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American Music Got Eclectic Start in Jackson

Just down Mississippi’s Blues Trail are the stories of the famed men and women whose artistic expression birthed what we know today as American Music.

In 2015, there is hardly a musical genre that hasn’t been touched by the Birthplace of the Blues. Mississippi’s artists were constant contributors to the early forms of blues, rhythm and blues, pop, rock, soul … the list goes on. And in Jackson, American music got an especially eclectic start. Some of these artists are long gone. Others still carry the torch. But visitors to the Capital City can learn of their surprising stories – in the places where history was made – just by following the trail.

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Ace Records
Ace Records, just a block west of Capitol Street, was founded in 1955 by Johnny Vincent (1925-2000) and was the most successful Mississippi-based label of the 1950s and 1960s. Ace’s extensive catalog of blues, rhythm and blues, pop, rock and soul included records by Mississippi blues artists Arthur Crudup, Sam Myers, King Edward, Pat Brown and Willie Clayton, as well as hit singles by Louisiana singers Jimmy Clanton, Frankie Ford, Huey “Piano” Smith and Earl King.

Bobby Rush
Bobby Rush, a Louisiana native who lived for decades in Chicago, earned the title “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” after relocating to Jackson in the early 1980s. Rush’s distinctive “folk funk” style, featured on his recordings for the Jackson-based LaJam label and others, bridged the blues he heard as a youth with modern soul music. His upbeat and often provocative live shows established him as a favorite among Southern soul and blues audiences and later brought him international acclaim.

Cassandra Wilson
Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, a native of Jackson, is known for her broad explorations of various forms of music, including the blues. Her recordings include versions of songs by Delta blues artists Robert Johnson, Son House and Muddy Waters. The marker is placed where Wilson grew up, on Albemarle Road. Wilson was declared “America’s Best Singer” by Time magazine in 2001, in recognition of her great accomplishments in jazz and her creative approaches to a broad range of music, including the blues.

Dorothy Moore /Alamo Theatre
Prior to 1949, the Alamo Theatre occupied two other spots in the area. The theatre showed movies, hosted music competitions and presented blues and jazz concerts by artists such as Nat “King” Cole, Elmore James, Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway during the 1940s and ’50s. Gospel groups and vocal ensembles also performed. Local resident Dorothy Moore’s many victories at Alamo talent contests ultimately led to a successful recording career. In 1976 her record “Misty Blue” was a huge hit and established its label, Malaco, as a major player in the soul and blues field. Her other hits included “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “I Believe You,” and “With Pen In Hand.” She later formed her own label, Farish Street Records.

Edwards Hotel
Constructed in 1923 and renamed the King Edward Hotel in 1954, the Edwards Hotel was the site of temporary studios set up by OKeh Records in 1930 and the American Record Corporation in 1935 to record blues artists Bo Carter, Robert Wilkins, Joe McCoy, Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Sheiks and others. The Mississippi Sheiks also performed at the hotel, and Houston Stackhouse recalled that he played here together with fellow bluesman Robert Nighthawk and country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.

Gold Coast
This area of Rankin County, formerly called East Jackson and later the Gold Coast, was a hotbed for gambling, bootleg liquor and live music for several decades up through the 1960s. Blues, jazz and soul performers, including touring national acts and locally based artists Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), Sam Myers, Cadillac George Harris and Sam Baker Jr., worked at a strip of clubs along Fannin Road known to African-Americans as “‘cross the river.”

Ishmon Bracey
One of the earliest blues musicians from Mississippi to make recordings, Ishmon Bracey (1899-1970), is buried in the nearby Willow Park Cemetery. In the 1920s and ’30s Bracey was a leading bluesman in the Jackson area and performed with prominent artists including Tommy Johnson, Rube Lacy and Charlie McCoy. In the early ’50s Bracey became an ordained minister and left the blues behind.

Malaco Records
Malaco Records, one of America’s foremost labels in the fields of Southern soul, blues and gospel, was founded at this site in 1967. Malaco’s studio was the first state-of-the-art recording facility in Mississippi. The label attained national stature with the success of Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue” (1976), Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” (1982) and other records by the Jackson Southernaires, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Latimore and Johnnie Taylor.

Otis Spann
Otis Spann and Little Johnnie Jones, two of the acknowledged masters of Chicago blues piano, were cousins who lived in Jackson in the 1930s and ’40s. On the vibrant post-World War II Chicago scene they both played with blues king Muddy Waters and other luminaries and were hailed for their stellar work both as accompanists and as featured recording artists.

Queen of Hearts
The Queen of Hearts, a primary venue for down-home blues in Jackson, opened at this location in the 1970s. During the following decades, owner-operator Chellie B. Lewis presented the blues bands of King Edward, Sam Myers, Big Bad Smitty and many others. The house behind the club at 905 Ann Banks St. was owned and occupied in the 1960s by blues singer-guitarist Johnnie Temple, who had been a popular recording artist in Chicago in the 1930s and ’40s.

Scott Radio Service
Scott Radio Service Company, located at 128 North Gallatin St., just north of this site, was one of the first businesses in Mississippi to offer professional recording technology. The Jackson-based Trumpet record label used the Scott studio for sessions with blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Elmore (Elmo) James, along with many other blues, gospel and country performers from 1950 to 1952.

Subway Lounge
During the era of segregation, traveling African-Americans had few options for lodging. In Jackson, many black musicians stayed at the Summers Hotel, established in 1944 by W.J. Summers. In 1966 Summers opened a club in the hotel basement that he called the Subway Lounge. The Subway was a regular jazz venue and offered popular late night blues shows from the mid-1980s until the hotel’s demolition in 2004.

Trumpet Records
Trumpet Records was the first record company in Mississippi to achieve national stature through its distribution, sales, radio airplay and promotion. Willard and Lillian McMurry launched the label from their retail store, the Record Mart, at 309 North Farish St. in 1950 and later converted the back room into a recording studio. The first releases by Mississippi blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, Elmore James and Willie Love appeared on Trumpet in 1951.


Story and photos courtesy Legends magazine. Information courtesy msbluestrail.org.

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