, and the property is located between what were the two big highways leading into the town. Nine months after the restaurant opened, an 18 wheeler drove through it, demolishing the place. The Bergers closed the Plantation Inn, rebuilt Pancho's and built a new club, the El Toro, behind Pancho's. Later, another club, also called the Plantation Inn, was built in Memphis, but it has no relation to the one in West Memphis. The El Toro was later known as the Port of Broadway and then later(when I played there) the Duck 'Til Dawn.

Here's a link to the West Memphis Blues and Rhythm Society which features more history and photos of the Plantaton Inn:

During its heyday the Plantation Inn was loaded with great musicians including bandleaders Willie Michell (who went on to establish Memphis' Hi Records and record Al Green), Ben Branch and Gene "Bowlegs" Miller. Elvis is said to have stolen some of his moves from both Bowlegs and Calvin Newborn and he frequented the club in its early days.

Calvin Newborn flies in the Plantation Inn

Willie Mitchell, Plantation Inn days

Willie Mitchell in his office, with some gold Hi Records

Horn player Gene "Bowlegs" Miller

The vocal group from the Plantation inn was the Del Rios, featuring William Bell who went on to record such great STAX hits as 'You Don't Miss your Water(until your Well Runs Dry)'.

"The first song that I wrote was when I was with The Del Rios. I was like 14 years old but I was always putting my thoughts down on paper even before then because it was like an escape - a way of unleashing all the stuff.
We worked over at that place The Plantation Inn with The Del Rios. It was really wild over there. "

"There was some scene in The Blues Brothers movie, when they had the chicken wire across the front of the stage, and it was almost like that. They had a big guard rail around the stage, which kept the college kids from getting on... we had some good times."

William Bell

Danny's Club, which was right down the street from the Plantation Inn, actually had chicken wire on the stage to protect the musicians from beer bottles and other airborne projectiles. I have only played one club where there was chicken wire in front of the stage, but such places truly did exist.

STAX artist William Bell

Ben Branch's Operation Breadbasket Orchestra

Not only was Ben Branch's band, the Largos, a seminal influence on the STAX sound, but Ben Branch was the last person Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to before being shot at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. Just before he was shot, Rev. King leaned over the motel balcony railing and asked Ben Branch, the band's song leader and saxophonist, to play 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' at the meeting that night. He asked him to, "Play it pretty." Those were his last words.

Here's a PBS link to hear them play this beautiful gospel song:

Here's an excerpt from my friend, Robert Gordon's book, "It Came From Memphis" which is a truly superb look at the music and its origins. If you don't own a copy, buy one.

I saw Robert the other day at the funeral of our friend Dennis Brooks and had to also compliment him on his definitive book on Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters." God, what a great book! This is another "must have" book for any blues lover and it would make a great gift. My father gave me an autographed copy for Christmas...awesome gift, Dad.

My friend, author and filmmaker
Robert Gordon

I hope this book excerpt piques your interest in the subject of our musical origins and prompts you to read the extensive explanation in Robert Gordon's book and also to watch Jim Dickinson expound on the subject in the clip that is linked above.

On a related note, I have to take a moment to thank some folks that have kept the music alive, some of whom have recently perished without fanfare or proper recognition. I have played the largest number of benefit concerts in the past 3 months of my entire musical career. I am sincerely honored to be of help, but sad that there is so much sickness, death and suffering going on these days. Perhaps it is a function of my getting older, but regardless, I want to thank all my musical friends who have been so kind to offer their services so graciously and generously. Thanks also to the clubs who have allowed us to perform these benefit concerts, the kind folks at W. C. Handy Park, Preston and Carson Lamm of the Rumboogie Cafe on Beale and particularly Neil Heinz, owner of Neil's in Midtown.

Dennis Brooks, a blues man's friend

On November 29, a benefit is being held for my dear departed friend Dennis Brooks, who was a true friend of the blues. Over 20 acts will appear at Neil's in Memphis for this show and I will cover it all here on the American Blues Blog. The music will go on all day and night and I will be playing with Elmo Lee Thomas, Delta Joe Sanders, The Eric Hughes Band, The Reba Russell Band and my band, The Wampus Cats.

