- ELVIS AND THE BLUES - TUPELO -
Elvis Presley revolutionized popular music by blending the blues he first heard as a youth in Tupelo with country, pop, and gospel. Many of the first songs Elvis recorded for the Sun label in Memphis were covers of earlier blues recordings by African Americans, and he continued to incorporate blues into his records and live performances for the remainder of his career.
Elvis first encountered the blues here in Tupelo, and it remained central to his music throughout his career. The Presley family lived in several homes in Tupelo that were adjacent to African American neighborhoods, and as a youngster Elvis and his friends often heard the sounds of blues and gospel streaming out of churches, clubs, and other venues. According to Mississippi blues legend Big Joe Williams, Elvis listened in particular to Tupelo blues guitarist Lonnie Williams.
During Elvis’s teen years in Memphis he could hear blues on Beale Street, just a mile south of his family’s home. Producer Sam Phillips had captured many of the city’s new, electrified blues sounds at his Memphis Recording Service studio, where Elvis began his recording career with Phillips's Sun label. Elvis was initially interested in recording ballads, but Phillips was more excited by the sound created by Presley and studio musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black on July 5, 1954, when he heard them playing bluesman Arthur ''Big Boy'' Crudup’s 1946 recording ''That’s All Right''.
That song appeared on Presley’s first single, and each of his other four singles for Sun Records also included a cover of a blues song - Arthur Gunter’s ''Baby Let’s Play House'', Roy Brown’s ''Good Rockin' Tonight'', Little Junior Parker's ''Mystery Train'', and Kokomo Arnold’s ''Milk Cow Blues'', recorded under the title ''Milkcow Blues Boogie'' by Elvis, who likely learned it from a version by western swing musician Johnnie Lee Wills. Elvis's sound inspired countless other artists, including Tupelo rockabilly musician Jumpin' Gene Simmons, whose 1964 hit ''Haunted House'' was first recorded by bluesman Johnny Fuller.
Elvis continued recording blues after his move to RCA Records in 1955, including ''Hound Dog'', first recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952, Lowell Fulson’s ''Reconsider Baby'', Big Joe Turner's ''Shake, Rattle and Roll'', and two more by Crudup, ''My Baby Left Me'' and ''So Glad You're Mine''. One of Elvis's most important sources of material was the African American songwriter Otis Blackwell, who wrote the hits ''All Shook Up'', ''Don’t Be Cruel'', and ''Return to Sender''.
In Presley’s so-called ''comeback'' appearance on NBC television in 1968, he reunited with Scotty Moore and Bill Black to revisit his early blues roots. The trio reprised their early Sun recordings, and also performed other blues, including the Jimmy Reed songs ''Big Boss Man'' and ''Baby What You Want Me to Do''. Blues remained a feature of Elvis's live performances until his death in 1977.
SHAKE RAG (SHAKERAG) - TUPELO
Shake Rag, located east of the old M&O (later GM&O) railway tracks and extending northward from Main Street, was one of several historic African American communities in Tupelo. By the 1920s blues and jazz flowed freely from performers at Shake Rag restaurants, cafes, and house parties, and later from jukeboxes, while the sounds of gospel music filled the churches. The neighborhood was leveled and its residents relocated during an urban renewal project initiated in the late 1960s.
Tupelo’s blues legacy is perhaps most widely known for its influence on a young Elvis Presley, who lived adjacent to the African American neighborhoods of ''Shake Rag'' and ''On the Hill''. A local explanation for the origin of Shake Rag's name refers to people ''shakin' their rags'' while fleeing a fight. The term was also used to describe African American musical gatherings in the 1800s and early 1900s and may be related to Shake Rag’s location next to the railway tracks; prior to regular timetables, passengers would signal for the engineer to stop a train by shaking a rag. Gambling and bootlegging were commonplace in Shake Rag and although outsiders often regarded the area as dangerous, former residents proudly recalled its churches, prosperous businesses, and strong sense of community, a quality highlighted in Charles ''Weir” Johnson's 2004 documentary about Shake Rag, Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood. Blues guitarists such as Willie C. Jones, Charlie Reese, "Tee-Toc'', and Lonnie Williams played at Shake Rag house parties, on street corners, on a stage near the fairgrounds, and at the Robins Farm south of downtown, according to musicians who have stated that Elvis may have been especially swayed by the music of "Tee-Toc" or Williams.
Touring blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues acts performed elsewhere in town at more formal venues including the Henry Hampton Elks Lodge on Tolbert Street, the Dixie Belle Theater, the lounge at Vaughn’s Motel on North Spring Street, and the armory at the fairgrounds. In the post-World War II era George ''Bally'' Smith, a multi-instrumentalist whose repertoire included big band jazz and rhythm & blues, led the most celebrated local band. His band members over the years included bassist Charles ''Bo'' Clanton, trumpeters Turner Bynum and Joe Baker, drummers James ''Pinhead'' Ashby and Steve Norwood, guitarists Willie ''Shug'' Ewing, Cliff Mallet, and ''Guitar'' Murphy, trombonist Fred Chambers, pianist Billy Ball, and saxophonists James Brown, Jerry Baker, Augustus Ashby, Pete Norwood, and Ben Branch, who directed the band at Carver High School. Bally also led the King Cole Trio-style group Three B’s and a Bop, featuring Clanton, James Ashby, and vocalist Hattie Sue Helenstein. Bally’s groups performed on radio stations WELO and WTUP, sometimes together with vocal group the Five Rockets, which included Sam Bell and Wayne Herbert, Sr.
Nap Hayes of Shake Rag was among the first Tupelo performers to record (in 1928 for OKeh Records). Other Tupelo area natives who have recorded blues, rhythm and blues, or gospel include Aaron and Marion Sparks, Benny Sharp, Willie Pooch, Lester and Willie Chambers of the Chambers Brothers, Riley (Richard) Riggins, Lee Williams of the Spiritual QCs, and Homemade Jamz Blues Band.
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