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The roots of so many of our musical genres can be traced to the banks of the Mississippi, starting, in all likelihood, with the "field hollers" of the slaves crying out for freedom under the brutal sun of the Delta.
Three cities along the river now recognized as America's Music Corridor (AMC)—New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis—hold the haunts and history of an astounding array of head-nodding, finger-snapping, hip-wriggling music. Musicians traveled up and down the mighty Mississippi by riverboat, spreading these genres—blues, jazz, ragtime, gospel, rock, R&B, rockabilly—from port to port. What begat what and who begat whom is grist for a lively debate, but as someone who should know once put it, "Look, man, it's all boogie." You tell 'em, Chuck Berry.
The trip through the AMC can begin in either St. Louis or New Orleans (Memphis is between them). We started in New Orleans and worked our way north.
Like native son Louis Armstrong, The City That Care Forgot is sprawling and complicated: larger than life, friendly, a little naughty and a little nice, wide open, smiling and devilish, utterly serious in its pursuit of fun. But don't think of it only as a jazz town; as much as any city in America, New Orleans has something for every musical taste.
Here's a suggestion on how to sample the musical bounty: Plan a "Ramblin' Night," a "Bourbon Street Night," and a "Quiet Night." (And don't even think about venturing out on any of them before 10 p.m.)
On Ramblin' Night, pick up the indispensable publication Offbeat and decide what kind of music you want to hear (zydeco, blues, jazz, rock, techno—you name it) and get away from the French Quarter.
Two places stand out: the original Tipitina's and Mid City Lanes. At Tipitina's, you get the best of both national and local acts—sometimes, as when Dr. John stops in to play piano, they're one and the same—as well as a statue of Henry Roeland Byrd, known locally as Professor Longhair, whose rolling piano style laid the foundation of rock music.
If Professor Longhair's playing contributed to the birth of rock, New Orleans-born Roy Brown's 1947 release "Good Rockin' Tonight" gets the nod from many as the first rock and roll record.
Mid City Lanes offers—you guessed it—bowling, along with some of the best live acts in the city. And make sure that on Ramblin' Night you also stop by the Lion's Den and hope that the club's owner, Irma Thomas, will be around to do a set.
One other important stop on Ramblin' Night is the Funky Butt. No, it's not as good a spot as Tipitina's or Mid City, but you owe it to yourself to tell your friends you went to the Funky Butt.
Because there is so much live music on Bourbon Street, try bouncing from one club to another in the ambulatory style favored by hundreds of drunken revelers who take advantage of the city's liberal open-container laws. On the night I did Bourbon, I caught a staggering variety of live music. The Jackson 5 was being covered in the Bourbon Street Blues Company. I heard "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" emanating from John Wehner's Famous Door at Bourbon and Conti streets. At Razzoo, a local band was doing the Stones' "Satisfaction."
In one respect, Bourbon Street couldn't be further from the roots of Jelly Roll Morton-Longhair-Armstrong-Domino New Orleans music, evoking as it does a monstrous out-of-control frat party. But it's a must stop because music is everywhere, and you're bound to hear some good stuff. I found it at the Funky Pirates blues club, where 485-pound Al Carson and the Blues Masters were getting down and dirty. (I didn't guess his weight; it came with the billing.)
For Quiet Night, I offer four options, in the hope that you can do two of them: the Palm Court, for fairly traditional jazz (the last remaining member of the Ink Spots is there on Thursday nights); Snug Harbor, for a more eclectic, avant-garde mix (I heard Davell Crawford, a piano player so talented that he segued brilliantly from "Summertime" into "Good Golly, Miss Molly"); Storyville, a club with enough talent to fill two stages—you can hear different music in different rooms—is where Armstrong first played; and the Hilton, where in the words of Bernie Cyrus, executive director of the Louisiana Music Commission, "That cat still wails," that cat being Pete Fountain.
All are in or close to the French Quarter, and all serve food. My advice: Eat first at one of about three dozen superb restaurants in the Quarter and then go to the clubs just for the music.
I expect to get struck by a lightning bolt but here goes: I'm not crazy about Graceland and, further, feel that Elvis's contributions to rock and roll are perpetually overstated. I humbly submit that Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had as much to do with spreading rock to the masses. That said, I know that when you're in Memphis you have to go to Graceland. Get that visit out of the way, and on Day Two it's time to rock.
Sun Studio won't knock you out when you pull up to it. "You're probably wondering how I'm going to give a tour of one room," said our guide, tour director Michael Conway. But it turns out to be a fascinating tour—first, because the place looks almost as it did 50 years ago when rock's pioneers came through the door to record with the legendary Sam Phillips ("These are the original floor tiles," Conway said, "so you're walking on holy ground"), and second, because several original audio recordings make you feel like you're back hanging with the legends.
A handsome Mississippi truck driver named Elvis first walked into Sun in the summer of 1953, a nervous 18-year-old who wanted to sing for Sam. The boss was not there but his secretary, Marion Keisker, taped the session and you can hear the King, untrained but passionate, giving it his all on "My Happiness."
One year later, in July 1954, Phillips matched the kid with Bill Black on stand-up bass and Scotty Moore on guitar and the group recorded "That's All Right, Mama." You can hear that session, too, as well as another recording Elvis made for Sun, most of which consists of Elvis laughing at the "Blue Suede Shoes" man, Carl Perkins, who was making faces at him.
But local music history goes far beyond Elvis. W.C. Handy, a serious composer and arranger, arrived in Memphis in 1905 and basically invented what might be called formal blues with songs like "Memphis Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "Harlem Blues," and, of course, "Beale Street Blues." The W.C. Handy House Museum, 352 Beale Street, preserves the house Handy lived in when he composed some of his most famous works.