Here's the Memphis Commercial Appeal's article on Dennis:

Last Sunday was the benefit for our fallen brother, bassist Tommy Delfin, who was a noted member of Eddie Harrison's Short Cuts and a stalwart of Beale Street. Despite his diminishing health, I constantly saw Tommy lugging his bass from clubs down to Handy Park where he played with joy, albeit only for tips and the occasional shot of tequila. He was a superb bassist and an excellent friend and he is missed by friends and fans alike.

Yesterday we played a benefit in Handy Park for my old friend Fred "Good Guitar Playin'"Sanders, whose record was mentioned on last weeks blog about I55 Productions.

Fred "Good Guitar Playin'" Sanders

Fred has just undergone lung surgery and now chemotherapy, but he got on stage and sang and played some great guitar, just like back in the old days when he played in my band during our downtown gigs at Prince Mongo's Pizza. Fred and I laughed about those gigs today...great times.

Fred Sanders back in Handy Park after recent lung surgery

Phil Durham and Danny Cochran play for our friend
Fred Sanders(who is seated behind the stage)
photo by Melody Henderson Cummings

Fred is a formidable talent and the older musicians in town always looked up to him, not only for his talent but also the fact that he was one of the few guys any of us knew that had a steady gig before the return of all the clubs to Beale Street in the 1980's. Fred played at Club Paradise for years and then at Blues Alley until it closed.

Blind Mississippi Morris and the Pocket Rockets play
as Fred watches the fun
photo by Melody Henderson Cummings

Fred and Evelyn Young(who played sax with B.B. King) and Joe Turner would often come from Blues Alley on Front Street to my after hours gig at Lou's Place, downstairs in the alley and we would jam sometimes until sunrise just for the joy of playing.

Here's a little excerpt on Fred from one of the Blue Mondays we all have played for KASU radio at the Depot Diner in Newport, Arkansas:

"Fred Sanders, 2007 W.C. Handy Award Winner. Fred Sanders was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1939 to a musical family. Fred was hired as staff guitarist for the world famous Club Paradise. During his seven year tenure at the club, he played with B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Albert King, and many others. In the mid 70's, when the blues was mainly underground and records were hard to find, Fred Sanders jammed at the Blues Alley on #1 Beale Street. Despite the lean years, Fred didn't turn his back to the blues. Instead, he continued to work hard to help keep the blues alive; Fred was also a member of The Memphis Blues Caravan and toured worldwide. He has played with Duke Ellington's Orchestra, Count Basie's Band, Buddy Rich, and Johnny Taylor, to name a few. Over the years, Fred has been a staple of the Beale Street scene, and on nice days, you can still catch him live in W.C. Handy Park."

Mickey Rogers in Willie Foster's band

This week I learned from Brad Webb (I55 Productions, BlindMississippi Morris) that Mickey Rogers, who was the guitarist in Willie Foster's band, was beaten, robbed and stabbed in the back in his driveway in Greenville, Mississippi, this week. Our best wishes go out to him and his family. He is a fine guitarist and a kind human being. Mick and I both played on Mr. Willie's last CD, "My Inspiration." We wish you a speedy recovery and hope you get out of the hospital soon, Mickey. Brad has informed me that we will be having a benefit for Mickey in the coming weeks, probably to be held in Handy Park on Beale Street.

The unsung heroes of the blues, guys like Tommy Delfin, Fred Sanders, the late John Paul Reagor, Dennis Brooks and so many more are the shoulders upon which rests our music tourism and the source of a great deal of entertainment and enjoyment. I will grant you that the businessmen who have invested their time and money into the clubs have certainly taken chances and contributed to the survival of the blues, but the guys that have slogged in the trenches with little remuneration and lived their lives solely for the love of music are no less responsible in their own way for furthering our music tradition. All of them are to be thanked and praised, both for providing opportunity, gigs and venues and for laying down the lowdown blues from the heart.


©2009, Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

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