Hallelujah! We’re Going To Church

I’m meeting Tad at 10.45 am for our first tour – I’m going to church for the first time in ages. After my late-ish night I decide to have breakfast in the hotel, which I know will be expensive but it’s easier on the first day until I find my bearings in the city and look for somewhere cheaper to eat. It turns out to be even more expensive than advertised as the Peabody adds on extras you don’t know about and they don’t tell you about. As I will find out, this is a common tactic of the hotel and it leaves a sour taste over the duration of my stay. I know this is rated as a 5-star hotel but they charge enough for the room and in the bars without having to rip you off with underhand charges.

Church service leaflet for Rev Green's church

Church service leaflet for Rev Green’s church

And breakfast is not that good: everyone who opted for the buffet menu is standing around at the food service table waiting for dishes to be re-filled, there’s no toaster, and limited types of bread and other items on offer. I ordered tea to drink and the waitress takes ages to bring it. It’s definitely not value for money – it was over $20 – so I won’t be doing that again: 7-11 here we come. I leave the restaurant and the lobby is starting to fill up – it’s duck time! I go to my room for my sunglasses & hat and then come back down in the lift. OMG – the place is heaving! I can hardly make my way through for the people – but I do make a mental note to check out the ducks before I leave… I eventually work my way through the hordes waiting for the ducks, meet Tad in the lobby, and off we go.

Tad runs American Dream Safari offering a host of music-themed tours and trips. This morning I’m going on the Gospel Church tour to the Reverend Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. What we don’t know is whether Al Green will be taking the service this morning. It is after all a church service – you go to worship, not to see the man. 🙂 Apparently the Rev Green does travel around quite a bit so it’s pot luck if he’ll be preaching today. It’s a glorious hot sunny day and we cruise the streets from downtown out into the Memphis suburbs in Tad’s pink Cadillac. It’s a genuine original – no seat belts! – but still runs beautifully.

Tad's pink CadillacTad's pink CadillacTad and his pink CadillacTad's pink CadillacInside Rev Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church

We arrive at the church and Tad is astonished to see three full-size coaches full of white folks pouring into the church. He says you usually get a few tourists and maybe a coach every now and then but three is exceptional. So the tourists outnumber the locals inside by about 3-to-1 and its standing room only in places.

All the locals and choir – we’re in the middle of an African American community around here – are dressed up in their Sunday finest. Al’s not on stage when the service starts but I guess he’s here because there’s a huge throne-like chair in the centre of the stage with ‘Rev Green’ on it. There’s a proper music group in the corner – drums, guitars, keyboards – and the singing gets going… and it’s all very uplifting and joyous. Despite us tourists taking over their church this morning one of the lead singers goes out of his way to welcome us all – and it’s delivered with genuine meaning: I could easily understand him and the congregation being somewhat miffed at the locals struggling to find a seat in the pews because all these white interlopers had taken them, but I sense a sincerity in his words and voice that makes me feel we are welcome. Then after a brilliant singing performance from a really powerful lady singer – well actually, all the singers are superb – Al arrives stage right after 10 minutes or so and moves to his chair, centre stage.

The Incomparable Rev Al Green

For the next 25 minutes or so the Rev Green preaches, sings and scats with the band. Boy, can he still sing. The purity of his voice is still there and he can still hit all the high notes pitch-perfect. This whole opening half of the service is just like the church scene in The Blues Brothers with James Brown – obviously without the gymnastics 🙂 – and I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way either: the film portrays the real-life energy, soulfulness, passion and overall joy being generated inside the church this morning in an amazingly accurate way. But I witnessed the real thing, live.

I’m very disappointed to see one of the coach parties get up and leave whilst Al is still preaching, hugely disrespectful to my mind, as are the folks who keep standing up and taking photos and videos of him whilst he’s singing. It’s a church service you morons, not a pop concert. (My photo inside was taken before the service started.)

At the halfway point in the service Al basically says – in a very nice and roundabout way – give us your money. It’s a bit too in-your-face for my liking but I guess that’s the way they do the ‘collection’ here. In the UK something like a cloth bag or salver is passed around the congregation and everyone knows what you’re supposed to do, without anything being said out loud: actually spending about four minutes (which is what he did) imploring us to open our wallets “in the name of the Lord” was a bit over the top I think. At this point, if you were in any way cynical, one could speculate as to why the guy at the start welcomed all the visitors so profusely, but I think that might just be a touch harsh. Tad says the service will go on for another 45 minutes or so after this little interlude (and it is acceptable to leave during this ‘intermission’) but it will just be Al reading from the Bible, preaching and doing a sermon so we decide that’s enough and make our exit after having waited in line with everyone else then filed past the ‘contribution point’ to make an ‘offering’. Enough said.

