Livin’ at Lula

Livin’ at Lula - Lula

The Lula area has been home to legendary Mississippi blues performers Charley Patton, Son House, Frank Frost, and Sam Carr. Patton immortalized Lula in the lyrics of his recordings “Dry Well Blues” (1930) and “Stone Pony Blues” (1934). His wife Bertha Lee also sang of “livin’ at Lula town” in her 1934 record, “Mind Reader Blues.” Frost lived in Lula in the 1960s and ‘70s and performed with Carr and Big Jack Johnson in the Delta’s most renowned juke joint band, the Jelly Roll Kings.

Lula was an important center of blues activity in 1930, when two of Mississippi’s premier blues performers, Charley Patton (c. 1891-1934) and Son House (1902-1988), met here. Patton was living with Lula vocalist Bertha Lee Pate (1902-1975) when House arrived in town. Patton, House, guitarist Willie Brown, singer-pianist Louise Johnson, and a spiritual group, the Delta Big Four, traveled together from Lula to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for the Paramount label in 1930. Among the songs they recorded, Patton’s “Dry Well Blues” and House’s “Dry Spell Blues” both addressed the severe drought that struck the Delta that year. Patton’s song dealt specifically with the problems the drought had wrought upon the citizenry of Lula. Bertha Lee and Patton did not record together until 1934, after they had moved to Holly Ridge.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, another group of musicians brought new energy to the Lula blues scene. Billed under various names, including Frank Frost and the Nighthawks, the Jelly Roll Kings, and the Little Sam Carr Rhythm & Blues Revue, the band featured Frank Frost (1936-1999) on harmonica, guitar or organ, Sam Carr (b. 1926) on drums, and Big Jack Johnson (b. 1940) from Clarksdale on guitar. Arthur Williams (b. 1937) from Tunica also played harmonica with the group for several years. Frost lived in Lula, where he once worked as a janitor at the elementary school, while Carr drove a tractor and Johnson drove an oil delivery truck. One of their performance bases was Joe’s Place, a juke joint operated by Joe Foy in Lula; another was Conway’s, a roadhouse run by country singer Conway Twitty’s parents on Moon Lake. The band’s first manager, who secured them recording opportunities with the Phillips International and Jewel labels in the 1960s, was Lula service station owner Lee Bass. Together or individually, Frost, Carr, and Johnson toured internationally and recorded a number of albums. Frost appeared in the 1986 Hollywood film Crossroads.

Many of the Lula area blues and gospel performers have lived on nearby plantations such as those owned by the Jeffries, Powell, and Mohead families. In 1942 singers Roxie Threadgill and Mary Johnson recorded for a Fisk University-Library of Congress project on the Mohead plantation, known as Texas Island. Owner Guy Mohead’s grandson, John Mohead, became a Southern rock singer-songwriter who named his first CD Lula City Limits. Another local musical site, Lady Luck Rhythm and Blues Casino, selected blues as a theme for its entertainment and décor when it opened in 1994. The casino, which later became the Isle of Capri, has sponsored both the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale and the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival in Helena.

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