Calhoun County Blues

Calhoun County Blues - Bruce

The musical heritage of Calhoun County was illuminated in 2014 via international acclaim for longtime Bruce resident and Sabougla native Leo “Bud” Welch, The guitarist and vocalist began playing blues in his teens and returned to the music in his 80s after a long career as a gospel musician. Saxophonist John “Ace” Cannon, whose many instrumental singles and albums featured blues and soul songs, settled in 1988 in Calhoun City, the hometown of his parents.

Leo “Bud” Welch is the most prominent blues musician to come out of Calhoun County, a relatively isolated area known for its logging and lumber industries, both of which Welch worked in for decades. Welch was born in the Sabougla community on March 22, 1932, and grew up on the family farm. A fan of the Grand Ole Opry, Welch began performing on guitar in his early teens with his younger brother Arlanda and their cousin L.C. Welch. At 18 Welch played over Grenada’s WNAG together with vocalist/guitarist Alford Harris, who later made recordings in Chicago, and guitarist Walter Farmer. After settling in Bruce, he returned to playing with his brother and cousin, often opening for touring acts at George Chandler’s Blue Angel Ballroom (also known locally as the Blue Room and “the juke”), located in the African American area of town called “the quarters.” Welch recalls appearances there by Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Grenada’s Magic Sam. It remained a popular club for decades, later under new owners including James Parker, featuring artists including Little Milton, Bobby Rush and Delta artists such as Little Bill Wallace. Other local venues for blues included Robert Bean’s Arcade and Leroy Daniel’s Violin, located behind the E.L. Bruce Company sawmill, the basis for the founding of Bruce in 1928.

For much of the 1960s Welch played solo at houseparties, and in the ’70s formed the group Leo Welch and the Rising Souls, which performed at clubs including the Daniel Inn in Bruce, the Green Gable in Mantee and the Horse Pen in western Calhoun County. In 1975 Welch began playing regularly with gospel groups including his own Sabougla Voices, the Skuna Valley Male Chorus and the Spiritualaires. In the early ’80s he began hosting the video-based TV program Black Gospel on Bruce’s local W07BN. Welch’s return to blues followed his performance in 2013 at the 50th birthday party of Calhoun City native Vencie Varnado, who became his manager and began booking Welch locally and eventually overseas, and arranged a recording contract with Oxford’s Big Legal Mess label.

John “Ace” Cannon was born in Grenada on May 5, 1934 to parents with Calhoun County roots, and as a child moved to Memphis. He began playing saxophone with country groups at 12, worked as a session musician behind Sun rockabilly artists including Billy Lee Riley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and later joined Bill Black’s Combo, led by Elvis’ former bassist. Strongly influenced by R&B saxophonist Earl Bostic, Cannon was influenced by—and sometimes sat in with—the blues and R&B bands that played at clubs in West Memphis, including one led by Willie Mitchell, his future producer at Hi Records. There Cannon had multiple hit singles and recorded over twenty albums. His 1976 single “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” was nominated for a GRAMMY® for Best Country Instrumental Performance, and in 1985 he appeared on the Sun Records reunion album “The Class of ’55” with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. Following his move to Calhoun City in 1988 the city staged multiple Ace Cannon Festival events, and Cannon was continuing to perform actively at the time of this dedication.

This marker was unveiled on October 8, 2016. Leo “Bud” Welch, died in Bruce on December 19, 2017, at the age of 85.

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