“Looking for soul food and a place to eat” *

We cruise by Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, where he recorded the classics with Al Green and others, on our way to lunch at a real soul food restaurant, the Gay Hawk. It’s a typical just-on-the-verge-of-being-rundown local establishment but homely, very welcoming and great food – fried chicken, greens, gravy, cornbread and pie to finish: yum, yum! Locals start to turn up after their various church services, all dressed-up to the nines in their Sunday finest, a great sight to see when I’m in jeans and a polo shirt. Tad’s well known here, which is just as well as whilst it doesn’t seem a particularly bad area, and Tad says it’s “reasonably safe”, it doesn’t seem the sort of ‘hood I would just casually walk around.

(Sylvester was taken aback when he asked if we ate soul food in the UK and I said no – “what do you eat then” he asked, so I told him – or more precisely I said there weren’t any such restaurants where I lived but that in some areas of London or other cities you could probably find some.)

Beale Street

Tad drops me off back at the hotel and I decide to take a trolley bus: they do a circular loop of downtown and down to the river. After the round trip I hop off and walk into Beale Street. It’s mid-afternoon on Sunday and there’s music blaring out of almost every bar, club and restaurant. The part of the street with these venues is just over a block long these days and you can tell it’s just a tourist trap. Lots of tat shops selling junk as well. So there’s nothing to really see on the street itself but Tad tells me later that the music in some places can be quite good but they are tourist-orientated bars and not real juke joints. I’ll come back tomorrow night to check it out. I find a restaurant (Blues City Cafe) and have a beer whilst watching some football. I go back to the hotel for a couple of hours but I decide I’ll try the Blues City Cafe for dinner, as the barman was very friendly and welcoming, before meeting Tad again later for my Juke Joint Full Of Blues tour. When I do return I try tamales for dinner – and they’re awful, but the barman comps them, which was good of him – so I tried the beef stew instead, which was very good.

Juke Joint Full Of Blues Tour

Tad picks me up at 9 pm. First up we stop at a jazz club just down from Beale Street. It’s an almost derelict building with four young white guys doing their jazz thing to about 10 people in the place, of whom only two are showing any kind of interest in the music. Which is not a surprise because the music is awful, typical self-indulgent crap that much of jazz can be. We have one beer and leave.

We head out of town and into the Memphis suburbs, and Tad tells me where we’re going is into exclusively black neighbourhoods. It turns out Tad will be the only white guy I see from now on until I’m back at the hotel later. Onto our first juke joint: Tad has been promised a live band by the promoter (who is not the owner). It’s a brick building in good condition, the bar, tables and dance floor all OK. Years ago Tad says this was a really hot place showcasing the likes of Willie Mitchell. Not tonight however, as we will find out. The place is almost empty apart from a couple at a table with their son, the latter of whom is clearly blotto and they are having trouble keeping him in order (he’s about 20 by the looks of it). There is no band. Tad looks crestfallen. There is a man on the dance floor with a DJ setup, spinning some nondescript tunes. The owner (who’s the barman for the night) tells Tad that some singers these days sing over backing tracks – juke joint karaoke! Tad now looks gobsmacked. He has never heard of or seen this type of thing before. He wants to leave, and leave now: “Hell man, this is my reputation on the line here” he says to me under his breath. But he then decides we have to stay a while so as not to appear rude to the owner or promoter.

Karaoke Time

Whilst sipping a beer until we can make our exit, two guys come over and greet Tad and he introduces me to them. In the background the drunken son starts playing up even more and the owner calls the mother over to ‘have a word’. Tad’s two friends then decide, in their wisdom, to put on a show for me and Tad. 🙁 They obviously think that as we are visitors – and they know Tad’s been doing these tours for years – they should do something to make our visit worthwhile. One of them plays MC, and after being introduced to him about 2 minutes ago, says “Welcome to our guest all the way from the UK, oh, I forgot your name…”  Precious.

The backing track kicks in and the other guy, the singer, starts – and it’s bloody awful. I wish it would stop. NOW. But he then does a second number. Which. Is. Even. Worse. Tad says the guy is a good singer with a band… Blotto kid keeps playing up all the while the singer’s doing his stuff, and eventually, in the middle of the second ‘song’, Dad stands up and tries to force him and Ma out – but the kid’s not having it and it’s starting to get ugly. Before the end of the second song Tad says we need to get out fast before it kicks off. Although the ‘music’ would have driven us out anyway, the potential flash point on the dance floor gives us an excuse.

Back in the car on the way to our second venue Tad is genuinely shocked at the karaoke. He keeps going on that he’s never come across this sort of thing before, and he’s really worried about what I think about his reputation – and he’s also extremely pissed off at the promoter who lied to him about the ‘non-band’.

