Friday, July 15, 2011

Memphis Gold's Story Part 4

Charlie Sayles, Shawn Kellerman, Jordan Patterson, Gold at Fleetwood's 1996.
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 leftThis is the fourth 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.

When I came back to Memphis, I started working on the river. I was doing revetment work. I was going on the Mississippi River taking big chunks of land out and sinking mats down with concrete, with wire in them. I was a pretty smart black guy, and the offices were run by the white guys. The white guys were in the office and the black guys were doing all the hard labor - from Friar’s Point, down on 49, the crossroads. All these guys were coming from Memphis and Mississippi to work on the river. I was what they used to call a voucher examiner. I was kind of smart and made E-6 (in the navy). They hired me. Guys would stay out 30 days at a time and I’d figure up where they’d stay for a month in the hotel and send it back to Memphis on a government voucher. They’d get paid 30 days and get paid enough money to go out for 30 more days.

I’d go from Cairo, IL all the way down to Gretna, LA. Some of the guys would go down on a boat, I drove down in a van with the office personnel. We’d go down this long highway 61 with so much fog, really foggy, one time I was driving and ran up on two little lights. I was panicking, and it was two little white old ladies, who had a head on incident with a guy who was drunk in a truck. And the motor had pinned these ladies. They were like a pancake. So the guy had a truckload of beer, and the top of his head was cut, a big chunk was cut out.
We’d drive down and stay in hotels for 30 days. Then we’d go on to Clarksdale, then on to Greenville, then to Yazoo. I was steadily going down in Mississippi, and I’m looking for Juke joints down there too. I’m looking at all these guys and starting to get my blues thing on. I got me a guitar, out of the pawn shop, an electric, and amp. I started playing, again. If you went into a Juke joint, and you could play guitar, you were the shit. And I could pull a girl every night and take her back to my hotel room. I was playing a lot of Jimmy Reed stuff. “Oh baby, you don’t have to go…” 

I’d get into a long groove, maybe John Lee Hooker stuff. Straight ahead stuff. And then I finally ran into a guy who was doing a lot of Howlin’ Wolf stuff. He called himself “Little Howlin’ Wolf”. And I thought “Man, this guy is rollin!” To me, Howlin’ Wolf is the very best I’ve ever heard of blues guys. When it comes to Howlin’ Wolf, this guy put everything into it. So I started to get into a little Howlin’ Wolf stuff. And I started to build a little confidence and started singing, because if you didn’t sing, you were just laying back playing. When I started playing with the Fieldstones, man, those guys wouldn’t let me sing or do nothing. All I could do was play rhythm. 

When I got back to Memphis, I started playing all over Memphis. That was for about 3 years. Around 84, I was playing regularly with the Fieldstones, Ben Wilson and the Hollywood All-stars, with Uncle Ben in the park, with Earl the Pearl.

When I was 14 or 15, I used to play with Big Lucky Carter. He was living in Orange Mound at the time, I used to sit on the front porch with him, he was playing different stuff and I really got a lot from Big Lucky. He showed me a lot of chords. Memphis sat in with Big Lucky when Carter was among the featured Memphis blues acts at a 1997 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Big Lucky sat in with Memphis at his regular gig at Whitlow's at the time). 

I was playing for tips out in the park. Then, all of a sudden, I became one of them main stage guys. It happened so fast. People from overseas were coming to find some blues and I was playing with the JJ Blues Band. After playing with the Fieldstones, I started to get my own little thing together with these other guys: Little Howlin’ Wolf, a guy named John Moore, and so we started playing in the park. David Evans, Evelyn Young (sax player), and my sweetheart, Jesse Mae Hemphill. We were playing in the park. Jesse Mae was playing with bells on her feet and a big cowboy hat on, and have chewing tobacco in her mouth and she’d kiss me, and whoa no! Then David started giving me little gigs and stuff and I was following them around, the older cats, like Little Apple White, Wilroy Sanders and Wordy B. Perkins. Little Apple White was a good singer. I started watching him sing, that’s when I started singing. “If I don’t start singing, man, I’m just gonna be a rhythm guitar player.”

How I really made my mark with these groups is when I got a wireless. They didn’t know anything about a wireless. So I could step out in the crowd, and pick with my teeth, and behind my head.

At that time I had a little bit of money because I had started working at the Humko Oil Company and at the post office part time. I was different from everybody because I used to wear a suit and tie into the Juke joints. I had to do this because the only time you could go out on the river was in the late fall.

Memphis Gold at Church in Memphis
Photo © Memphis Gold
After a while, I was getting kind of sick of Memphis. It was getting commercial, and white guys were getting all the (music) jobs. They were kicking us out. Beale Street was changing. They were coming back to the Elvis Presley thing, rockabilly. And then I was tired. I’m the type of person that stays at a place only so long, and is kind of worldly. I’ve always been a world traveler. I was the only one of my father’s kids who would take off and go where they wouldn’t see me for a long time. I was the prodigal son.

I left Memphis in 1991. I drew all my retirement down from the government, and I paid my parent’s house off. And I had $100 and a 1 way bus ticket and said, “Where am I going?” And I came to DC, arrived to stay at the Central Union mission on a Friday. They put me on lockdown. They said if you’re gonna stay here, you have to stay here for the whole weekend, and be indoctrinated, and you have to stay until Monday morning. I started keeping my clothes at the bus station. Everyday I would go to the bus station and change so I wouldn’t look homeless. I walked around until my $100 ran out, and then I started to pan-handle a little bit, but I said this ain’t me. The heck with this. So I went up in Tenlytown (DC). I put an application in at Hechinger’s (hardware) and I got the job, but I was still homeless. I was going back to the shelter every night.

Then things got a little better for me and I started working for United Methodist Church near New York Avenue, doing custodial work. They started letting me stay at church and gave me the keys. They trusted me so much. I was a southern boy and had a southern aire about me. I saved up and got a lawn mower from Hechinger’s. I got my own customers, cutting lawns and landscaping. I didn’t have a car, and would walk miles from Maryland into DC with my lawn mower. I started making some money, and one day went to a pawn shop at 14
th and P, and saw a Stratocaster that was $600. “Aww man, I had $50 in my pocket.” I put it in layaway. And I worked 4 or 5 months or so, real real hard, until I got that Stratocaster.

Then I walked around the corner to the Vegas Lounge. Big Foot Emmitt Cottrell was on drums. Tony or Gale on bass. Willie Hicks would be there sometimes. I would sit in with them on an open jam, and they said, “Man! Where did you come from?” I said I’m from Memphis on Beale Street, and jet said, “I gotta have you, man!” Jet started paying me $40 on the weekends. Bobby Parker would come in every now and then, and also Phil Flower Sr. I got to play with him.

Memphis Gold and Ron Weinstock
Photo courtesy Ron Weinstock
(To be continued)

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