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Stomp 2006 Review: Memphis for The Record, Troy Record

Memphis for The Record
5/26/06

By Don Wilcock

“I was with Dr. Martin Luther King the day he was shot.”

No sooner had cab driver Charles Cabbage said those words than he turned the corner, and there it was, the Lorraine Motel on the edge of downtown Memphis. A vintage DeSoto and Cadillac were parked below the railing where King’s body fell. A wreath of plastic flowers marked the spot. Only the cement block stained with the civil rights leader’s blood had been removed. The scene was painfully intact, now the centerpiece of the National Civil Rights Museum.

“I was more militant then,” said Cabbage, referring to his work with the Southern Baptist Leadership Conference. Who would have guessed? His smile had filled the cab and was bright enough to require sunglasses. On the short ride from the Blues Foundation we talked typical cab ride talk. Wasn’t the weather gorgeous? He’d rather he had the day off. And, yes, Memphis has come a long way in a very short time.

They removed not only the blood stains but the life blood that this racial assassination took from Memphis and from America. Some say it’s what killed Otis Redding’s Stax-Volt Records, damaged The Hi Studio’s future and changed the face of soul music for decades. But now The Stax-Volt Studios are a beautiful museum, and even The Civil Rights Museum’s life size projections of police hosing African Americans in the 1954 Little Rock riots look fuzzy in black and white. The view of the King bedroom through giant glass windows seems as stale as the cigarette butts in the ash tray. The city that gave birth to the blues is singing more than the blues today.

I’ve never seen a city rebound so far so fast. Think of what’s happened in Troy’s revitalization but in a city several times its size in a time frame of less than 10 years. My wife and I took a horse and buggy ride through the streets of downtown from historic Beale Street to the Cook Convention Center, the new home of the Blues Music Awards. The driver was Norwegian, a displaced New Orleans resident literally blown north by Hurricane Katrina.

Oh, and the music! The Beale Street Music Festival had presented in one weekend everyone from B. B. King to Bryan Adams, Jerry Lee Lewis to the Disco Biscuits. No sooner had the tents come down on that event than the Ponderosa Stomp took over the Gibson Guitar Museum for a three-day fundraiser to benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and MusiCares.

This extremely eclectic mini-festival was organized by Dr. Ike, an anesthesiologist with Harpo Marx hair, an eight-inch fez with tassel and a t-shirt that said “Shalom, y’all.” At the Ponderosa Stomp I saw the six-foot, seven-inch Sleepy LaBeef nail both Hank Ballard’s rockabilly hell raiser “Tore Up” and Slim Harpo’s Louisiana blues classic “Rainin’ in My Heart.”

ames Blood Ulmer took us to the Sun Studios with detours through John Coltrane jazz with Ulmer’s own harmolodic guitar followed by Billy Swann who never touched his 1960s hit “I Can Help,” but that’s OK. He was playing with Memphis legend Boots Randolph who did “Yakkety Sax” and Buddy Spicher who turned the fiddle into a lead instrument on Willie Dixon blues standards. Bob Wootten looked like Johnny Cash’s brother and sounded exactly like The Man in Black – and I mean exactly – on “Ring of Fire.” The long-time lead guitarist in Cash’s band, The Tennessee Three, now is band leader of the group that turned Folsom Prison on its ear decades ago.

This all happened in three sets. It was on one of three nights and on just one of three stages in less than three hours of a nine-hour marathon.

I asked Charles Cabbage what went through his mind when he heard the shots that killed Dr. King. “Get down,” he said without hesitation. “Same for me,” I responded. “I’m a Vietnam veteran.” We hugged. I took three pictures of him in the middle of the road. He got back into his cab, and my wife and I walked into the Civil Rights Museum.
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