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Roger Stolle: Rest in Peace, Mr. Willie Seaberry

Mr. Willie Seaberry, aka Po Monkey, was a jokester. Photo by The Delta Bohemian®
Mr. Willie Seaberry, aka Po Monkey, was a jokester. Photo by The Delta Bohemian®

MR. WILLIE SEABERRY (1941-2016) opened his juke joint in 1963.

Last night (July 14), the man they called “PO’ MONKEY” (who, like most juke runners, WAS his juke joint) passed away at 75 years old. RIP.

When the first text showed up in my phone last night re: Mr. Willie Seaberry‘s passing, I started to try and call the juke runner — in disbelief. Unfortunately, further confirmations quickly followed. As I contemplated calling him, I searched my cell for his number. Under “Monkey,” I found his number as well as two other Mississippi “Monkey” listings (including the monkeys-riding-dogs we book each year at Juke Fest). That — in a nutshell — is how fascinating and surreal The Delta really is. It’s a land of characters and history. And Mr. Seaberry was as much a part of the Blues Delta as the Mississippi River, railroad lines and cotton fields. A towering figure here.

The first time I visited Po Monkey’s Lounge near Merigold, MS, I was still married and living in St. Louis, MO — back in the 1990s, before Monkey’s coverage in the New York Times, Travel+Leisure, etc. I guess it was a Thursday night because it was open. Clearly built without the aid of an architect, the crazy structure sat in the middle of a cotton field — a mile and a half off Highway 61. As we walked in, the proprietor rushed over to greet us. There was a deejay spinning soul-blues, and the crowd was entirely local and black. We sat down at a table, receiving nods from local couples sitting nearby. Everyone was friendly if keeping to themselves initially.

(Later, after a few beverages, a young man gave me the recipe for raccoon baked with sweet potatoes. Not sure how the conversation ended up there.)

As Mr. Seaberry went to get our oversized bottles of ice-cold Buds, we looked around, trying to get the lay of the land. That’s when I realized the small, suspended TVs in the juke were all running the same… uh… well… frankly speaking… VERY “adult” videos. I guess the proprietor was monitoring the reaction on my face, because he immediately appeared, saying, “Now, I can cut that off, if it bothers y’all.” I think I turned red in my face as I laughed and said something like, “I’m not going to be the guy who walks into a party and tells you to turn it off!”

That’s what Po Monkey’s was: It was a party place. It was actually more of a juke house or house party than a “juke joint” per se. Mr. Willie Seaberry lived there, worked there and partied there. Every Thursday night the gracious host essentially invited friends and strangers alike into his living room. And what a living room is was.

(I won’t repeat everything I ever saw there, but let’s just say that place knew how to PARTY!!)

Another favorite memory of Monkey’s comes from 2005 and also involves the juke’s suspended TVs. I’d booked Big George Brock there during King Biscuit weekend (while Big George was recording with… wait for it… judo-bluesman-wannabe Steven Seagal up in Memphis — another story altogether) to promote our new “comeback” CD, Club Caravan. As I sat in that cramped space that folks called the back room, watching Big George blow harp, I looked above him (literally) and realized that my favorite ’90s Must-See TV was in rerun — Seinfeld. How’s that for a sitcom soundtrack?

(That is also pretty much the night that my future blues buddy Jeff Konkel decided to start Broke & Hungry Records… but that’s yet another story…)

Thanks to Delta State U’s Delta Center for Culture & Learning (Luther Brown, Henry Outlaw & Co.), I was lucky enough to book many a live blues show at Monkey’s through the years — sometimes for visiting students or professors, other times for TV shows and journalists. A random memory comes to mind and make me smile. One night, we had T-Model Ford & Terry “Harmonica” Bean there to play for Good Morning America. I tried to feed the (very-non-bluesy) male host some lines of questioning for the interview segment with T-Model Ford, knowing that T could get “off message” very quickly. The city-slicker host ignored all advice, and plunged in with some typically generic blues questioning. T-Model quickly turned it into an overly… uh… “detailed” description of why he could accurately call himself the “Ladies’ Man”. The very embarrassed host slowly wilted in his seat, unable to change the subject of the lengthy Ladies’ Man monologue.

(If you ever saw the segment, that’s why Terry “Harmonica” Bean speaks… and T pretty much just plays!)

My final memory of Po Monkey’s may as well be the day/night we filmed there for our 2012 juke joint documentary “We Juke Up in Here!” Jeff Konkel, Damien Blaylock, Lou Bopp and I arrived just prior to sunset to film Mr. Willie Seaberry out front. Then, we went into nearby Cleveland for dinner and came back to film the regular, Thursday night deejay party. Always on a ridiculously low budget, Jeff and I really wanted some rolling shots in this doc. Damien suggested using a wheelchair as a dolly of sorts, so we rented one. Mr. Seaberry kinda looked at us like we were idiots (which was/is certainly possible), rolling camera-bearing Damien around inside his very tight and crooked-floored club for twenty minutes. He was also VERY patient and accommodating as we rolled the camera to within inches of his big smoking cigar as he tried to watch TV, waiting for us to be done. In the end, it’s a sweet segment, and one we are proud to have captured. The field photo you see here was taken that day by blues photographer extraordinaire Lou Bopp.

I could ramble on and on with memories, but I’ll stop here. Everyone has their own very personal memories of the man and the place. It will take days if not years for the world to realize what a loss this is — the passing of Mr. Seaberry. It really will.

Mr. Willie Seaberry “Po Monkey” – Photo by Lou Bopp
Mr. Willie Seaberry “Po Monkey” – Photo by Lou Bopp

“How much history can be communicated by pressure on a guitar string?” – author Robert Palmer (Deep Blues)

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – philosopher John Donne

“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” – African proverb

Roger Stolle is the owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale and Founder of the Juke Joint Festival.

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