Deadline Ticking Down before Clarksdale’s 14th annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival

By Panny Mayfield, Sunflower River Blues Festival Publicist

With the deadline ticking down before Clarksdale’s 14th annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, co-chairmen Nat McMullen and Melville Tillis report, “Everything’s looking great.”

   “We’re fine-tuning details, talking to the performers, and waiting for festival merchandise to arrive,”   McMullen continued.

The festival kicks off at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, with the Delta Blues Museum students on the Blues Alley stage and closes after headliner Lonnie Shields’ set at 9 p.m.

Music continues through Saturday, Aug. 11, with the acoustic stage opening with Pat Thomas in Clarksdale Station at 10 a.m. through Super Chikan Johnson at 2 p.m..

The gospel stage follows inside the same depot location with Yolanda Troupe-Williams and closes at 5:30 p.m. with The Pilgrim Jubilees of Chicago.

   Saturday’s main stage opens at 2 p.m. with Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band leading a procession from Clarksdale Station and closes following J. Blackfoot’s show at 9 p.m.

Honored at 8 p.m. Saturday on the main stage will be 2001 recipients of the festival’s most prestigious awards for outstanding contributions to blues and gospel music.

   Norman Collins, minister of music at Chapel Hill Baptist Church, will receive the Julius Guy Gospel Heritage Award, and Yvonne Stanford, Blues Association secretary, will be presented the Early Wright Blues Heritage Award.

With a run at staging a 48-hour blues marathon for the Guiness Book of Records, post-festival live blues will be featured in most of the area’s clubs including Blues Station, The Millennium, Ground Zero, Red’s, Smitty’s Red Top, Sarah’s Krossroad and Kitchen, Ely’s Tavern, and Hopson Commissary.

Speaking from his home in Memphis, festival headliner J. Blackfoot reports with infectious good humor, “I’m ready for the festival; I love to entertain.”

“My show is going to mix mellow and up-tempo – fast and slow, fast and slow,” he said. “I’m going to get you up and bring you down.”

Asked to classify his style of blues, Blackfoot replies, “I’m urban, contemporary, deep soul from the Wilson Pickett era; David Porter and Issac Hayes got me started.”

   “I was the lead singer for Soul Children and one year for the Bar-Kays,” says the Greenville native.

Among his heroes he names James Brown and Sam Cooke.

“I love Doo Wop, The Impressions, the Temptations, and Moonglows,” says Blackfoot. “I came up in the heyday of Stax Records – 1967, 68, 69, 70, 71, and 72.”

The popular vocalist says he sneaked into Memphis music clubs as a kid and got paid $10 to sing.

“I used to draw crowds of 30 to 40 singing acappela on street corners off South Main around Porter and Ioka Streets,” recalls Blackfoot. “Later I performed in the Flamingo Room off Beale Street.”

When he performs in Clarksdale, he’ll be backed by a five-piece band and two background singers: Ann Hines and Archie Love.

Asked what numbers he’ll sing, Blackfoot lists his signature hit recordings, Taxi, Just One Lifetime, and selections from his latest album, Having an Affair.

He’s just completed a new album titled, Same time Same Place, for the Basic label, part of Malaco Records.

Another Clarksdale favorite, James (Jimbo) Mathus, says he’s really looking forward to performing at the Sunflower Fest.

“This is the first time I’ve been invited to play,” says Mathus, who cut his teeth on blues in Clarksdale as a youngster before founding the Squirrel Nut Zippers based out of Ashville.

“Once I sat in with the North Mississippi All Stars during the festival, but this is my first personal invitation, and I’m really happy about it.”

Mathus says he will be bringing his Knock Down Society rhythm section including Stu Cole and Nate Stauffer. They are playing in Memphis at the Young Avenue Deli Thursday night before the Sunflower Fest. His set in Clarksdale is booked for the main stage at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Blues Association reservation chairman Stephanie McMullen reported this week that all area hotels are full.

“I found a second room Monday for John Moore, our Internet webmaster and his group from Missouri; it was the last one in town,” she said.

Moore’s group was not the only media crew hunting rooms.

Scott Jennison, director of photography for Turner Studios in Atlanta, who will be filming segments of the festival, called the association for help this week too.

“We’ve got rooms for Wednesday and Thursday, but not Friday and Saturday,” Jennison said.

    The Atlanta film crew will be filming vintage performer Otha Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Super Chikan Johnson and one of the fledgling groups of blues kids who have graduated from Delta Blues Museum after-school classes.

   “We’re interested in the cross-cultural traditions being passed to generations of musicians,” explains Jennison.

    He plans to air the segment on the Turner South series, “Echos of the South.”