Sunflower Fest to honor Melville Tillis, his legendary blues club


CLARKSDALE – When the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival roars into action Aug. 9-11, the celebration not only will showcase quintessential musicians, but also the vintage history of Melville Tillis and his legendary River Mount Lounge, considered home base by top celebrities.

Among the greats who played there were Bobby Rush, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Clayton Love, Jessie Mae Hemphill, C. V. Veal, R. L. Burnside, O. B. Buchana, Billy Gipson, and many more.

The 26th Sunflower is being dedicated to its longtime co-chairman who was a tireless ambassador for Clarksdale, a civic leader, educator, athlete, coach, and successful businessman.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday August 10, beneath the VIP tent, a “Remembering Melville” educational panel will honor Tillis and explore River Mount memories with the public invited to participate and share own thoughts and commentary.

Traveling across America as chairman of the Public Services Commission, the outgoing Tillis forged important friendships with energy leaders, agree all commission members.

He introduced them to Clarksdale’s unique music heritage including the early Rabbit Minstrels and his own stint playing trumpet in bands (Ike Turner played with Tillis) and his love of gospel that propelled him and Julius Guy to found the Sunflower Gospel Festival.

“He was he a prince of a fellow and he carried his hometown on his shoulders wherever we went,” comments Marvin Carraway, veteran former manager of Clarksdale Public Utilities.

That included Washington, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, New Orleans, and Little Rock, he said.

Politically savvy, Tillis always knew who would win city elections before votes were even counted, Carraway added.

“He was a close friend, and his word was his bond,” added Carraway.

A graduate and outstanding football player at Alcorn State University, he was elected to Alcorn’s Hall of Fame and received the title of Clarksdale’s Citizen of the Year at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet.

Melville Tillis

When Tillis died in March 2013, Haven United Methodist Church overflowed with a great diversity of mourners from city officials, fraternity brothers, church members, neighbors, musicians including Bobby Rush and Sunflower members.

Several days later Bobby Rush, a recipient of Mississippi’s 2013 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, spoke again at City Hall about his friend Melville Tillis.

The Mayor and Board of Commissioners read a proclamation and voted to rename the Blues Alley Main Stage the Melville Charles Tillis Sr. Blues Stage.

The sign went up immediately.

Attorney John Sherman calls it a prominent testament to the imaginative leader whose love for his hometown was a major reason behind the Sunflower’s success and its mission to remain a free event for everyone.

Sherman and Tillis worked closely together as Sunflower co-chairmen for more than five years.

The spacious River Mount Lounge with its signature inverted V entrances on Sunflower Ave. and Highway 61 was home base forcelebrity entertainers performing in Clarksdale. All friends of owner Melville Tillis (top left) they included (from lelt) Little MiltonCampbell; C. V. Veal, Jessie Mae Hemphill, O.B. Buchana, Bobby Rush and Ike Turner (top right).All have also performed at theSunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

Melville Tillis and Bobby Rush visiting at a VIP table during the Sunflower Festival.