Earl the Pearl and the Peoples of the Blues and more by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 9/06/2010 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) This week brings a fun gig with Earl the Pearl and the Peoples of the Blues down at Murphy's Oyster Bar in Midtown(photo of Earl Banks above, from facebook by Michael Alago). We played on a Saturday afternoon, had a splendid time and, it being the week commemorating the death of Elvis(what is known locally as Dead Elvis Week), we were visited by a very thin Elvis who was invited to the stage but did not utter. I think he was just there for beers.

I don't want to venture a caption for this picture.
Use your imagination.

Friday night I ventured down through the delta with my brother and played at Ground Zero, Clarksdale, Mississippi, to play with the Reba Russell Band. We got lots of kind feedback from friends around the world who tuned in on their popular live stream.
We drove by the famous Blue & White Restaurant in Tunica, Mississippi, a diner which has been in business there since 1937(you can check them out at Road Famous for chicken and dumplings and fried dill pickles(which were invented at the nearby "Hollywood").

The Hollywood and it's pianist, Miriam Wilkins, were immortalized in the hit song, "Walking in Memphis" by Mark Cohn. Here's a picture inside The Hollywood where my buddy Steve Reid plays every Friday and Saturday night. The original 1856 commissary building, built of cypress, was destroyed by a fire in 1983, but they have moved the business to yet another cool, old commissary building near Robinsonville, Mississippi. It is a highly recommended stop for food, libations and music.

The Reba Russell Band, photo by Jay Moore

Here is a Ground Zero shot taken by my friend, Jay Moore, of Razor Blade sitting in with the band. He is, well, sharp as usual and in fine voice. After a long, enjoyable night we journey north up Highway 61 to Memphis.

Murphy's Public House, Madison Avenue, Memphis

On Saturday, we arise with a clatter and travel over to Murphy's, which has been in business for 29 years. Back in it's early days when it was run by Russell George, a local restaurateur and friend, I used to go there and sit in with Don McMinn and his fine blues band. Shortly thereafter, Don went on to front the house band at the Rumboogie Cafe on Beale Street for many years. It was an interesting juxtaposition as I played a gig with Papa Don McMinn on Thursday night at the Hyatt hotel. His sons, Doug, on drums, and Rome, on bass, accompanied him and the Night Rain band did an admirable job for the fans. More on Don in an upcoming interview with American Blues News.

Papa Don McMinn, unknown football player, Rome McMinn
photo by the author at the Hyatt Hotel, Memphis

Murphy's is a small, intimate place which has been known throughout the years for featuring all types of music. Image above left by coolbreezeken.

Dennis Falanga, drummer, is the son of a Big Band musician

The next day we arose and headed for midtown and a gig with Earl the Pearl's fine band. I was greeted by my old friends with whom I have played many nights both in Memphis and on the road in various mid-south venues.

Earl the Pearl and the Peoples of the Blues
back row: Freddie Harris, Melvin Lee, Dennis Falanga
front row: Earl the Pearl Banks, Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Photo by my friend, Lisa McGaughran

Often I played in Earl's band with some of the finest old school blues and R & B players in town, including members of the famous Hi Rhythm Section, including drummer Howard Grimes and bassist Leroy "Flick" Hodges. These guys played on most of the old Al Green hits that came out of Memphis as well as tons of stuff that Willie Mitchell recorded.

Melvin Lee on bass is unbeatable in the blues.

B.B. King, my friend Dr. Herman Green, sax, Melvin Lee Green, bass
photo from Free World jams

It's really difficult to express with words how great the musicianship of Melvin Lee really comes across on stage. Although he has played big venues all over the world, he is as kind and down to earth as anyone you would ever meet. He has been my friend for many years and I have been honored to play on stage with him many nights. When I was touring Belgium with Reba Russell a couple of years ago, several people asked me about Dr. Melvin Lee when they learned I was from Memphis. He's just that good.

His bass playing is classic blues, low, deep, perfectly executed and inventive without ever being obstreperous, distracting or out of place. It is in a word, just perfect. He leads the band steadily with loping, beautiful bass lines that you have come to know from so many classic records from the past century. Although it is not really a perfect comparison, he reminds me of a Memphis version of Jack Meyers. It all comes from his heart and he performs seemingly effortlessly.

Melvin Lee, you are the hero of many a Memphis musician. The folks that have the pleasure of hearing you play at Wild Bill's likely don't know what a famous bassist you are, but they always know how great you sound.

In November we reported on Earl Banks winning of a W.C. Handy Heritage Music Award in the Authentic Beale Street Musician category. Here's a link to that American Blues News article:

Earl the Pearl is a classic performer of Memphis Blues, the slick, slightly more sophisticated sound of a music that sprang out of a cotton field but was refined and dressed up in the big city during it's migration north to Chicago and then onto the world stage. This is the blues of B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Milton and so many other great southern post-WWII bluesmen. This music benefited from the influences of jazz and big band that were heard in Memphis during the 1940's. The more lush arrangements and slightly more complex chord changes are a hallmark, even when the music is performed by a 5 piece band.

Earl moves easily from Albert King numbers to Willie Mitchell instrumentals and touches on the Birmingham Boys' "Crosscut Saw" which was written here in Memphis. Earl is a veteran of all the old blues clubs and his seasoned expertise shines through during his performances. Earl has been a mainstay in Memphis and continues to perform throughout the region, occasionally gigging at Clarksdale's Ground Zero for appreciative crowds.

Earl the Pearl and Melvin Lee
before the gig

The gig went smoothly and I was sad to see my friends leave, several departing to play other gigs that night. Melvin Lee was headed for Wild Bill's on Vollentine for a late evening of performing and I headed downtown to play Memphis filmmaker Willy Bearden's birthday bash at his building on Court Street and Fourth. Wild Bill's is one of the last legitimate jukes in Memphis. Despite it's location in a sketchy neighborhood, the club offers cold 40 ounce beers and dancing every night. It has always been safe as Wild Bill himself, even at over 70 years old was never shy about pulling his pistol and throwing out anybody who started any mess. Bill passed away last year and his family still runs the club true to form. It is a must see location during a trip to Memphis and the music cannot be beaten. There is a happy racially mixed crowd in the club every night enjoying the music, dancing and partying down. It is an oasis for the spirit in what was once a polarized city.

After leaving Murphy's we drove down to Willy Bearden's 60th birthday party during which Willy played for his assembled friends, performing with the esteemed Ernestine and Hazel's Band of which I am a member. It was a hot summer night and the band included John Clary on horn and a slew of other musical guests who dropped in for the occasion. Willy B. produced and directed the film release "One Came Home" which appeared in theaters this year and nominated for numerous awards. My brother I appear in the film, but only in the credits as Willy said he wanted to thank us for our support and encouragement, a magnanimous act of a friend. He is a genuinely beautiful and kind artistic human being and it has been a delight to be his bandmate and an honor to be counted as his friend. Willy sang and played guitar throughout the night, at one point joined by his daughter, actress Savannah Bearden, who sang a number with her father.


© Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms, 2010



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American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

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