COUNTRY MUSIC AND AN INTERSTATE ENDED R&B’S GLORY DAYS IN MUSIC CITY, BUT ICONS ARE PLAYING FOR A COMEBACK.
Let’s start here. Two of the most successful, best-known and perhaps even legendary rhythm and blues performers played in the same Nashville-based band in the 1960s. It was when Jefferson St. roared with music.
The guitar player – a former Army paratrooper from Fort Campbell – achieved the most fame of anyone who honed R&B mastery in Nashville. James Marshall Hendrix was a soft-spoken guy with a fondness for reefer. He was still “Jimmy” back in the Jefferson St. days, but he went on to become Jimi Hendrix, who let his guitar do the talking for him. “If I don’t meet you no more in this world, then I’ll meet you in the next one. And don’t be late…” he sang in the bluesy “Voodoo Chile.”
Then there’s Jimmy Church, who has been leading R&B bands ceaselessly for about six decades and has been the most vocal proponent of “our music” – Nashville’s rhythm and blues. A skilled bassist and frontman, Church in the 1960s joined the band in which Hendrix played. He later took the group over, becoming The Jimmy Church Band. He continues to guide the group today, taking old-school rhythm and blues to weddings and other gatherings around the world.
These two men are important to the R&B scene here in Nashville for different reasons.
The intense shooting star that was Hendrix is celebrated internationally and serves as an entry point to study the history of North Nashville R&B. By simple longevity and enthusiasm, Church in a very real way is responsible for the fact Nashville R&B still can be heard live. And he has guaranteed that sound will be heard for decades more, after he planted the seeds to the future of the genre by getting his sons involved in the family business.
It would be impossible to ignore these two in any essay about Nashville’s R&B glory days, the music’s subsequent decline and hopes for resurrection without talking about Church and Hendrix. Both men made their marks in the R&B-club-filled neighborhood, which pretty much was snuffed when Interstate 40 cut through North Nashville, separating – by many speeding lanes – people who used to be just down the street from each other. That road killed the neighborhood.
And the music.
A primary victim of this dissecting was the neon-lit Jefferson St. neighborhood of clubs and restaurants linked by rhythm and blues. That destruction can be seen now if you drive down Jefferson and pass beneath the behemoth I-40 overpass. The Del Morocco, the club where Hendrix cut his teeth on guitar strings (really), and the old beauticians’ school next door where he lived in an upstairs apartment with Billy Cox, are now a dirty and dank concrete tunnel frequented by pigeons and the homeless. That shady and shaded stretch could very easily be considered the tombstone of Nashville’s R&B scene.
There are talks of resuscitating Jefferson St.’s club district, both physically and for the music once again to become a part of the mainstream through radio, recording and stages. But for now, it’s just holding on, its main outpost a meat-and-three in South Nashville where the musicians get together and talk about the good old days, sing “Mustang Sally,” “Let’s Get It On,” or “My Girl” (in four-part harmony), and demonstrate hope that the spark being nursed there will catch fire again.
“The scene is really gone,” says Church. “People want to go back and repeat the old days. There’s nothing that’s coming that will bring it back. Country music is just too strong in this city now.”
It really was in the very early years of Music Row, before the bloodless hillbilly conquest of Nashville, that the R&B scene thrived in the clubs, on television, in record racks and on clear-channel radio shows. The radio exposure was pioneered by WLAC disc Jockey Gene Nobles. Others, like Bill “Hoss” Allen and John R. Richbourg, followed suit. Hendrix and Church both benefited by their appearances on syndicated television shows “Night Train’’ and ‘’The!!!Beat.’’ Hendrix was just a sideman for the most part, but the first time he ever was featured on TV was performing “Shotgun” on Night Train.
Church was regularly featured on both shows, giving him substantial TV exposure and regional popularity.
Nowadays, according to Church, the guitar-slinging Luke Bryan wannabes dominate Nashville, not allowing room for black artists and their music.
“Now you don’t have a chance,” says Church, who does make more than a meager go of it by leading his in-demand show band.