And there is the fascinating history of Stax/Volt Records. While Motown was making "nice" soul music, Stax was keeping it a little low-down, a little nasty. Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, and the incomparable Otis Redding (even his peers referred to him thus) were Stax musicians. Isaac Hayes grew up poor and hard in Memphis and recorded there; so did Al Green, who was born in Forrest City, Ark., came to record in Memphis, wailed out a couple of immortal tunes like "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness," then saw the light and became a minister.
Memphis also came to be associated with one Riley King, a Mississippian who arrived in 1947 to become a DJ at WDIA, the first black-owned radio station in the country. His on-air handle was "The Beale Street Blues Boy," and so he received many letters addressed to B.B. (for Blues Boy) King. Thus, Riley gave way to B.B.
At night, Beale Street is the place to be. It's accessible—four blocks long, uncomplicated, cheap. "Free cover charge!" one barker oxymoronically put it on the night I visited. You don't need a guide; just drop in on the dozen or so clubs where live music is wailing.
The best act I saw was at the Rum Boogie Cafe, where a dynamite Deborah Coleman, who looks like an angel and plays blues guitar like the devil, fronted the Thrill Seekers. There are Elvis impersonators on Beale Street. You can see them at Legends. That's not the real spirit of Beale Street, though. I found that in the down-and-dirty blues played by the Carl Drew Blues Band—for tips—outside of a boarded-up pizza joint.
It's hard to understand why every major metropolis doesn't build a Walk of Fame in a hip section of town. (All right, Hollywood may have done something like that.) St. Louis's star-studded sidewalk is in the Loop District near Washington University. It's a virtual shrine to 20th-century music.
Linger over the Johnnie Johnson star; still a fixture in the St. Louis club scene, Johnson is the piano player who, on a legendary New Year's Eve gig in the early '50s, asked Chuck Berry to sit in on guitar with the Sir John Trio. Linger over the John Hartford star. He's the folk genius who wrote "Gentle on My Mind" and who personifies the AMC's river theme—he used to pilot a riverboat down the Mississippi during the day and perform on it at night. Linger over the Albert King star. He's the guitar wizard who played upside down and left-handed and was one of the regulars in East St. Louis's legendary 1950s R&B scene.
Berry's star is in a special place, directly in front of Blueberry Hill, the memorabilia-stocked club that lays claim to the country's best jukebox and in whose Duck Room Berry performs once a month. The stars on either side of Berry's belong to ragtime father Scott Joplin (who died unhappy and unappreciated) and actor John Goodman (can't quite figure that one out, considering that T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and even Stan Musial could've been honored there).
Two others with St. Louis roots have special spots in front of record stores. You'll find Miles Davis's star in front of Streetside Records, and Anna Mae Bullock's is in front of Baton Music. Anna Mae Bullock? She is undoubtedly better known as Tina Turner.
The St. Louis History Museum is in Forest Park, a short drive from Blueberry Hill; you've got to go—another free cover charge!—just for the Music History section. After you've soaked up the displays about Davis and Joplin, sit down at the audio station and punch in a selection of songs from St. Louis performers, everything from "Rescue Me" (by Fontella Bass, a legendary jazz, gospel, and R&B great) to saxman Jimmy Forrest doing "Night Train" to trumpeter Lester Bowie blowing his version of "Hello, Dolly"; the latter offering is so good that Carol Channing doesn't even enter your brainpan.
At night, it's not quite as simple to cover St. Louis's music scene as it is to cover Memphis's, but it can be done. Laclede's Landing, a section of town with cobblestone streets, cast-iron street lamps, and restored warehouses, has a few clubs, most notably Hannegan's, where the great saxophonist Oliver Sain can be heard from time to time.
The center of the St. Louis music scene is Soulard. The best-known spot is BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups and, yes, you can get all three there. (Keep in mind that BB's has nothing to do with B.B. King, just as Blueberry Hill has nothing to do with Fats Domino.) Any night of the week, the music at BB's will be good, and you might hear some oldies but goodies like guitarist Billy Peek (who asks the musical question "Can a White Boy Sing the Blues?") or Tommy Bankhead, who is known for taking the stage with both a guitar and a canister of oxygen.
Make sure you get to the Great Grizzly Bear, where you can pet Itchy the cat, talk over the local blues scene with Neal Thompson (who owns both the club and the cat), and catch the Soulard Blues Band, which has been together in various incarnations for two decades.
The SBB, one of 40 working blues bands in the city, travels far and wide (it recorded a live album in Stuttgart, Germany) but, according to harmonica player Jim McClaren, rarely plays in New Orleans or Memphis. "There's so much music in those cities," says McClaren, "that bands will play for almost nothing."
That might be bad for the musicians. But it's good for us.
Jack McCallum is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. For VIA, he has compared Venice, Italy, with the new Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.
Photography by Gail Mooney, Chris Sanders/Tony Stone, John Coletti/Index Stock, David Hall/Tony Stone
This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
The trip through America's Music Corridor, which can begin in either St. Louis or New Orleans (Memphis is between them), can be done by boat, car, or plane. I suggest a minimum of three days in New Orleans and two each in Memphis and St. Louis.
Contact your local AAA office for maps and TourBooks.
- New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1520 Sugar Bowl Dr., New Orleans, LA 70112. Telephone (800) 672-6124, www.nawlins.com.
- The Louisiana Music Commission Web site has information on local music events: www.louisianamusic.org.
- Memphis Visitors Information Center, 119 North Riverside Dr., Memphis, TN 38103, (901) 543-5333,
- St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, 1 Metropolitan Square, Suite 1100. St. Louis, MO 63102, (800) 916-0092, www.explorestlouis.com.