Special Feature 

Blues on Beale


Charles Monette

Here’s how it came to be.  It was mid-October, 2009, and I had flown to Memphis to attend my first, 1st Air Cav reunion… meeting up with a bunch of guys that I’d been in Nam with 39 years ago.   About 100 grunts from Charlie Companies gone by were hooking up for a weekend of memories, beer, war stories… meeting the wives.   Tree, one of the organizers of the reunion, had booked the Radisson in Memphis, Tennessee for the festivities.  

I wasn’t much for these types of ‘get-togethers’.  After an afternoon of seeing the guys, laugh and surprise, stories of glories, I was getting antsy.  I wanted to leave the grunts and strike out on my own.

Friday afternoon, I wanted to be on Beale Street.   Then I’d visit Graceland in the morning.  I asked the hotel gal who was greeting smiling strangers at her desk if she could call me a cab.  She said it didn’t work that way, and gave me a number to order up a car.   I dialed.  A southern lady sweetly answered and said, “Mr. Joseph will be right over… please wait out front.”

It was a hot Indian summer day in Memphis, humidity uncomfortable out of the air.   Leaning back against an entry column, I opened two Trident spearmint gums to cool off, relaxing by chewing into the hazy steaming sky. 

Mr. Joseph promptly pulled up, motioned me to get in and sit up front.  He was driving a silver Oldsmobile 88 and it was gleaming!  Mister Joseph, dapper-dignified, tie and fedora, gave me a smile, and asked, “Where do you wanna go young fella?

“Can you take me to Beale Street, the home of the blues?”

“Sure thing”, said he and we pulled away from the Radisson.  It was great to see the guys after 39 years, but I’m often a loner,

and I fast grew weary of the beer and somewhat embellished stories of war.  Jungle, Vietnam, 1970-71, C Company, 1st Air Cavalry Division, Charlie Company. I had been in country 349 days.

“Beale Street, you got it!  Where ya from?” said Mister Joseph.

“Brattleboro, Vermont”.  I explained that I had flown out for the Cav’s reunion.

In minutes, we were a block from Beale and he pulled over to the curb.  Mister Joseph told me where the best ribs could be had, a few blues joints to checkout, and asked what time I’d like him to return to bring me back to the hotel. 

“Have a good time soldier.” He gave a nod and drove away.

Beale was a wide expanse alive with young black kids aptly named the Beale Street Flippers, flyin n’ flippin, aerial somersaulting down the center of the cobblestone street.  I spotted a music store across the way, sauntered over, and asked if they had any Blues harps.  The guy behind the counter asked, “What key?”

“Got an A?” I replied… and he did.  I bought the harp and a few Elvis postcards to bring home to Vermont.  Heading back out, I walked down the south side of Beale into the sultry evening.  About ¾’s of the way down the block, I heard the sound I’d come for.  Clear cookin blues, outdoors at W.C. Handy Park… two dudes up on the bandstand.  They were playin it clean. playin for fun.  I grabbed a St. Pauli Girl beer from the bar and sat down at the wrought iron table up front, stage left of the duo.

A makeshift sign told me I was listening to Slidin Clyde and Lil’ Willie.  Clyde was a white dude, black hat playing electric slide guitar.  Lil’ Willie was pickin acoustic, singin the blues with joie de vivre.  I’d once heard Brownie McGhee say, “The blues ain’t nothin but a good man feelin bad.”  These dudes were feelin good!

They were great… playin free, donation hat in front.  I was wearing dark shades to push back the sun’s glare, and a black beret for I don’t know why.  They finished a set and I got up and put a five in their hat.  As I sat back down, Clyde came over and asked if I was a musician.  I said, “not really.”

“Well you look like one”, laughed Clyde…. Guitar?”

I told him I played a little harp.

“You play harp,” incredulous surprise, unbridled delight came over smooth Clyde.  “Why don’t you come join us for the next set?”

“I’ve got a lotta rust,” I hesitated. 

He insisted, “Come on man!”

I joined them onstage and slowly eased into their playin… fillin in some background riffs.  Soon enough, they were givin me leads and I was wailin, bendin the blues on Beale.  Heavenly, high, hardly believing my good fortune!  We played 5 songs and then they were done for the day.  We shook hands, smiled, laughed, walked away.

I’d learned to play blues harmonica just after coming home from Vietnam.  I had bought a Hohner blues harp in the key of A at the company headquarters in Hicksville, Long Island. 

I used to listen to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee…Sonny Boy Williamson… John Mayall.  I would play along with their records. 

One Thursday night, I got to see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee live at My Father’s Place in Roslyn, Long Island.  I was hooked!  Blues ain’t nothin but… Through the years I’d seen them live many times in New York and Colorado…got to know em a little.

After playin the park, I was hungry for some ribs.  Mister Joseph had recommended B.B. Kings Blues Club so I headed over.  There was a piano player, photos of B.B. on walls, Lucille in the corner.  The waitress brought me a one-page menu, and asked what I wanted to drink.  Jack n’ Coke was my answer.  It all looked good, including the waitress!  Molly recommended, “Crawfish bites, she-crab soup is good, fried avocado… oh, and try the jumbo shrimp with grits… then get ya some ribs!  I’ll bring you some cornbread and your Jack.”  Memphis, Tennessee rhymed with hospitality.

Blues, manna from heaven!  It was all too good to be true.  I had played the blues on Beale.  The food was terrific!  A bit too much, a little too spicy, but served warm in temperature and bonhomie.  Atmosphere put me in a reverie and Jack was adding to my glow.

Waitress asked if everything was alright.  I smiled, nodded ‘Yes’ and tipped her over.  I asked about music.  Molly said, “Try the north side of the street.”  I ambled out with a wave of thanks.

There was music blowing out of an alley and a sign on the sidewalk announced, ‘Juke Joint Jam Session’.  I moseyed in.  There was a bandstand, tables strewn about, and the Juke Joint All Stars playing the blues.  I grabbed a beer and listened in admiration.  A guy came round with a 5 gallon joint compound bucket for tips and he was hawking CDs.  I threw in a five and bought a CD for ten.

The All Stars had seven players in the band and their sound was jumpin, blues boogie!  As they finished a set, none other than Lil’ Willie came out from backstage.  This time he was toting an electric guitar.  My jaw dropped when he scanned the audience with his hand shading eyes and declared, “I think I see my friend, Charles out there.  Charles, come on up and join us.” 

My look said, ‘Are you serious?’  I slowly made my way to the stage and stepped up on the bandstand.  We started jammin…

Again, just fitting in, trying a few riffs, honored to be up there!

After one song, I stepped down off the stage and Lil’ Willie said, “Where ya goin?”

I turned round and got backup.  Willie was giving me some leads again and I was just letting it blow.  ‘It was a gas!’ This was the real thing, Blues on Beale, and I was out front, even braving to sing along on the chorus of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’.  

Glancing around, I realized that it was Charles, Lil’ Willie, and 7 other soul brothers in the band.  This was their livin, night after night, playin for the tourists.   It was all very Cool!  And I was happy to be a white boy lost in the blues on Beale…. Glad I bought that harmonica and those Elvis’ postcards. 

Mister Joseph picked me up the next morning and drove me to Graceland.