“My audience is 99.9 percent white,” he says. His band performs approximately 100 gigs a year. Note: A couple of years ago, they played in Memphis at a high-society wedding attended by Princes William and Harry. (A picture of Church with Prince William graces the musician’s home page.)
“Then you got the old guys that’s all dying out,” says Church. “The old days is gone.”
Those old days were when R&B was really the musical signature of Nashville, not just on Jefferson Street but across the tracks, at places like The New Era, that roared nightly on Capitol Hill, and the Jolly Roger, next to Skull’s Rainbow Room in Printers Alley. In those days, when radio station WLAC was broadcasting essentially clear-channel Nashville R&B, is where we begin.
“Jimi (Jimi Hendrix) played behind me,” says Church.
“A really nice guy,” by most accounts, Hendrix engaged in a famous guitar duel with the late, great Johnny Jones (he lost, most say) and later left town with a touring band led by Atlanta’s Gorgeous George (the musician, not the old-time wrestler).
Not long after that, the colorful guitarist moved over to Swinging London – presided over by Kings John Lennon and Mick Jagger – and conquered the world.
He bedazzled the British invasion pop stars with his guitar, nursing from a the instrument other-worldly sounds that no one heard before or duplicated since. In front of the rock royalty, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix and his pals, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding), delighted with a full-on explosive cover of The Beatles’ well-known single Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. It was Hendrix’s gift to King John and his royal court of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
And before you knew it, the shy guitarist who had honed his outrageous style by spending time as a sideman to Jimmy Church, Billy Cox, Frank Howard and others in the era, was dead. A drug and alcohol combo apparently caused him to suffocate on his own vomit in an
apartment rented from Ringo Starr.
He was gone at 27 years old, not all that manyHe was gone at 27 years old, not all that many years removed from the days when he and Cox lived beneath a single naked light bulb above the old hair-dressing academy on Jefferson St., sleeping by day and at night raising the rafters of the old Del Morocco, the Club Baron and other spots in Nashville’s former black entertainment district. Heck, that band even entertained white people on Printers Alley in those segregated days.The old Jefferson Street scene is where the R&B nation played when they came to Nashville, figures like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson.
Church was also one of them.
He began as a bassist in a band that eventually was led by Billy Cox (with Hendrix on lead guitar) and eventually took over when Jimi left town. Cox followed him on bass.
“I took it over from Billy,” says Church. “And the Jimmy Church Band,” an old-fashioned R&B show band – sort of like the Blues Brothers Band but with a talented singer and leader – was born. While a lot of R&B is being pushed out by modern urban hip-hop or by today’s bro-country music, Church’s band plays long and loud into the night.
“It’s been that way ever since,” says Church, who misses the old days and is able to rattle off the names of many lost: Earl Gaines, Roscoe Shelton, Gene Allison, Johnny Bragg, Bobby Hebb, producer Ted Jarrett, Clifford Curry and Marion James, Nashville’s self-proclaimed Queen of the Blues who died late last year.There are still some places to hear R&B music in Nashville, but it’s mostly contained to weddings and private corporate functions. However, every Tuesday night, Church hosts an R&B jam on the stage at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Cafe on Murfreesboro Road. Most nights at that city-fried restaurant – offering up catfish, greens and the works – are aimed at younger adults. Not Tuesdays.
Carol Ann Jenkins, the namesake owner, died recently. When she was ill, she asked Church to make sure to help her daughter run the establishment and keep the music playing. Church emcees the night, wandering the low-slung “concert hall” and talking to folks while making sure he’s got his acts all lined up. Veteran R&B and just plain blues pickers and singers amble in any time during the evening to listen. More than likely, Church will coax them up onto the stage where they’ll do one of their songs from “back in the day” or cover songs from across the R&B range.
The other spot where R&B can be heard on a weekly basis is, oddly enough, Acme Seed & Feed, the old farm supply store that has been turned into a nightclub at the foot of Lower Broadway.
Every Saturday, Nashville nice guy Charles “Wigg” Walker entertains the brunch crowd.
“I still have the voice. I try to live the best I can. I’m eating right. I don’t drink that much. All of the above,” says Walker, 76, when asked how he maintains that show with his crackerjack R&B band.
