Just got back from an amazing 10-day trip to the South, from New Orleans to Memphis on the Blues Trail, seeing and recording music along the way.
Our group at Fats Domino’s publishing house in New Orleans
We started in New Orleans where stayed at the Hotel Villa Convento (AKA House of the Rising Sun). It was pouring rain when we got there, and spooky foggy when we got up the next day. We walked out to the end of a point at the inlet of the Industrial Canal onto the Mississippi River that locals call The End of the World, which was really cool.
After a great breakfast in the French Quarter (grits!), we went back to the hotel to work on some of the music we’re going to be recording. We started with St. James Infirmary Blues, Let the Four Winds Blow and Natchez Burning. We were joined by Wendell Brunion, a local trumpeter who plays a lot with Dr. John. Then we took a tour of the lower 9th ward, Fats Domino’s publishing house, and the site of the Battle of New Orleans.
Delfeayo Marsalis & his Uptown Orchestra
That night was my favorite concert of all of them, which was Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Orchestra at Snug Harbor. He’s a trombonist who grew up in New Orleans (his dad is Ellis, and his brothers are Branford and Wynton). Of course, we also went to Preservation Hall while in New Orleans to see some great, traditional jazz and had coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde.
Then we went on to Natchez; it was a nice town, kind of reminded me of Petaluma (a local, historic town here in Sonoma County). We stayed at this hotel called the Eola; really amazing to see the Rhythm Night Club museum and learn about Natchez burning, memorialized in the Howlin’ Wolf song.
Delta Blues Man Charley Patton’s gravestone in Indianola, Mississippi
In Indianola, we visited the BB King Museum, which was great because we learned a lot about the music and the history of the delta blues, and we saw Charley Patton’s grave. Charley Patton is called “The Father of the Delta Blues.” Unfortunately, no music on this stop.
On the way to Clarksdale, we visited the Delta Blues Museum and had lunch at Morgan Freeman’s club, Ground Zero. By now, we were really getting a sense of how history, and struggles in the segregated south, influenced this music.
The Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, pretty much the coolest place ever
We went on to Clarksdale to stay for two nights at the Shack Up Inn, pretty much the coolest place ever. It’s this collection of sharecropper shacks, the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings from a working plantation. That night, we had a really good rehearsal on the stage in main building of the Shack Up, followed by our recording session. The recordings came out ok, but mostly allowed us to play together and figure out balances, parts, etc. Plus, the hotel guests seemed to like us.
For music, we saw and met Watermelon Slim, a great slide guitarist and a killer harmonica player. We then saw him again at dinner and watched these two men play some great blues and it was an extremely fun night.
Memphis in the morning
Our last four days were spent in Memphis, and everything about Memphis was amazing. Amazing music at BB King’s club every night and incredible tours during the day. We ate and shopped on Beale Street, where I bought my first vinyl records at a store called Memphis Music Records Tapes & Souvenirs: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s The Message and Al Green’s Still in Love With You).
One of the highlights was our tour of Stax Records, the south’s answer to the Detroit sound of Motown. I was blown away by the talent on the Stax label, including Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers. But it also features other soul artists like Al Green, Ike & Tina Turner (I got Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl here).
We saw footage of Otis Redding rocking the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; he was killed in a plane crash in 1968 with his biggest hit, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, released after his death. We were told that this song wasn’t finished at the time of his death, but the Stax house band, Booker T & the MG’s, helped write it. One of our guides told us that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis that year (1968) led to riots and the eventual end of the label.
On our second day in Memphis, we started the day with a tour of the Gibson Guitar Beale Street Retail Center, which was awesome, and then we went to the legendary Sun Recording Studio. Recording at Sun Records was an unreal experience and can only be described as such. Learning all about Sun Records and Stax Records was eye opening in terms of how they both got started.
We recorded in legendary Sun Studios in Memphis
Here’s how our group’s leader, Sonoma Academy Musical Director Doug Gallagher, summed up our recording experience (I played drums and acoustic bass) at Sun Records (I couldn’t have said it any better myself):
The nerves were high and it was a beautiful thing to come together and step past the touristy awe of being in that particular place, and to do something musical, to actually focus our attention and be musicians, to play with our hearts and minds and make something of our musical selves, as a group, as individuals, there, in that funky little room where some of the greatest musicians in rock n roll history-Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis-laid down there first tracks.
I’ll upload an .mp3 of our recording session as soon as we have a chance to mix it. We finished off our time in Memphis with a visit to Graceland…a little corny, but still awesome, nonetheless.
Overall, as a musician, I consider this pretty much the trip of a lifetime and strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in rock, R & B, hip-hop, even just American culture, because this music is our heritage music. I will definitely go back and look forward to more recording in Memphis one day.