Hardface Clanton

Hardface Clanton - Tunica

Long before casinos brought legalized gambling and big-name entertainment to Tunica, African American entrepreneur Harold “Hardface” Clanton (1916-1982) ran a flourishing operation here that offered games of chance, bootleg liquor, and the best in blues music. Nicknamed for the stone face he wore during poker games, Clanton owned several businesses, including a cafe near this site and “The Barn” on Old Mhoon Landing Road, where most of the action took place.

Harold “Hardface” Clanton was a legend not only in Tunica but across the country, in both blues and gambling circles. Though never elected to office, he was called “the black sheriff” of the county and was reputed to be Tunica’s “first black millionaire” as well. Recalled with fondness and admiration by blacks and whites alike, Clanton operated in an era when Tunica County steered its own course when it came to gambling and alcohol statutes. Gambling helped fuel the economy, drawing money from the many out-of-town participants and providing employment for locals. Hardface’s activities helped pave the way for Tunica County to legalize casino gambling in 1991. It was the first county on the Mississippi River to do so.

Clanton was born into a large farming family on May 29, 1916. He had only a grammar school education, according to his U.S. Army enlistment papers from 1943. However, his term in the military turned out to be both educational and profitable–he came home loaded with cash he had won from servicemen and with enough gaming experience to start a business of his own. He opened Harold’s Cafe at 856 Magnolia Street in Tunica and later built “The Barn” four miles west of this site. He also raised cotton and at times ran cafes in West Memphis and on Prichard Road in Tunica. B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, Robert Nighthawk, Frank Frost, Houston Stackhouse, and many other renowned blues artists provided music for Hardface and his clientele. Many of the local bands Hardface hired were led by drummers: Sam Carr of Lula, James “Peck” Curtis of Helena, and the peg-legged Roosevelt “Barber” Parker of Tunica. Parker and his Silver Kings Band once had a radio show in Memphis on WDIA.

Hardface’s reputation reached from Las Vegas to Cicero, Illinois, the Chicago suburb famed for its Mafia connections. According to a local anecdote, one Monday morning he was asked about the stacks of cash he had accrued. He replied, “Oh, some boys down from Cicero thought they knew how to throw the dice.” Dice games brought in the money for him in Tunica, but Clanton loved to play a three-card poker game called kotch or cotch. He traveled often to gamble himself, superstitiously choosing a different car for each road trip to Texas, Louisiana, or Vicksburg. Some say the nickname Hardface came from his famous poker face, while another story has it that during his younger days, he sometimes lived the gambling life 24 hours a day, sleeping with his face against the hard surface of the craps tables. Clanton died on June 4, 1982. So many people turned out to pay their respects that his funeral had to be held at the Rosa Fort High School gymnasium.

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