Pensacola Blues

Pensacola Blues - Pensacola, FL

Pensacola, an important early center of blues, ragtime, vaudeville and jazz activity, developed into a regional cornerstone of the “chitlin’ circuit” in later years. Touring blues, jazz and rhythm & blues acts, and local bands found a welcome base here for many decades in the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, an African-American business and entertainment district. Mississippi-born performers such as B.B. King, Junior Parker and Sam Cooke contributed to the vibrant nightlife in the neighborhood’s theaters and clubs.

Pensacola was among the first cities to introduce blues singers on the theatrical stage. Before blues was even recognized as a musical genre, vocalists Ma Rainey from Georgia (later hailed as “The Mother of the Blues”), Mississippi-born Virginia Liston and others were performing at the Belmont Theatre, a marquee venue on the vaudeville circuit. The Belmont is one of the most often mentioned theaters in The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville, 1899-1926, a University Press of Mississippi book based on reports in the black press of the era. Later venues, many of them in the Belmont-DeVilliers area, known as “The Blocks,” have included Abe’s 506 Club (operated by local impresario Abe Pierce), the Savoy, Tom’s Tavern, Elks Lodge, Odd Fellows Hall, Club Rum Boogie, Harlem Club, Cotton Club, Saber Club, Bunny Club, Seville Quarter, The Fish House, and Five Sisters Blues Café. Businesses on Belmont Street included WBOP radio and Gussie’s Record Shop. The music of historic Pensacola performers Wally “The Cat” Mercer, Ray Sheppard, Harold Andrews, Ida Goodson, Corrie Davis, Bo Bo Edwards, the Rounders and others often incorporated upbeat blues, jazz, pop and rhythm & blues. Mississippi blues was also an influence and many artists with Mississippi roots appeared in Pensacola over the years, including B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker, Tyrone Davis, Syl Johnson, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, Ike Turner and members of the Ike & Tina Turner revue, and James Carr. Big Joe Williams and other itinerant Mississippi country bluesmen made stops in Pensacola as well.

Pensacola acts also played in Mississippi, and some recorded for Mississippi producers at studios in Jackson or elsewhere. Wally Mercer, a singer, saxophonist and disc jockey, recorded for the Jackson-based Trumpet label in 1954 and made records in Nashville produced by Trumpet owner Lillian McMurry, including “Rock Around the Clock” on Dot Records. Peggy Scott-Adams’ first records, including “Lover’s Holiday” and other 1968 hits as a duo with Jo Jo Benson, were cut in Clinton and Jackson. A Jackson Music Awards winner, she lived in Jackson for several years before moving to California, where she teamed with Mississippi-born songwriter-producer Jimmy Lewis on “Bill,” a controversial hit in 1997, and several other recordings. Another onetime Pensacolian, noted soul and blues singer Mighty Sam McClain, also recorded in Jackson for the Malaco label in 1971.

Other blues, jazz and R&B acts born or once based in Pensacola have included Edward Wyer, Paul Wyer and others in the Wyer family, Ida Goodson’s sister Billie Pierce, Benny Spellman, Susie Edwards (of the vaudeville blues duo Butterbeans & Susie), Baby Grice, Frazier Davis, Buster Bennett, Charlie Segar (composer of the blues standard “Key to the Highway”), James & Bobby Purify (who recorded hits for local producer Papa Don Schroeder), Tasso Zachary, Gwen McCrae, David Washington, Slim Gaillard, Gigi Gryce, Herman “Junior” Cook, Don Shirley, Wally Mercer Jr., Maurice McKinnies, Willie Henderson, Walter Jackson, Earnest Stanberry (Stan the Blues Man), Vivian Lamont, Nick Blackwell, Erma Granat, Will Easley, and The Truth featuring Cat Rhodes.

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