Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival
06/12/17: Grammy winner Charlie Musselwhite headlines Sunflower’s Saturday stage; Hometown favorite O.B. Buchana spins top soul performance Friday night
Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper celebrate their recent Grammy Awards.

Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper celebrate their recent Grammy Awards.


CLARKSDALE – Celebrating 50 years of nonstop recording, touring and performing in global venues from China and Brazil to the White House, Grammy winner Charlie Musselwhite will be headed south Aug. 12 to headline Clarksdale’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.


“We are excited Charlie and his band will perform for our 30th anniversary and also share his unique musical experiences as a contemporary of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and other giants,” says Melvita Tillis Presley, festival chair.


“Conversations with Charlie Musselwhite,” will explore Mississippi’s rich historical roots in music Sunday, August 13, as a Mississippi Bicentennial event. It is sponsored by State Tourism and the Mississippi Humanities Council.


Both are free and open to the public.


Noted for his diversity as an harmonica virtuoso, Musselwhite has soloed to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” with Cyndi Lauper on Good Morning America, wailed on “Echo Bells” with Japan’s Kodo drummers produced by the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart and mixed blues with Cuban legend Eliades Ochoa. He’s jammed with Mick Jagger and recorded with INEX, Tom Waits, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and Ben Harper.


At the close of his concerts, Musselwhite urges audiences to make a pilgrimage to Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta where blues was born.


OB Buchana

Headlining the Sunflower’s Friday night stage is hometown favorite and Southern soul star, O. B. Buchana who will be performing his own compositions spotlighting Clarksdale and Mississippi.


Kicking off with the multi-talented Delta Blues Museum student band on Friday afternoon, Aug. 11, through Sunday’s gospel extravaganza inside the Civic Auditorium, the Sunflower will be showcasing more than 36 musical performances during three action-packed days.


All are free and open to the public.


According to Presley, the Sunflower is expanding the festival’s Saturday acoustic stages to six cool locations: Beneath the VIP Tent adjacent to the main stage; the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center, 332 Delta Ave., Levon’s, 232 Sunflower; Hattie Jean’s, former Henderson Drug Store location on the corner of Third and Delta; The Stone Pony on Delta Avenue, and Hambone Gallery on Second Street.


All are free and open to the public.


In three decades, the Sunflower’s dedication to its mission to remain free has remained intact and sustained by vigorous year-long fund-raising, generous grants from HPI, LLP, Coahoma Community College, the Mississippi Arts Commission, MHC, State and Coahoma County Tourism, Merit Health, Clarksdale Public Utilities, sponsor/patron campaigns and monthly meetings, according to Presley.


The Sunflower is a registered 501 c 3 non-profit organization, and contributions are tax deductible.


“It also has retained its individuality and laid-back hospitality that have become international trademarks,” she continues.


“When Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine and Dr. Patricia Johnson inaugurated the organization in 1988, blues was heard primarily in small African-American clubs,” says Presley. “In its early years, our biracial membership had jobs ranging from professional careers as doctors, lawyers, and educators to secretaries, cooks, road crew workers and even a prison guard from Parchman and were viewed as an avant-garde bunch.”


“Probably more out-of-town visitors were in the Sunflower’s first audiences than residents of Clarksdale.”


However, she says the Sunflower not only endured but thrived and began attracting visitors beyond Mississippi’s borders, beyond the Mid-South, across the U.S., Europe, Scandinavia, South America, and Asia.


In 1996 the Sunflower and the Notodden Festival in Norway signed a sister city agreement that is active and vibrant today.


Musselwhite family

Charlie Musselwhite, his wife, Henrietta (Henri) and daughter Layla frequently visit Clarksdale where he has been a Sunflower headliner several times since his first appearance in 1995.


Attracted by the Sunflower when he headlined the festival for the first time in 1995, Charlie Musselwhite purchased property in Clarksdale and visits frequently; his California friend and radio personality Bill Bowker now operates a blues radio station from Clarksdale – Rocket 88.1, “Home of the Blues” streaming 24 hours of music, features, and interviews.


Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta’s historical and revered blues pioneers – W. C. Handy Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House were followed by Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost and Sam Carr.


All have been honored by the Sunflower with both musical performances and educational programs exploring their careers.


Participating have been Big Bill Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, who performed in 2004 on the main stage after being interviewed earlier by author Robert Gordon in an educational program about his famous father and his uncle, the Rev. Willie Morganfield, pastor of Clarksdale’s Bell Grove Baptist Church, a gospel recording star.


In 2009 the family of Clarksdale native Sam Cooke including his brother, E.B. Cook, nephew and nieces from Chicago and a surviving member of The Bar-Kays participated in the Sunflower’s afternoon educational program at Ground Zero Blues Club. The evening finale included Bettye LaVette singing Cooke’s anthem: “A Change is Gonna Come,” in a recreation of her Kennedy Center performance before President Barak Obama during his presidential inaugural activities.


Afterward a statement was read from British rock star vocalist Rod Stewart regretting being unable to attend the event but naming Sam Cooke as the greatest single influence in his professional career.


In 2008 Ike Turner and Rocket 88 were honorees. Participating in a special educational forum were Ike’s daughter and second wife, who referred to herself as “Number Two,” his cousins, bluesman C.V. Veal and Myra Turner, soloist with Chapel Hill Baptist Church, who sang a tribute to Ike. Later Myra recorded a gospel album with Norwegian Grammy winner Rita Engedalen and soloists from the Coahoma Community College Concert Choir.


In 1999 John Lee Hooker was honored at the Sunflower with performances on the main stage by two of his children: Zakiya, John Lee Jr., and a nephew, Archie, in an extravaganza titled “The Hooker Family Reunion.” Backing them were John Lee’s Coast to Coast Band from San Francisco and his best friend Charlie Musselwhite.


Through the years, successors to these musical giants have gained status and publicity performing at the Sunflower, continues Presley.


Hill Country artists: Jessie Mae Hemphill, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Othar Turner, Robert Belfour and Kenny Brown: The Bentonia crowd: Jack Owen, Bud Spires, and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes; Greenville/Leland musicians, Little Milton Campbell, Eddie Cusic, Pat Thomas; Jackson’s Bobby Rush, Eddie Cotton, Dorothy Moore, and Clarksdale’s Wade Walton, The Wesley Jefferson Band, Arthneice Jones and the Stone Gas Band, Josh “Razorblade” Stewart, Super Chikan Johnson, and others.


New generations following in their footsteps on the Sunflower stage include Sharde Turner, Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, Jimbo Mathus, Dewayne Burnside, Cedric Burnside, Lightnin’ Malcolm, David Dunavant, Heather Crosse, Lee Williams, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Luscious Spiller, and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.


When students in the Delta Blues Museum’s Band kick off the Sunflower each year, they gain invaluable experience before live audience. This paid off when they performed at the White House in 2000 and again in 2014.


Even before Robert Plant’s sensational performance at the Sunflower’s 25th anniversary in 2012, before the largest crowd in Clarksdale’s history, USA Weekend had named the Sunflower one of America’s Top 10 Places to hear authentic music.


During the same weekend the Sunflower was awarded its own Mississippi Blues Trail marker citing its historic excellence, accessibility and contributions to Mississippi’s image as the home of America’s music.


Presley says the Sunflower will be needing volunteers to work two-hour shifts to help stage the festival and need to sign up in advance with festival secretary Nancy Foley: 662-444-8998 or emailing: foleynan@yahoo.com.


For additional information, visit the Sunflower’s website: www.sunflowerfest.org.


- Panny Mayfield, publicist for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival





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