So in the absence of this year's festival, I thought I would reminisce a bit about Sunflower Fests past.
The first time I visited Clarksdale was some time around 1985, a few years before the first festival in 1988. I was down there with Jewel Harris to try to sell a library computer system to the Clarksdale Public Library. But when the library's director, Sid Graves, found out I was a blues fan, he and I left Jewel to demo the system to the library's staff, while we went on an afternoon tour of Clarksdale's juke joints. Sid had started a blues museum in the attic of the old Carnegie Library on the corner of First and Delta. It wasn't much at the time, but it was a start. After a quick tour of the museum, Sid drove me all over town, seeking a juke joint that might be hosting some live music that night. Sid knew every juke joint proprietor in town, and, being in the Mississippi Delta where southern hospitality is nothing but de rigueur, we had to stay awhile and chat and accept at least one, or more often two, beers, before we stumbled on to the next joint. Well, we didn't find any place that was playing live blues that night, it being mid-week and all, but we did meet with a nice buzz before we returned to the library. There were a lot of jukes in and around Clarksdale back then. Not so many nowadays.
The first Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival was organized by Jim O'Neal, the founding editor of Living Blues magazine, and Dr. Patricia Johnson, funded by downtown merchants, and held on the banks of the Sunflower River between Sunflower and Delta Avenues. And the lineup was stellar: Jelly Roll Kings, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Boogaloo Ames, Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and concluding with Son Thomas and Otis Rush.
The 1997 festival boasted two big stars: Inverness, Mississippi native Little Milton and Clarksdale native Ike Turner. Tip: Walk south from downtown under the railroad underpass on Issaquena Avenue. Look up at the first brick building on your left. You'll see some faded paint near the top, reading "Turner's," the last remnant of what was once Ike Turner's Lounge many years ago when Issaquena was the hottest blues strip in the Delta, maybe in the world.
It was dry for the the 1999 festival. And the weather and the music were as sweltering as a Delta August can get: Cedell Davis, Big Jack Johnson, Anson Funderburg and the Rockets with Sam Meyers, Bobby Rush, and Koko Taylor. Local vocalist and newcomer O.B. Buchana launched his long and storied southern soul career on Friday night and stole the show.
In 2002, the organizers brought back, by popular demand, O.B. Buchana and Big Jack Johnson. Saturday's show closed with dynamite performances by Eddie Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, who owns property in Clarksdale, and the star of the show: Bobby "Blue" Bland.
2003 highlights included O.B. Buchana again, Floyd Taylor, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, and Bob Margolin's Blues Allstars, featuring other Muddy Waters band alumni: Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, and Carey Bell. When the Allstars came on stage, they were absent their keyboard player, Pinetop Perkins, who, oblivious, was quietly chatting with me down in front of the stage. I shooed him up there, and then it was almost like being back at Theresa's Lounge in Chicago.
Latimore, Duwayne Burnside & the Mississippi Mafia, and the North Mississippi Allstars headlined the festival in 2006.
O.B. Buchana closed out Friday evening in 2009, with James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm, and Betty LaVette doing the honors on Satrurday.
The 2012 lineup was arguably the best of the festival's history to that point. Friday brought out O.B. Buchana and Bobby Rush back to back. If you've never seen a Bobby Rush show, you owe it to yourself to hurry to the next one near you. Rush, now well into his 80s probably doesn't have a lot of performing years left, but his show is just that, a real show: the last of the barnstorming, vaudeville, burlesque, blues extravaganzas, complete with double entendre lyrics, dancing girls, and good ol' Saturday night, naughty, tongue-in-cheek nastiness--an act that has been honed over the years to please, amuse, and raise the eyebrows of most everyone. Think a cross between Redd Foxx, Cab Calloway, and Pigmeat Markham! Closing the festival that year was Charlie Musselwhite and Robert Plant and Patty Griffin. One can argue whether Plant is a blues singer, but as he explained to be at breakfast at the B&B where we were both staying, his act is not really the blues, but instead more of a tribute to the roots music that has influenced him the most. It was nonetheless good music.
The 2017 festival featured a great lineup of festival favorites: James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Nathanial Kimble, O.B. Buchana, Big George Brock, and Charlie Musselwhite.
We'll be waiting, impatiently, for next year's festival.