Thursday, July 14, 2011

Memphis Gold's Story Part 3

Memphis Gold at 2007 Columbia Pike Blues Festival
Photo © Ron Weinstock
In August 2009, Joe Kessler and I had a chance to interview Chester Chandler, the blues performer known as Memphis Gold for the Dutch publication Block. This interview was translated into Dutch for publication, but we have felt it would be helpful to have the interview in English. Joe transcribed it and left our questions out. I was hoping I would have the full transcript, but apparently I was only sent what was sent to Block. There was substantial material on Elder Smith and Memphis' experiences in Church as a youth that is not in this transcript. This is the third of several parts that will be running the next few days. I should point out that interviews with Memphis Gold have appeared in Jefferson Blues, Blues & Rhythm and Living Blues.

My father would let me skip school some times because he would be at the church all night. When I was about 12, I started seeing Reverend Robert Wilkins at the church all the time. He was a local and (at that time) had converted back to religion, hail and brimstone, and wasn’t playing secular music anymore. 

I was in love with his granddaughter, Elaine Wilkins. That was my girl of all the girls I’ve known, even today, and I’ve been with a lot of women. Elaine and I grew up together and played together, sang together. She’s a pretty good guitar player herself, in her own right. But Robert was kind of getting old and was trying to find out if he was going to get to heaven. You know the older you get, the less you begin to take risks in life. You know you might kick the bucket so you want to be right with the man upstairs. 

At twelve years old, I was getting serious about music. I was playing at church with the choirs, and all the girls loved guitar players. I would go to a different church and while the preacher was out preaching, all the girls wanted me to go fiddling with their legs and all. I was something else man! I wasn’t afraid of girls at 12 or 13, I had older brothers telling me what to do.

I had my bottom lip cut off running up to a barbed wire fence. I picked up one of my older brother’s pint of Old Log Cabin (liquor) and I took a big swig of it. I was so drunk, this was the first time that I ever felt that feeling, and I ran into a barbed wire fence. There is a big scar now. I was eight or nine and didn’t know; I couldn’t feel it until later. My mother rushed me to John Gaston Hospital, the only hospital that black folks could really go to.

Reverend Wilkins was mentoring me, showing me things on the guitar. Church music and a little bit of blues. At the same time, I was listening to the Beatles and other types of music and was still trying to understand blues. I would go down to Mississippi to hear cousins on my mother’s side that were guitar players. There were guitar players down there that could play as well as Muddy Waters. I was also listening to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. I started a little group called the Reflections. At this time, around the seventh grade, they were looking for teen talent and would let you come down to the station. If you were any good, they would let you play and would talk about the Teen Town guys. We went down on several Saturdays for these concerts, WDIA and WLOK.

WDIA concentrated on kids. I was playing things like
Hang On Sloopy and You Got Me Going in Circles.

I wasn’t a singer. A lot of guys could sing better than me. I was a guitar player back in that town. They would say “why are you always hollering when you sing?” But that’s what I was used to hearing.

Then I started to mature and at about 15 or 16, I started getting into the girls. I backed off my guitar just a little bit and was getting ready to graduate from High School. After graduating, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to get out of Memphis, so even though the Vietnam war was going on I volunteered. My daddy, he literally hated the idea of me going. He said “you’re going into the white man’s war.” He never spoke to me again for a couple of years. I would come home with my (Navy) sailor suit on and he would read the paper. He said “they are going to send you to Vietnam,” and my mother was crying. The day they sent my clothes back home, they started crying because they thought something had happened.
I had a brother in the military at the end of World War II and another who went to Korea. They were a lot older, but that was a different time and the attitude (about the war) wasn’t there. I volunteered in 1973 at 18 and spent 13 years in the military- ten regular and three reserve. I served in Vietnam on a ship, the US Barry. It’s ironic that is in the (Wasgington) Navy yard right now. (The ship serves as a museum).

After Vietnam, they home-ported the ship in Athens Greece. I got to Athens and went all crazy, woman crazy. I might have picked up a guitar on the ship one time. I played at a USO one time. At that time, I was getting into Ike Turner who was doing things like (sings) “Left a good job in the city…” I saw Ike and Tina at a USO show in ’74 or 75. The way he was doing that song made me want to… .

I was so confused about what I wanted to play. In the 70’s you had the Bar-Kays coming out, Otis Redding was hitting hard. I played top 40 and listened to things like Funk 49 by the James Gang,
Eli’s Coming by Three Dog Night and Lynyrd Skynryd’s Sweet Home Alabama. I was doing Stairway to Heaven and learned it pretty good, but there was still this soul thing that was coming out of me.

When I got out of the Navy on 1981, I jumped back into the blues. 

I was spinning records. I was a DJ and had a couple of those Bose 901s. And then I had a big system and turntable. At parties, clubs and all around this town. When I started, I had a little thing called phase III productions. And I had these beautiful girls modeling, and I had a modeling agency. I was doing little shows in the area.

Memphis Gold with the Fieldstones
Photo © Memphis Gold
Also I was in the navy at the time. I had so many women around me. My office was at Judiciary and C street. I wasn’t really playing at that time, but I was going to a lot of clubs. Then, all of a sudden, in the 80s, the DJ scene came in everywhere. Everybody Jean Carne to Studio 54, it was the disco era. I started to get into this bourgeois Jazz scene. Sitting down, sipping drinks, and listening to Shirley Horn, I was into jazz, anything from Spiro Gyra to … .

I spent three years here and got out, and the reason I got out, I was stationed here, and I was doing more things on the outside of the Navy, and was flirting with, this is so embarrassing one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, but I did, I was knocking one of the commander’s old lady’s off. He didn’t know it for sure, but I was. So I decided to get out. And I got out, and as soon as I got back to Memphis, Beale street was like…

Uncle Ben’s was down there. Ben Wilson and the Hollywood All-stars, the Fieldstones, Earl the Pearl. When I left in ’73, because of the riots, it wasn’t like it was back in the 60s. When I got back, tourists were coming from the Netherlands, Denmark, they were coming to Memphis to look for real blues players, and at that time Uncle Ben was probably the only one out there, and he had a beat mixer and his guitar. Uncle Ben was an old guy who played in Handy Park, a street musician. I started going to the juke joints like Wild Bill’s, over in north Memphis and then Green’s Lounge.

I stayed at my parent’s house for a year or less. My mother started catching me coming through the back door, and they would be, like, naked. She went into my room one day and there was a girl with no clothes on. And from then on, when she’d see that girl, she’d call her four legs. 

(To be continued)

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