Red Cups and Pink Cadillacs: Juke Joint Hopping in Memphis with Tad Pierson
On Sunday night, while most of us are winding down and planning for the week ahead, we're missing out. We're missing out on the best live music night in Memphis' blues clubs, when people pack tiny juke joints to hear authentic blues, R&B and soul music.
Which is why I'm standing on my porch with my husband Mathew, waiting for local artist and tour guide Tad Pierson to pick us up in his pink 1955 Cadillac so that we can check out three clubs.
Tad Pierson gave his first tour in 1989. He moved to Memphis six years later, planning to give tours, not intending to stay. A year later, thanks to some help from local tourism organizations (Graceland let him park the Caddy on the property and solicit tours), he had fallen into a routine in the city. Sixteen years later, Tad gives about 200 tours of Memphis and the surrounding area every year.
He's a friendly man, too. While we're stopped at the light at Poplar and Cleveland, Tad chats up people in cars on both sides of the Caddy. When we walk into clubs, people rush to greet him with a mixture of enthusiastic familiarity and surprise like he's come home from a long overseas vacation.
Our first stop is the Big S, a tiny white building located at the end of a ramshackle residental neighborhood between the Stax Museum and the Con Agra plant. There's no band (or place to put a band), but the club is decently packed.
There's a DJ in the corner spinning R&B, blues and some light rap, and we've been there about five minutes when a dance party breaks out. It comes to an abrupt stop when the DJ accidentally unplugs one of the wires running to the PA system. When he gets things back up and running, he grabs his microphone and yells over a slow jam to no one in particular, "Somebody! Tell the bartender! DJ wants a Bud Light! Longneck!" He talks like Tony Allen tweets.
Matthew says, "This is what 'Hustle and Flow' led me to believe the Poplar Lounge would be like."
The bartender is the daughter of the club's owner, Sam Price. Sam is 87 years old (I know because there was a framed happy birthday note from the City of Memphis behind the bar), and he bought the club as a nest egg when he retired from the Postal Service.
The room glows red from dozens of strings of rope lights, and small groups of people clump into booths and around tables, drinking from whatever vessel they've got (plastic cups, beer bottles, highball glasses, a mason jar in a Crown Royal bag, more than one crystal goblet). The club only sells beer in both longneck and quart formats, but they allow people to bring their own liquor and purchase mixers. I'm happy to report also that the Big S' kitchen has one of the highest health department scores I've ever seen – a 98.
After a beer, we pile back into the Caddy and head across the Mississippi River to West Memphis, Ark. to find a club called Jezz Bluez. The moon is a tiny orange fingernail sliver set low in the sky and the Caddy rides I-55's undulating, uneven pavement like a fishing boat at sea.
We park across the street from Jezz Bluez at the Deep South clothing store and Tad briefly considers picking up a huge old cast-off Deep South sign leaning against the building.
We pay our $7 covers and walk into the Jezz Bluez's smoke machine fog just in time to hear the lead singer of the house band make an announcement about a prominent singer on the Memphis blues scene: "As you may know, Miss Nickki had an accident last night, and there's a card up there on the counter that I want all of you to sign before you leave. I'm going to do one of her songs. I don't know it, but I'm gonna do it."
Tad, Matthew and I claim a long table at the back of the room, near a dance floor that's been turned into a photo booth staffed by the owner's brother (the photo booth has a giant airbrushed background that says "Turn My Swag On"). C.J., the owner, sits down with us and has the bartender bring over some beers. She brings mine with a red plastic cup and a straw, which seems both like a great idea and a terrible idea.
The five-piece band fits on the tiny stage with the exception of the lead singer, who mills around in the aisle in front of the stage while he sings. C.J. tells me that Jezz Bluez is a musicians club, and he regularly books up-and-coming artists and legendary bluesmen. Tonight, though, they're playing a lot of soul. The opening bass notes of "Stand By Me" form and fall in fat drops like water from a leaking faucet. The band is heavy on the slow jams (including a rather filthy one about someone's sister and a highly eupemistic song about "too many mechanics working on your car"), and the crowd is eating it up.
We head back to Memphis around 11:30 p.m. to check out the last club on our list, BJ's Secret. On the way, Tad talks about how few authentic juke joints and blues clubs are left in Memphis. He guesses that there are maybe six. Finding them, though, is sort of like playing Whack-a-Mole. When one closes, another opens up down the street. Sometimes, one will close only to open back up a few months later. It's a constantly changing landscape and Tad is using the drive between our stops to check out a few locations.
At BJ's Secret on Southern, cars spill from the parking lot into the grassy lot next door. The cover at BJ's is the highest all night, but still reasonable at $10. The band is on break when we get there, but a DJ has taken over. Four women are doing the Cupid Shuffle in a narrow space that serves as a dance floor, walkway and waiting area for the ladies' room.
The decor is a cross between a living room and a club. In the room where we pay our cover, there are couches and a table where two men are playing dominoes. The main room is completely dark save for the very bright overhead light behind the bar. B.J., the club's owner, is tending bar while wearing light blue hospital scrubs.
When the band takes the stage, they do so one at a time, picking up their instruments and playing along with the DJ. The music at BJ's Secret is more bluesy and instrumental than the music at Jezz Blues, but it's really, really good.
I realize as it gets closer to midnight that I've hugged a lot of people. Everyone at every stop has been incredibly friendly and welcoming from the guy sitting next to me at the Big S to the incredibly tall woman in the very tight, very short red dress at B.J.'s Secret who is insistent on sharing her big bottle of vodka and won't take "I have to work tomorrow" for an answer.
Around 1 a.m., Tad drives us home. Matthew's talking a mile a minute about how he wants to take guitar lessons from the lead guitarist at BJ's Secret. I'm smiling and holding the photograph of us from the Jezz Bluez photo booth and Tad is quiet, driving and playing classic Stax songs on the stereo.
Tad Pierson gives tours of local landmarks and juke joints seven days a week through his company, American Dream Safari. The tours range in price, but most are between $100 and $400 for one to four hour tours. Find out more here.