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Overcast Skies, Rock n’ Roll & The Blues Brothers

Overcast days = Music

More specifically — Rock n’ Roll.

Reason for starting this blog was to share passions on photography, world music, field recordings and whatnot…hopefully more whatnot then say photography, which is already covered so well by a slew of talented purveyors of bloggerdome — check out 2011 Photo Blog Awards. With such brilliance, what more could I bring to this already mighty fine table of photographic illumination?!

This week it seemed appropriate then to include some American rock n’ roll.

And if you live in Argentina or Zambia, music from the United States is indeed world music.

When in northern Mississippi two weeks ago there was some downtime before photographing at a local high school. Being in the heart of Delta Blues country one couldn’t help but stumble into the aptly name Blues Town Music store located in the old downtown district of Clarksdale. The welcoming facade with guitars hanging on the outer wall clearly magnetizing the fingerpicker in me to wander in. Sure to it’s name, it was indeed a haven for all things blues.

Ronnie Drew, owner of the Blues Town Music Store in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Ronnie Drew, sporting an amazing ultra-white head of hair, offered an immediate warm greeting in a classic Mississippi drawl that’s audibly synonymous in this part of the United States. Had known about southern warmth from books and films, and by golly it’s completely true. Kindness abounding everywhere, from everyone.

Ronnie’s also the type who let’s you play whatever guitars you fancy and did he have some beauties. Two metal body slide guitars, both made in nearby Memphis, gave off the vibe, “PLAY ME”. Can’t say I know how to play slide all that well but fingering and moving a glass slider along its neck helped strike up a conversation about music from this part of the country with the man in stunning white coif.

Mississippi is indeed all about The Blues, but the surround area, according to Ronnie, is also known for playing a roll in a specific origin of rock n’ roll.

When asking whether he had any CD’s from this region, Mr. Drew immediately steered me towards two CD’s on the disheveled counter next to the cash registered. There, resting amongst various guitar picks, tuning harps and other musical bric a brac were two CD’s titled A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975, Volume 1 and 2.

With Memphis being but an hours drive away, it made sense that Clarksdale and Elvis might have a Kevin Bacon-esque degree of separation.

Order A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 Vol II, from

According to the liner notes:

“The Success of Sun, Stax and Hi Ricords, case a huge shadow over Memphis from the 50’s through the 70’s, influencing every musician who had any inspiration for a song or for ‘making it’ in any way. Stardom could happen — it had happened before…Elvis just walked into the door at 706 Union, but Sam Phillips was there, already recording blues, rock, symphonies and whatever hit his earhole right. The framework was here because the MUSIC was here. But by the mid-60’s, even the kings of the scene felt the heat from oversees. The British Invasion hit and the soul stars saw that these moptop ruffians were driving the kids insane playing American soul and blues music in a new, rougher form. The Animals, the Rolling Stones and early Beatles turned American kids onto music that was all around them but maybe head to hear or to get…Brits like Gerry and the Pacemakers were making it, and killer Memphis acts were ignored”.

What spawned from this British Invasion were a whole slew of musicians who dove into their garages and jammed. Few if any made it out of their parents carports or beyond gigs at frat parties. Nor would their band names ever become part of rock n’ roll lexicon — The Yo-Yo’s, The Jades or Lawson & Four More. But what did come out was a collection of rare recordings found likely only on this unique small label out of Memphis called Shangri-La Projects.

These CD’s were sealed in plastic, making a purchase of such collective music a leap of faith — unlike books, with world music it’s possible to literally know a label (Smithsonian Folkways, World Music Library, Elektra Nonsuch, etc) and buy anything from their collection, knowing they only produce the music of amazing musicians. But Ronnie was so convincing this was a great music set, I bought Volume I then bid ado to the man with awesome blanco tresses.

While heading to photograph at the nearby high school, I ripped off the cellophane, popped the disc into the rental cars CD slot and was utterly blown away, immediately realizing I’d made the mistake repeated on numerous occasions — buying only one disc of a multi-disc set.

The Le Sabres style of guitar, sax, bass and piano — well mixed above the scratches of old vinyl —  rocked on their instrumental track, Rising Mercury Twist. The raw sound quality with great horns by Shadden and the King Leers’ in their song, All I Want Is You, placed me smack in the Memphis garage where this song was likely recorded back in 1967.

This CD is a mix of psychedelic rock and moody rock-blues generally associated to the Memphis sounds of this time.

Photographing at the school went well, however, I couldn’t wait to finish and rush back to Blues Town Music to get the companion CD before Ronnie shut the doors — if I hadn’t, he’d not be open when leaving Clarksdale at 6am the next day for the long drive south to the airport in Jackson.

Order A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 Vol II, from

Even though my heart is far more connected to global music than say Western rock n’ roll, these two CD’s are now a prized part of the Vintage Collection on the CD shelf. If you’re wanting to experience what is truly some of the most raw versions of American rock and roll trippy garage band funk, these two CD’s (and a compendium book — chockablock full of brilliant historical detail) are not to be missed.

Order the book, A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 from

Order the book, A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975 from

Couldn’t find these CD’s on iTunes but they are available through Amazon by clicking on the album or book covers above.

These discs, containing an excellent selection of early North American rock n’ roll, performed by (quoting the liner notes) “The deserving ones left behind”, are worth their weight in history.

And if ever you end up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, (population 21,000), it’s here you’ll find one of the few remaining Bluesmobile‘s driven by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the movie, The Blues Brothers. It’s located at the equally funky blues bar cum bed and breakfast called, Hopson Plantation

The drivers side door of the Bluesmobile at Hopson Plantations.

Wacky how this car ever made it from Chicago, Ill, to Clarksdale, MS.

Can't remember any longer how often I've watched The Blues Brothers. Damn good movie.

By the way, here’s an interesting story on how allegedly Dan Aykroyd drove this car to Clarksdale.

Never heard nor been to Clarksdale until this National Geographic assignment took me there. After this visit — along with some insanely tasty southern cuisine from The Dutch Oven and some staggeringly delicious ribs at Abe’s Barbecue (opened in 1924), I think it might be worth a revisit…especially for the annual Sunflower River Blues Festival, which takes place between August 12-14, 2011.






June 7, 2011   5 Comments