It’s really sort of a homecoming event for Walker, who left Jefferson Street and find success in New York City and overseas.
“I started back in 1959, my first professional job,” he says. “That was at the New Era. It was on Charlotte. I was a little bit too young to be in there, but back in the day you could do stuff.” That club was up on Capitol Hill. After it closed doors there, the New Era relocated to the then-disheveled part of town that developers now call the North Gulch.
From the very start, on stages across the country and beyond, Walker was working six nights a week, a pace he kept until he moved back to his hometown in recent years.
“I think the main thing about it, back in the day most of the singers all had distinctive voices. They all had their own style of voice,” says Walker.
“Today, a lot of people sound very much alike. That was the thing with big stars: You could tell who was singing right away,” he adds.
While he was a favorite at the old New Era, “The rest of the clubs were on Jefferson and I sang at most all the clubs. All the way down Jefferson, the ones on Charlotte and in-between, too.”
New York “was a whole different scene,” he says. “You have to get there first and you have to have the heart.”
A classic soul singer, he played on bills with James Brown, Jackie Wilson “all the big people,” he says. His official biography has him and his band traveling with many stars: Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke.
Nowadays, in R&B just as in country music, “a lot of people sound very much alike,” he says.
After 35 years gone, Walker moved back to Nashville in 1993.
“It’s my home and I had spent a lot of time in New York and traveling all over the world. I came back here to see my mother. I wasn’t planning on staying. But Nashville had changed a lot and I was ready to leave New York, anyway.”
In recent years, he toured as the lead singer for The Dynamites featuring Charles “Wigg” Walker, even coming up with a few hits.
His official bio pretty much wraps it up. “Charles is one of the few remaining original soul singers from back in the day when old-school R&B/soul was brand new on the music scene … Wigg is still delivering this style of music at a very high level, and his experience and maturity in the field of soul music give him a perspective that is unmatched.”
He uses that wisdom to assess why R&B now has only has a smattering of success here in a city where it developed, was nurtured.
“I think one of the main things is the clubs were too small for the acts … Nashville fell on hard times for R&B. Acts would skip over Nashville and go to Memphis.
“I was out with the Jackson Five and we came through, but we played in Memphis.”
The old R&B was returned to the spotlight by an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Museum Editor Michael Gray, an R&B enthusiast, curated what was titled “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970.” The exhibit focused on the other color of Nashville music, that which came from across the tracks, so to speak.
For that exhibit, a part of the building that is a shrine to Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Webb Pierce, Waylon and Willie and the boys, was turned over to chronicling this music. Gray and co-curator Daniel Cooper rounded up not only relics from the heyday of R&B here, they found out that many of the musicians were still here. (Though some were working as barbers, repo men and other “real” occupations.). Gray and Cooper put together what turned out to be a Grammy-winning accompanying CD to the exhibit, and they went to work coaxing these men and women back out for what, in so many cases, turned out to be a final bow.
For guys like Walker and Church, it was a chance to perform at public events. For some of them, the return to the spotlight sparked a new fire, and they decided to take a shot at being performing artists again.
“I was never under the illusion that most of these guys were on the tops of their game,” says Gray. “But ‘Wigg,’ well he’s still got the vocal chops for sure, compared to other artists who are that age and have been around that long. He knows how to capture an audience, pace his shows, the tension and release.”
Also featured in the exhibit was another Nashville-raised artist who had found massive success elsewhere was Bobby Hebb. After years of living on the East Coast and in Europe, Hebb, who had been a regular on the Grand Ole Opry as a young man, decided to come home and move to a quiet subdivision in Bordeaux.
Hebb hooked up with the old crowd and he also worked on new recordings in his living room that he turned into a studio. This writer had the occasion to not only befriend Hebb, and many of the other Night Train stars, but I also sat in his living room one afternoon where he picked up his guitar and sang his trademark tune “Sunny” for an audience of one. He still possessed the vocal magic that had made him an international star. Hebb died in 2010 from lung cancer.
