The Orpheum Theater
The W.C. Handy Awards weekend in Memphis is not any one activity but rather a set of vignettes that each participant individually designs. The Handys are the blues equivalent of the Grammys, but this is more than an awards ceremony and more than a music festival. It is a time to refresh the blues spirit. Over the years, the Blues Foundation has done a good job of growing the Handy Awards, this year’s ceremony was the 23rd. The show’s production, while not glitz and glamour, more closely reflects the nature of the blues, close and personal.
For many blues fans this is the event to attend. Nowhere else are so many blues stars assembled together at one time. In addition, the blues kings and queens are more accessible here, at the most prestigious annual blues gathering, than at many other venues. After a few visits to the Handys, one can expect to meet friends made from previous years. The highlights of each day alone make a visit worthwhile. Such events as the Handy Ceremony, the post-Handy All-Star jam, a chance meeting with Ike Turner or Charlie Musselwhite, and the Music Maker Relief Foundation Benefit, will fill the memory storehouse and photo scrapbook.
There was much anticipation before the ceremony began, some based on who won and some on who would be in attendance. Stars and fans gathered in front of the Orpheum Theater at the start of a night to honor the leaders of the profession and share their love with each other. A listing of the weekend’s participants can be found on the Blues Foundation’s web page, but that doesn’t touch on the emotions the weekend created.
Fans were waiting outside the Orpheum Theater to watch the arrival of some of the musicians. Early arrivals included Charlie Musselwhite, who had a case of harmonicas with him, and Roscoe Gordon. A media pass to the Backstage allowed one-on-one visits and interviews. Backstage was a place where greetings were exchanged between musicians who don’t cross paths that often. And it was a place where the musicians relaxed. Being in a room with the Handy nominees and presenters was access to an inner court of blues royalty.
Once inside the venerable Orpheum, the majesty of the old theater took over. But it was also a fun-filled night as fans looked for their favorite musicians and musicians sought out friends. Nominees and eventual Award winners mingled in the audience. The thrill of spotting a favorite artist or getting an autograph had the seasoned blues fan falling back to a younger time when heroes were on pedestals and were not as easy to approach. The artists were gracious in meeting fans, realizing what the personal contact means to a fan.
All eyes were on stage once the ceremony starts. Dr. John served as emcee for the second year and provided his Cajun laden patter to keep the audience entertained between acts and awards. A cadre of stars served as presenters. This year, action star Steven Segal served as a presenter. Later that night he went over to B.B. King’s club to jam with the band.
The Handy ceremony was taped and will be edited for release to public television stations. Public TV in Memphis has already broadcast the Awards ceremony. Its availability in other parts of the country will depend on the pressure/requests blues fans put on their local public TV stations.
Besides the awards, some of the genres best artists performed. Capping the evening was a closing act consisting of Roscoe Gordon, Little Milton, Ike Turner, B.B. King and Dr. John. A Handy historical moment, indeed. After the ceremony, the audience moved down Beale Street for the All-Star jam at the New Daisy Theater. While the clubs on Beale had entertainment, this was the place to catch so top-notch blues and catch some acts that might not be around later in the weekend. Jamming into the early morning hours were the likes of Shemekia Copeland, Bob Margolin, and Otis Taylor. Beale stayed alive ‘til 5 am for this weekend.
Many of the everyday fans filling the prime seats planned a vacation or took the opportunity to sightsee in conjunction with the Handys. Memphis is known as “the home of the blues” and “the birthplace of rock & roll.” Historic Beale Street served as the entertainment center during the weekend. The Blues Foundation, sponsors of the weekend, also provided seminars and social events. There were tours in and around Memphis to fill time before the music starts. A tour through the historic Sun Studio, home to the early recordings of blues and some rock could use up some morning time. The newly opened “Rock and Soul Museum” (an affiliate of the Smithsonian) provided an education into the music, and adjoining it was the Gibson Guitar’s factory in operation manufacturing the B.B. King Lucille model. Within an hour, one could also get to the Mississippi Delta region and visit locations from blues legends. Of course, Elvis Presley’s Graceland home was also on many itineraries.
Friday, the music took to the clubs on Beale Street. Otis Taylor, Louisiana Red, Ann Rabson were just some of the big names on the Street. The big event of the evening was a Muddy Waters tribute at the New Daisy Theater. Sidemen of the blues great joined in an evening of memories. Joining bandleader Bob Margolin was Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, Henry Gray, and Hubert Sumlin. Filling in on harmonica was Charlie Musselwhite. Later, Kid Ramos came out to jam with Sumlin.
Saturday afternoon was kids day at Handy Park. T.J. Wheeler from New Hampshire presented his “Blues in the School” program aimed at giving the youngsters an idea of the history and place of the blues in American society. Wheeler has received a Blues Foundation “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for his work and continues to work with school children. As part of the children’s program, the Gibson musical petting zoo was brought out, where the kids could try their skills on instruments like guitars and drums.
That evening, the New Daisy Theater was the site of a benefit for the Music Maker Relief Foundation. MMRF is a non-profit dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern musical traditions. They are a reminder of the tough life many blues musicians lead even today, without insurance or medical coverage. MMRF helps the artists gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. Hard though it is to imagine, many of these musicians are living in poverty and need food, shelter, medical care, and other assistance. MMRF also helps them with recordings and concert appearances. A roster of great MMRF players took to the stage and kept the audience clapping and shaking for hours. While not household names, Mudcat, Cootie Stark, Cool John Ferguson, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins and Jerry “Boogie” McCann, provided an evening of down-home solid blues.
Now add to the music, the cuisine on Beale and elsewhere in Memphis, and it was a full weekend. Activities carried on into Sunday, though by then the distant travelers must begin making their way home. But the weekend didn’t stop there; for some time to come, it will be the time to fill in friends on the events, share the memories, and show some photos.