Eventually, after quite a while of searching for help, an ambulance arrived based on a call from the runaway truck driver, picked up Bessie, and brought her to the G.T. Thomas Hospital. Bessie was probably close to death upon arriving but they performed an amputation of her arm in this room,
Ike Turner, and many others. Ike Turner recorded his demo of the song, Rocket 88, widely considered the first rock n' roll song in 1951, in the basement. The hotel was for years one of the only places in the state where a black man could stay. I say man, as it was run as a rooming house for men only to avoid the kinds of "troubles" that women could bring in. It remains pretty much unchanged since its early days -- basic, clean, creaky floors, doors that have moved in their frames, plywood painted walls, not necessarily a place Mr. and Mrs. America would come to stay but a super clean, friendly, deeply historic place that, if it isn't in the National Register of Historic Places, certainly should be. Oh, and it's now co-ed...
|Long dark hallway in Riverside Hotel|
Still, the old creaky hotel can be strangely spooky, as you might expect from an old hospital converted to a men's rooming house. Under different conditions you might see this place on an America's Haunted Houses TV episode. What you feel instead is a warm and welcoming home away from home. John F.Kennedy, Jr. stayed here for four days surreptitiously, to find the roots of the blues and be away from the limelight.
Red’s Blues Club, an original juke joint,
Later that evening we returned, upon the advice of our hotel manager, to Red’s to listen to a 15-year-old blues guitarist, a 14-year-old drummer, and an “old” bass player. Let me start by saying that this young man, “Kingfish” was his moniker, was one of the finest guitar players I have ever seen, and this is not a light statement. He could have stood up on stage with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, and just go down the list from there.
When he first walked in, plugged in his guitar, amp, and a couple of effects pedals, then played a quick riff to check out his fingers and tuning, I looked over at Ruth and said, sight unseen, “This is going to be good.” So, do you think you have some latent skepticism when someone says, “Go see a couple of kids play the blues?” Yeah, we did…so we listened for an hour and a half and the kid hit every fret with every string in every possible blues, rock, rhythm, riffle, country, whatever style you can imagine, with the presence of an 80-year-old. He made his guitar sound like a violin, played with his teeth, played with both hands making chords, chopping, slicing, -strumming, drumming, -trilling, sustaining, -bending, picking, and rarely repeating musical patterns.
You hear some great players and soon tire from monotony, but Kingfish kept everyone wanting more and did it with style. He even did this, mind you, while in the same room, with a bright-as-daylight, 50-inch TV, showing two guys beating each other to a pulp, boxing, while Red dispensed beers out of a cooler behind the "bar." This was a juke joint! When they finally took a break and we went out for some smoked pork rib tips, I asked Kingfish if he had a CD. He said he only had YouTube videos and would come out with a recording soon. I am including a taste of him here at 13-years-old for you to keep an eye on and say you knew him when! OK...I'll give you one more taste of his music from a video taken at the Juke Joint Festival recently.
Just up the street, around the corner, about a quarter mile away sits Ground Zero Blues Club,
an oasis in the midst of the blight of downtown Clarksdale. It is co-owned by Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett, the mayor of the town, and was named as one of the "top one hundred bars and clubs in America." During our visit to cool off with a beer at the bar, we witnessed loads of mostly young, hip, well-heeled people, smartly dressed, wandering through taking pictures big-eyed, of the interior, the walls of which are covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti. This is the place where the big names come and has a full service bar and kitchen. There are a slew of blues clubs and bars in town and this stands at the pinnacle of them all in "status."
Now I did emphasize that last word with purpose, and we did walk by late one night and saw people crowded at the front door waiting to get in or be checked in with their wrist bands, but this is not necessarily the "real deal," as a street person and musician claimed. The closest to the earth of the blues we had seen so far was Red's, where some of the folks at Ground Zero might be a little uncomfortable hanging out. Red has a way of finding a person's hot buttons and pushing them to their un-comfort level, the music there can be impromptu, someone standing at the bar might jump up and either sing or play or be called up to join the musicians. People at Ground Zero can watch, sing, dance, and be served by smiling, friendly servers in their "Great America Music Hall" comfort zone.
Inside Ground Zero Blues Club-Clarksdale, Mississippi
Speaking of comfort zones, when we first arrived at our hotel next to the river, our check-in assistant, Jesse, warned us that, "You have no need to cross over to the other side of the river. There's nothing you need to see over there." Ruth and I looked at each other in a pregnant pause. The next day, I found the D&T Supermarket with the words large on the wall stating: "Any five-pack from the freezer, $17.99," went in and the Chinese man behind the counter looked at me and immediately asked, "You're not from around here are you?" He called his wife out, went to check on a price, and soon we were having a cultural exchange in quick time. I asked them how having a store there in an obviously super poor downtown was like. They smiled and said it was a doable business and wished me well with the reminder that I should steer clear of the "other side of the river"...did we go there?!
Downtown Clarksdale beauty