One result of the “Night Train” exhibit was the reemergence of Frank Howard & The Commanders, a classic R&B group specializing in flashy moves, clothes and vocal harmonies back in their day.
As old men, they no longer did the flying splits while singing something like “Shout,” but they did begin rehearsing and singing along with so many others at various “Night Train” events around Nashville.
Another group coaxed out of retirement was The Valentines.
When ill health hit one of The Valentines, Howard joined that group as The Commanders were fading away. Like his former group, The Valentines rely on choreography set to classic harmony. They still record audio and video, and play small civic arenas throughout the Middle Tennessee area.
“There always seems to be new generations of listeners who love Southern soul,” says Gray. “There always are going to be people who are going to want to seek out these musicians and be very influenced.”
Another R&B scene survivor, Tyrone “Super T” Smith, is, like Church, a nationally touring show band leader.
In fact, he was a White House and wedding favorite of the George W. Bush family. He is best known for the small segments in each show in which he wears a skin-tight “Super T” uniform (like Superman, but with a “T” instead of an “S”).
And there even is a new generation out there to make music.
“The original members of the Fairfield Four (classic a cappella group) are no longer with us, but Sam McCrary’s daughters, the McCrary Sisters, are regulars both on the local and national level,” says Gray.
“Regina McCrary is on the Bob Dylan gospel records,” adds Gray, who is referring to the albums the bard from the North Country devoted to his sudden and perhaps fleeting (who knows with Dylan?) Christianity. “You gotta serve somebody.”
Frank Howard, like his old friend Jimmy Church, is a bit melancholy when talking about the future of the R&B scene here in Nashville.
“Nashville was an R&B town,” says Howard, looking back to his earliest recordings in the 1960s. “The artists in this town was just as good as Memphis. We just didn’t have the publicity they got over there.”
“The R&B scene is still here slightly,” he says. “Every time we play someplace the crowd loves it.”
Then he shifts opinion to show he’s not nearly that optimistic. “People liked R&B because the music told a story, that music touches people’s hearts. It is great music. But the scene in Nashville is gone.”
While there are about eight R&B bands in Nashville, they have difficulty finding places to sing.
“It’s sad to remember the interest in this music when they had that exhibit out at the Hall of Fame and how many people wanted to see this music, feel this music, it was amazing. I would have thought it would have caught on,” Howard laments.
“I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to do this,” Howard says. “I’d like to play every week, not once a month.”
He pines for a club that will cater to the R&B enthusiasts, and he wouldn’t mind seeing it in the Lower Broadway area, where it could compete with all flavors of good and bad hillbilly music blasting through the open doors.
He says the answer could well be in getting such a club up and running, giving acts a “home” to display their vocal wares for their share of the tourism bucks.
Jimmy Church, the unofficial leader of these chitlin circuit refugees, also sees the value of such a club.
After the Hall of Fame exhibit was launched, Church opened “The Place,” as a spot where his own band could keep busy and make money when they were off the road.
For awhile, The Place was successful enough, but when Jimmy was on the road, it faltered. It’s a long, complicated story that ends with Church losing money on the club.
Church stipulates that if such a club ever did arrive, there would be no hip-hop or other bastardized forms of black music. “It needs to be completely Old School.”
He has no doubt it would be a hit with the tourists. Remember, long and lucrative lessons at wedding receptions have taught him that “white people love this music.”
While he’s skeptical about the music’s future, he’d like to have a place where his sons – all “Old School” – could play when they aren’t out working weddings and corporate gigs.
No, he’s not expecting a rebirth of Jefferson Street. But he sure has fond memories of his days and nights down there, including time spent in a band where the lead guitarist delighted the crowd with his guitar acrobatics. Whether such a dream materializes or remains just that a dream, The Jimmy Church Band will be among those who keep on playing – generally far from Nashville – while brides and corporate honchos dance and applaud.
And regardless of the R&B future of Nashville, he has secured the future of his own band after he’s gone. You see, his plan is to turn it over to his bass player.
“He’s Jimmy Jr., but we spell it Jimi, so when he takes it would be The Jimi Church band.”
The young fellow who “grew up” on Jefferson Street likely would be honored to know this.