West Memphis Mojo Rises

JOE BOONE | Special to The Daily News

"When I came here it was nothing but mud," joked Vester Jones, 78, who danced in a hallway during Blues Trail to Chicago, a performance of song and the spoken word celebrating the blues history of West Memphis.  Photo: Lance Murphey

On the night of the worst civic tragedy in West Memphis’ history, blues stood up and did its thing.

The “Blues Trail to Chicago” concert was briefly canceled before officials decided to go with the show in honor of the two second-generation law enforcement officers who were shot and killed earlier Thursday.

“When people come together as a community healing can occur,” said organizer Janine Earney.

In what is being described as the bloodiest day in local law-enforcement history, West Memphis police officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans were shot and killed during a traffic stop. About 90 minutes later, authorities cornered the suspects at the West Memphis Walmart parking lot. The suspects were shot and killed after wounding Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby and Deputy Chief W.A. Wren.

“I knew all of those people,” said Vester Jones, following a moment of silence and prayer by Frank Barton, treasurer of event host DeltaArts.

The concert honored the city’s immense cultural contributions and perhaps review their claim on being home of the blues.

And despite the tragic circumstances, they made a strong case.

Narrator Mikii Hooper brings audience members on a journey back through the musical heritage of West Memphis during Blues Trail to Chicago.  Photo: Lance Murphey

Kenneth Jackson 8th Street Blues Band played classic songs by natives and by the titans of blues who were from or lived in West Memphis. Jackson is a master teacher with the Wolf Trap Foundation. His “Basically Blues” uses music to reinforce general curriculum in schools.

The band played songs that were woven together with Mikii Hooper’s compelling narrative of “Beale Street West” in its rambunctious heyday.

“Beale was controlled by Boss Crump,” Jackson said. “If it got wild, they would shut it down. West Memphis stayed open all night.”

Eighth Street became a mecca for gambling and the music followed the money.

The scene brought everybody to West Memphis: B.B. King, Ike Turner, Junior Parker and Elmore James came through. Wayne Jackson once said that the Memphis sound was born over the river.

Raised in West Memphis, Jackson has played on 52 No. 1 records.

But West Memphis attracted more than legendary bluesmen.

“The ‘PI’ was the place to see and be seen,” Memphian Bryan Nearn said of the Plantation Inn.

The club was the epicenter of an integrated experience for a generation who lived through the civil rights movement.

“It was a tradition after all the debut parties at the Country Club or University Club to head over across the bridge, with the guys still in their tuxes and the gals in their long prom dresses, to mix with the rednecks in their jeans and cowboy boots, along with the black couples who had all the rhythm and put us all to shame on the dance floor,” Nearn said.

“I was a dancer,” Jones said.

Now with Ford of West Memphis, Jones worked as a waiter at the PI.

West Memphis was also home to KWEM, where Howlin Wolf, nee local farmer Chester Burnett, was the first African-American to host his own show on the station. Sam Phillips signed Wolf to Sun after hearing him on KWEM. Other hosts included Sonny Boy Williamson and the guest list is an encyclopedia of post-war blues.

Jackson’s 8th Street Blues band had the perfect touch for what was an unexpectedly large crowd.

The band included Lannie McMillan who played on “Shaft,” “Black Moses” and “I’ll Take You There;” Ricky “Rat” Berryhill; Frank Ray Jr.; and Walter White Jr. and Robert Dr. Feelgood” Potts, who co-wrote Johnnie Taylor’s “Don’t Make Me Late,” “Funky Postman” and his epic “Here’s Your Drawers.”