The first Sunflower River Blues Festival took place in 1988 and was funded primarily by Clarksdale's downtown merchants and organized by Jim O'Neal and Dr. Patricia Johnson. It featured dozens of musicians performing on outdoor stages on the banks of the Sunflower River beneath the Riverside Recreation Center and in the open space between Sunflower and Delta Avenues. It was filmed by Mississippi Educational Television (ETV).|
Some of the performers were the Jelly Roll Kings, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Boogaloo Ames, and Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. The finale performances by James "Son" Thomas followed by Otis Rush took place inside the Larry Thompson Center for the Performing Arts, formerly the Paramount Theatre, formerly the Marion Theatre.
The second festival (1989), funded primarily by a group of individual donors including the late Z L Hill, owner of the Riverside Hotel, moved to Martin Luther King Park on the banks of the Sunflower River. A flatbed truck served as a stage for musicians - predominately local performers including Mr. Johnnie Billington and two students he was mentoring: Quitman County brothers Deon (drummer) and Harvel Thomas (bassist). Although the lineup was smaller than the previous year, it attracted an international audience including fans from Australia.
The third festival (1990) was a tribute to Muddy Waters, and the stage moved again across the Sunflower River to Soldiers Field, where Clarksdale High School once played its football games.
Among the performers were Keith Sykes from Memphis, harmonica master Snooky Pryor, Vasti Jackson backing up swamp queen Katie Webster, jazz virtuoso Mose Allison, and Jessie Mae Hemphill.
Blues Association members met regularly at the Chamber of Commerce, then located in the downtown Bobo Building, to plan the event dedicated to showcasing Mississippi musicians or musicians with roots in Mississippi.
The organization continued to be composed entirely of volunteers who loved blues and were committed to keeping the festival free and accessible to all since blues sprang from the local culture.
Although the association became an official 501 c 3 non-profit and received funds from the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, it retained its unique individuality and laid-back, informal hospitality that has remained a trademark.
The fourth festival (1991) moved once again across the river to the former loading docks of the freight depot (now the Delta Blues Museum). The stage faced the railroad tracks, Delta Avenue, and the raised concrete "porch" now the exterior of Ground Zero Blues Club. The festival remained in this location until the city of Clarksdale built the Blues Alley stage facing Yazoo Avenue.
The first acoustic stage was housed in the Delta Blues Museum when it was located on the second floor of Carnegie Public Library.
Frequently it featured an educational component - lectures, talks, panels, discussions that often were funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council and organized by John Ruskey, museum curator. One year it featured foods of the Mississippi Delta with Big John Broom cooking catfish, Boss Hogg and his family with barbecue, Shirley Fair with soul food.
Frequently musicians performed on the steps outside the library; other times on a makeshift tent-style stage. After the Blues Museum moved into the freight depot and when the festival main stage moved to the Blues Alley stage, the acoustic stage was transferred to one of the air-conditioned waiting rooms inside Clarksdale Station, the renovated passenger depot.
In 2004 the Blues Association was awarded a Southern Arts Federation grant to present Big Bill Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, in an educational program which took place inside the Delta Blues Museum. In 2005 SAF again awarded the Sunflower a grant to present Charlie Musselwhite in a discussion about his Southern musical roots. In 2006 soul superstar Latimore will be interviewed about his long career.
Organized by Melville Tillis and Julius Guy, the first gospel festival was held on a very hot Sunday afternoon beneath the New Roxy theatre marquee on Issaquena. It has been held outside on the Blues Alley stage, inside the Civic Auditorium, and also inside several area churches. In 2006 it will return to the festival main stage Sunday afternoon.
Several motions have been made to change the festival date from the second weekend of August to a cooler month. However, members have voted to retain the August format since the event has become global. June is universally recognized for B.B. King's Homecoming concert in Indianola and Delta Jubilee in Clarksdale; July for July 4th; September for Greenville's Blues and Heritage Festival, and October for Helena's Arkansas Heritage, formerly King Biscuit Blues Festival.
Approximately 25,000 music fans from17 countries and 35 states attended the 2005 festival; a larger crowd is expected in 2006.
In 1996 Clarksdale became the official international Sister City of Notodden, Norway, home of Europe's largest blues festival. The Sunflower and the International Notodden Blues Festivals are sister festivals with Clarksdale musicians performing in Norway, and Norwegian musicians performing in Clarksdale.
The Sunflower has also established a sister festival relationship with the Maximum Blues Festival in the Quebec Province of Canada. One of the Canadian bands will be performing in 2006 on the Sunflower's main stage.
The Blues Association is a true bi-racial organization, and members attribute much of its success to this racial composition.
Although the association is solely responsible for the festival, it relies on many partnerships to make it happen including the Delta Blues Museum, the Coahoma County Tourism Commission, the Chamber of Commerce, the Care Station, the city of Clarksdale, Clarksdale Public Utilities, Police Department, Public Works, area churches, and hundreds of businesses and individuals.
The Early Wright Blues Heritage Award
The Early Wright Blues Heritage Award honors Early Wright, "The Soul Man," of WROX Radio who became Mississippiï¿½s first African American radio disc jockey in 1947, presided over the longest continually broadcast radio show in America, and became the symbolic leader of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.
The award is presented each year to a non-musician voted by the membership for outstanding work and dedication to Early Wrightï¿½s commitment to "preserve, promote, perpetuate and document blues in its homeland, the Mississippi Delta."
The award winners are:
1991 - Early Wright
1992 - Skip Henderson, music promoter and historian
1993 - Sid Graves, founder of the Delta Blues Museum
1994 - Jim O-Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine
1995 - Panny Mayfield, journalist/writer/photographer
1996 - Lillian McMurry, Trumpet Records founder
1997 - John Ruskey, Delta Blues Museum curator
1998 - Johnnie Billington, master blues teacher, and Howard Stovall, Blues Foundation director
1999 - Lew Houston, Clarksdale businessman and festival promoter
2000 - Mae Smith, Delta Blues Museum interpretation specialist
2001 - Yvonne Stanford, Sunflower River Blues Association secretary
2002 - Sam and Doris Carr, lifelong promoters of Delta blues and Association members
2005 - Nat McMullen, former Sunflower Festival co-chairman