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VOL. 122 | NO. 85 | Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Construction Begins On Memphis' Ground Zero Blues Club

By Eric Smith

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HOWDY, PARDNERS: Mississippi attorney Bill Luckett and Academy Award-winning, Memphis-born actor Morgan Freeman launched Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., in May 2001. Construction has begun on the second club, in Memphis. -- Photo Courtesy Of Troy Catchings

Memphis' status as Home of the Blues will grow this summer with the addition of a Ground Zero Blues Club. The original club is in Clarksdale, Miss., and is co-owned by Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and lawyer Bill Luckett.

Luckett and his Memphis partner, John Elkington of Performa Entertainment Real Estate Inc., announced plans earlier in the year to open the club at the Lee's Landing development.

The club will be on Lt. George W. Lee Avenue, next to the Westin Memphis Beale Street Hotel, which opened in April, and across the street from the Gibson Beale Street Showcase.

Now, building permits have been filed for the space on the ground floor of a newly opened parking garage, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com. Plans call for a 6,000-square foot club that will hold up to 240 people.

The owners expect to see Ground Zero open in mid-summer.

"We're seeing positive progress toward putting the club in there," Luckett said last week when reached by phone in Clarksdale. "I'm seeing it take shape."

Luckett is managing partner of Luckett Tyner Law firm there.


'Labor of love'

The original Ground Zero Blues Club opened in May 2001 in a century-old building in Clarksdale. Luckett and Freeman launched the club because of a clamoring from visitors for more places to hear live blues.

Luckett said tourists would visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and then want to hear the music they had been learning about.

"They were asking the people at the museum and other people here in Clarksdale, 'Where can we hear some blues music?'" Luckett said. "The answer, at best, was, 'Well, you might try here, you might try there.' But there was no reliable, consistent, week-in, week-out blues music being played here. We saw a need."

COMING SOON: Construction has begun on Ground Zero, which will open mid-summer at the Lee's Landing development on Lt. George Lee Avenue next to the new Westin Hotel and across the street from the Gibson Beale Street Showcase. -- Photo By Eric Smith

After deciding to meet that need, Luckett and Freeman came up with the name to honor the area's role as ground zero for blues music, using the definition of the phrase that means "point of origin," Luckett noted.

"The Delta blues music was centered here. This is where it all started," he said. "If (blues musicians) weren't born here or lived here, they played here. Every blues great anywhere, anytime, was from or went through Clarksdale."

Luckett said the club is about to reach a milestone by breaking even in 2007, six years after opening. But, as he was quick to point out, the venture was about more than making money.

"It's been a labor of love," Luckett said. "We wanted to do something for the community as well as have a fun place to go."


'A natural progression'

Luckett said he didn't have any plans to open another Ground Zero, but thanks to the "persistence of John Elkington," the club will become the latest addition to Downtown's multi-billion dollar entertainment district.

Of course, opening in this city made sense for a club that honors the blues.

"When a lot of these musicians left the Delta, their first stop going north was typically Memphis," Luckett said. "It's sort of a natural progression, and we're following it, oh, 75 years later."

Luckett and Elkington, who could not be reached for comment, are 50-50 partners in the Memphis club, which will resemble in some ways the original's décor - but not entirely.

The Clarksdale club has a plywood bar made from the wood that once boarded up its building. And its floor is the original wood, something Luckett said couldn't be recreated at the Memphis location.

But what patrons see on the walls and what they feel under foot aren't as important as what they hear when walking into Ground Zero.

"The main ingredient of that club and this club is we're going to play blues music," Luckett said.

The musical focus will be Delta blues, with many musicians from Clarksdale and the surrounding area making the trip to Memphis for regular gigs. Luckett estimated four or five nights of live music each week, and he'll use his Clarksdale booking agent, Roger Stolle of Cat Head Presents, to schedule the acts.

Luckett said there are no plans to build additional Ground Zero clubs. He believes the Clarksdale and Memphis clubs will complement each other nicely.

"Part of our mission is that Memphis is going to help support Clarksdale in that we're going to originate some bus tours out of the club there," Luckett said. "A third of the club's business in Clarksdale comes from Memphis. It's an easy trip down Highway 61."


A marriage of convenience

Ground Zero will have some famous neighbors when it opens. Besides Gibson across the street and Beale Street and FedExForum just a block away, Ground Zero will share a connection with the Westin Hotel next door.

Luckett is excited about the prospect of all those guests being enticed to his club for some authentic blues music and Southern cooking.

"We're planning to do a lot of business together," Luckett said. "We're going to work with them; they're going to work with us. We're going to try to have a good symbiotic relationship. And we want to be a good neighbor on Beale and the area too."

Barry Gambold, general manager of the Westin, is equally excited about the two businesses' proximity to each other. He said he remembers walking down Lt. George Lee Avenue in January and thinking how much the addition of a club normally found on Beale could enliven the area. Now he's ready for that day to come.

"It's huge," he said. "We think it's the right combination. We feel it fits right in with not only us, but the whole neighborhood. We're excited about it."

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