It’s very dark and we arrive in a car park with some offices down one side.  I have no idea where I am. We park up and Tad leads me past the darkened offices to an open door. There’s no lighting outside, just the light coming out of the door to illuminate the area, so I can’t really see what this place is – but I can hear music. We go inside to be met by a very large well-built dude who frisks us both with a metal detector: this could be a bit ominous… Turns out it’s quite a large room – a modern, rectangular concrete block – that someone’s hired for the night. Tonight it’s laid out with long rectangular tables and chairs and there’s a band on the dance floor. Tad acknowledges loads of people and makes his way to the table right by the dance floor. Big Dom is in charge. And, yes, Dom is big. A huge, roly-poly, cheerful guy, really welcoming to us both – and he invites us to join him at his table. But I bet you don’t mess with Big Dom. Or his ‘friends’. The setup is all quite basic, functional, no frills; the bar has no permanent optics or beer taps, all the drinks have been brought in by whoever organised the event. All the beers are in tubs of ice, the spirits are large bottles where shots are poured into plastic glasses (no real glasses, no measures) but the atmosphere feels cool and relaxed. The tables and chairs are run-of-the-mill functional as well. I discover we’re at somebody’s birthday party that has been going on all afternoon and has now segued into the evening bash – and somehow Tad has managed to get us into it! The band on the dance floor are playing away and I notice they don’t have a lead guitarist. Strange. But the tunes sound good at the moment.

Soul Power

What transpires over the next two hours or so is a real privilege to experience. We’re two white middle-aged gatecrashers at a private birthday party for a young lady, somewhere deep in a black Memphis suburb. Is this real, I think to myself? There’s about 60-70 people in the place and then Big Dom takes charge. He gets up on the dance floor with a mic, looks around the room, spots someone and says “Hey, Donna, come and do a song for us” – and Donna does. And Donna is superb.

Song sung, Dom gets up and looks around again, selects someone else, and the next singer gets up. All night long. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. There’s a succession of folks, male, female, young, old, sometimes in twos, sometimes in threes, who do one, two or three songs then exit stage right to great applause. No-one refuses Dom’s requests, the atmosphere is great and buzzing, and there’s joking and laughter going on all around the place between songs. The singers just wander onto the dance floor, tell the band the song they’re going to sing – and off they go. Simple as that! It’s mostly soul music, not blues, but who the hell who cares, it’s great. Some songs are slow ballards, but most are dance-able to – and every single performance is brilliant.

Mr Smooth

Mr Smooth!

Every singer who gets up to sing could piss all over every winner of The Voice or the X-Factor since time began, ten times over. F****** brilliant stuff. All of them. But there’s one guy who tops the lot. Mr Smooth. OMG. He looks as sharp as a pin in a shiny suit and he’s got a voice to kill for. Great singer.

Karaoke-guy turns up later on in the evening and does a turn – and yes, turns out he can sing. Another guy to sing was OT Sykes, who just happens to be a dentist: this guy could be a superstar, his voice is pure gold. Tad tells me his parents wouldn’t let him be a singer when he was younger and forced him to become a dentist! A lady gets up and starts a song, and suddenly four other ladies just decide to come out of the audience mid-song and join her as her backing group – and they nail the song perfectly, all in harmony. Big Dom did a song as well. I was having such a good time I lost track of the all song titles but all were well-known soul standards. Tad and I then get asked to dance by a couple of ladies who are dancing, but I politely refuse… A while later another lady comes across to me – and she won’t take no for an answer, so I tell her “but white men can’t dance” at which she laughs but then grabs my hand anyway so I don’t have much choice! We boogied for a song or three and I don’t think I disgraced myself too much because as we parted she gave me a hug and said thanks for dancing. Having seen this of course the first lady came back over to me, so I could hardly refuse her this time. I should say that the dance floor was quite full by this stage so it wasn’t as if my moves were the subject of much ridicule from the watching audience. Hopefully.  🙂

Big Dom announces it’s time to bring things to a close, so the last tune is played and people get up to leave so I go around our table to shake hands with everyone, including Big Dom, and thank them all for having me at the party. Outside we meet Mr Smooth. We get talking and Tad tells him he’s never seen him before – which must be saying something in Memphis – and he replies saying he’s 65 years old (!) and just having fun. I tell him he’s great – “You’ve got a great voice, go do something with it.” “Thanks, man” he replies. “Seriously”, I say, “Go do something with your voice.”

Back in the Caddy on the way back to the hotel, Tad is happy again. He liked the music at the second place but he says the music scene is tough in Memphis these days. We get back to the hotel and I thank him for his time, pay him his fee and get out into the night air. As I wander through the lobby, given my different yet bizarrely wonderful experiences tonight, this thought strikes me: “What future for the blues?”

* Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed

PS. After I returned to the UK I found the ‘birthday joint’ on Google Maps by looking up OT Sykes because Tad said his surgery was in one of the offices outside. It was that dark in the lot I didn’t see the writing ‘Blues Night Club’ on the wall outside at the time, and I’m not sure it still operates as a club today, I can’t find anything recent on Google. A club called The Blue Worm used to operate from the address but it appears to have closed many years ago. The building is located in Orange Mound, a neighbourhood in the south eastern section of Memphis, which was the first African American neighbourhood in the US to be built by African Americans. The area became infected with drugs and crime in the 1980s and 1990s but revitalisation efforts since have showed some positive effects.

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