Until last year the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis was a Hall of Fame without a hall, but in May 2015 they opened a wonderful new facility across from the Civil Rights Museum. With a new National Blues Museum just opened in St Louis on 2nd April 2016, and the already substantial BB King Museum in Cleveland working on an extension, times have never been better for the blues.
The museum section of the Blues Hall of Fame is housed in the basement of the 100-year-old building on South Main, with offices and special exhibitions upstairs, the exhibitions changing twice a year. It used to be a self-storage facility and the renovation cost $2.5 million. The result is a small but spectacular series of displays that are loudly singing the blues.
Step down the stairs and you walk into a row of ten mini-galleries, each packed with artefacts, music and videos, and each on a different aspect of the blues: city blues, country blues, harmonica, and so on. Here you’ll find such original items as Lead Belly’s bow tie and guitar picks, Koko Taylor’s stage costume, Albert King’s suit, shirt, and tie, Albert Collins’s Fender Telecaster, hand-written lyrics by Willie Dixon, a guitar signed by Robert Cray, Otis Spann’s electric piano, and the white hat and snazzy keyboard tie belonging to Pinetop Perkins, the oldest ever winner of a Grammy at the age of 97.
And if some of the exhibits could talk, what stories they would tell. Here’s a beautiful if slightly battered Greish White Falcon guitar. It belonged to Lowell Fulson, who was born in Tulsa but became one of the leading proponents of the west coast blues style. He had his first hit in 1946 with Three O’Clock Blues, the 12-bar standard that also gave BB King his first hit in 1952. At different times Fulson’s backing band included Jackie Brenston and Ray Charles, and Fulson is even portrayed in the movie, Ray. Ray Charles and Eric Clapton both recorded Lowell Fulson songs, yet Fulson was forced to sell this gorgeous white guitar, the last he ever owned, because he needed the money.
With almost 400 inductees, the Blues Hall of Fame has a wealth of artists to showcase, and most of the items have been donated direct by the artists or their families. And that treasure trove of material makes it a dangerous place for a blues devotee to visit.
At the far end of the row of galleries facing each other on either side are two private listening booths, and in the middle a huge touchscreen display that has access to the Blues Hall of Fame’s entire database of material. It’s all here, from scratchy recordings to YouTube videos, to profiles and to book extracts. And everything has links to everything else – musicians who influenced the artist, and musicians influenced by the artist. Chuck Berry leads to Bo Diddley, and before you know it you’re listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell and rocking back and forward to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Here too is Little Milton, playing songs like Grits Ain’t Groceries and The Blues is Alright. Outside the museum is a statue of Little Milton sitting on a bench, inviting you to sit awhile and consider that with places like the Blues Hall of Fame, hell yes, the blues is alright.
The Blues Hall of Fame
421 South Main. Memphis TN 38103
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.
On 4 May 2016 the new inductees to the Blues Hall of Fame are Elvin Bishop, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson, John Mayall, and The Memphis Jug Band.
Read some of Mike Gerrard’s other Memphis and music pieces:
King of the Blues: The BB King Museum
Black, White and Blues in Memphis
BB King Stayed Here
The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix