Hoover Lee Sauce

Hoover Lee is a grocer in Louise, Mississippi who makes a sauce for marinades and barbecue he formulated to replicate Cantonese duck. His concoction has a heavy soy background accented with garlic and ginger. These chicken leg quarters were marinated overnight and roasted in a slow oven for two hours. The skin is crisp and the flesh succulent, reminiscent of the character if not flavor of roast duck.

Eudora on the Rocks

The muse of fiction is a thirsty bawd, particularly in the South where the icon of a hard-drinking writer unjustly brushes even us most humble wordsmiths with a tar of dissolution. Eudora Welty, every inch a lady, certainly did not fall into this rough-hewn category. Nonetheless, I have it on good authority that Welty and her friend Charlotte Capers, a Jackson historian, wit and essayist, were often to be found ensconced in Eudora’s home on Pinehurst with a bottle of Old Crow, and other guests are rumored.  (The same authority relays that Welty later became a convert to Maker’s Mark, which she took it on the rocks with a splash of water.)

Eudora lived to a ripe old age, garnering laurels all the way. In her youth, she worked for the short-lived (1935-39) Federal Writer’s Project. Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors, many of them women. Fieldworkers such as Welty made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week, collecting stories, local histories and taking photographs. They also collected recipes for a project entitled “America Eats”, and most of these recipes and recollections of foods have been gathered together by Mark Kurlansky in his splendid Food of a Younger Nation. Welty’s contributions to “America Eats” are somewhat substantial, and from all over the state: stuffed apples, stuffed eggs, lye hominy, barbecue sauce, a seafood and an okra gumbo, court bouillon, beaten biscuit, Spanish rice, potato salad and, last but not least, a mint julep. Welty writes:

A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in Whitehall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,’ Mrs. Billups says, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.’ The Whitehall recipe is as follows:

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled.
Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water.
Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping into dissolved sugar.
Strain after stirring.
Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity.
Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold.
Put a spring of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet.
Let goblet stand until FROSTED.
Serve rapidly.

“Who could ask for anything more?” she adds.

The Battle of Jackson: May 14, 1863

In the spring of 1863, the war dividing the nation focused on Vicksburg. Lincoln told his civilian and military leaders, “Vicksburg is the key!” Confederate President Davis was of the same mind: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” In Confederate hands, Vicksburg blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and allowed communications and reinforcements from Confederates to the west. The natural defenses of the city were ideal, earning its nickname of the Gibraltar of the South.

Frustrated in his former attempts to take Vicksburg, the Battle of Port Gibson (May 1) gave Union General Ulysses S. Grant a much-needed foothold on the eastern bank of the Mississippi south of the city, but Grant felt that he needed a base north of Vicksburg that could be supplied via the river from Memphis and Port Hudson to subdue the stronghold.

Grant’s Confederate opponent in the campaign, General John C. Pemberton, was of the same mind: “To take Vicksburg, to control the valley of the Mississippi, to sever the Confederacy, to ruin our cause, a base upon the eastern bank immediately above (Vicksburg) was absolutely necessary.” Pemberton admitted that such a move on the part of Federal troops “might destroy Jackson and ravage the country”, but “that was a comparatively small matter.” Though Jackson had the only secure railhead east of Vicksburg, a vital connection to the rest of the Confederacy, Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had taken up rebel arms, thought little of Mississippi’s capital city on the Pearl in comparison to his vital command on the Mississippi.

To secure this hypothetically crucial base above Vicksburg, Grant, along with his trusted lieutenant William T. Sherman, moved the Army of the Tennessee to the northeast, and on May 12 headquartered his troops at Dillon Plantation some 6 miles west of Raymond. About sundown, as the camp was settling in to its evening routine, an excited courier drove his lathered horse into camp and poured out the news that Federal troops under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps had encountered a large Confederate force commanded by Brig. Gen John Gregg at Raymond, defeating it after a savage battle. “When the news reached me of McPherson’s victory at Raymond,” Grant later wrote, “I decided at once to turn the whole column towards Jackson and capture that place without delay.”

Beforehand little more than a dot on a map in the mind of the great Union captain, Jackson now came into focus for Grant as a military objective. He had become convinced that Confederate forces assembling in or near Jackson might be stronger than he had initially supposed, and he had reports of reinforcements pouring into the city, including Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander of the Department of Tennessee and Mississippi. Johnston was widely respected by his troops, fellow officers and even President Davis, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship.

These reports put at risk Grant’s proposed crossing of the Big Black near Edwards, a move designed to bring his troops north of Vicksburg, since it would leave a potentially strong army commanded by a reputedly able general on his rear flank. He now saw more clearly the city’s value as a communication and transport center through which supplies of men and war materials could be funneled to Vicksburg. In addition, destroying Jackson, which also had some importance as a manufacturing center (mostly of cloth), would cripple the state’s ability to supply the rebel army. It’s reasonable to assume that Grant would also be aware of the impact on morale that the capture of the capital city of Mississippi, the home state of President Jefferson Davis, would have on the Confederacy as a whole.

Grant was confident that he could take Jackson then swing his forces back to the west before Pemberton took notice. It was an audacious ploy; by this move to the northeast of Port Gibson, Grant had cut himself loose from his base, but the Northern general had learned to provision his troops as they marched, taking what they needed from the farms and villages they encountered, and the Union army found plenty to sustain their progress. Because the city was reputedly heavily fortified, he decided to strike with his entire army, 10 divisions, some 40,000 men. Grant positioned McPherson to the north and Sherman to the south of his eastern advance towards Jackson, positioning Gen. John A. McClernand on the western flank, facing any possible attack from Pemberton’s troops in Vicksburg.

Jackson, at the outbreak of the war, had a population of 3,191 (Vicksburg had 4,591 and Natchez, the most prosperous city in the state, 6,612.) The city’s arsenal had been destroyed in a disastrous explosion the previous November; Confederate troops stationed there for its defense numbered some 6,000. Well before the final advance of Federal forces, the city seemed to have resigned itself to subjugation. As early as May 2, Pemberton (ever the fatalist) telegraphed Governor J.J. Pettus, advising him to remove the state archives from the capital. By May 6, people began leaving Jackson. The Mobile Register and Advertiser reported, “The trains for the interior are crowded with non-combatants, and the sidewalks blocked up with cases, barrels, old fashioned trunks and chests, which look antiquated enough to have come out of Noah’s Ark.”

By the time Johnston arrived to take command of the city’s defense on the 13th, all who had the means to escape the city had done so, and the Confederate commander’s assessment of his chances to save Jackson could not have been buoyed by the then funereal aspect of the beleaguered capital. Johnston knew his situation was dire; Pemberton had refused his request for reinforcements from Vicksburg the previous week, and the additional troops promised by his superiors had yet to arrive. Johnston was met in Jackson by Gen. Gregg, who was forced to retreat to Jackson with his 3,000 soldiers after the fierce encounter at Raymond. Faced with a two-pronged Union attack by able commanders leading some 25,000 troops and with no time to organize any reasonable defense, Johnston, a seasoned general and career solider, retreated to the northeast.

On May 14, Union forces advanced towards Jackson in a deluge turning roads that had choked them with dust for weeks into trenches of shin-deep mud. After two short skirmishes lasting less than four hours, Grant’s troops entered a silent Jackson under a pouring rain. The Battle of Jackson, such as it was, had ended. Rails and bridges were destroyed, factories put to fire. Vicksburg’s artery to the east was cut; in less than two months, the Confederate Gibraltar would fall into Union hands. Jackson, abandoned by its defenders and occupied by a hostile army, was looted and burned by soldiers and civilians alike for the first of four times, bitterly earning its nickname: Chimneyville.

Ars Voces: Anthony DiFatta – A Precarious Balance

I call myself a painter; I paint, so I’m a painter. A teacher of mine, William Baggett, said, “Too many students call themselves artists, and they’re not artists; they’re students.” That stuck with me. I’m still learning, so I’m a student too, and I never want to get past that.

At USM, Jim Meade became my mentor. Meade steered us towards the formality of composition. He would talk about the Golden Mean, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci sequence, and how all those tied into aesthetics. We would draw forms and divide them up, explore the geometry of formats just to get us geared into recognizing that this is the way things can be arranged so that your brain knows it’s there, even though it’s not drawn out. It was so boring! I often thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I came here to become a good artist and to find something that nobody’s ever done before and become famous; that’s why I’m here!’ But it ended up becoming a completely different experience.

The first class I took I failed. The teacher said that I could render things okay, but that I didn’t know anything about drawing. At that point I realized that I either had to dump all my preconceived ideas about art and begin learning, or I’d have to find something else to do, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. I’d just gotten out of the military, I was 24, one of the “old guys” in the class. And these young kids were, well, drawing circles around me. I had to humble myself, tell myself that I had to learn, and if I want to discard it, I’d discard it. So we did gesture drawing, weight drawing, blind contour, taking the works of Renaissance painters, placing tracing paper on top and finding how they lined up their compositions, learning from masters of their art. When we were given more freedom to start making decisions, form was so ingrained it was natural. We didn’t even have to think about it. Then Jim came up with a great phrase, which I attribute to him because I’ve never heard anyone else use it except myself, but he called it cultivated intuition. You cultivate a visual idea so much that it becomes intuitive.

Meade would also tell me not to worry about coming out with my own style. He told me that style is either going to happen or it’s not; it’s going to be you coming out. He would tell me, “Miles Davis didn’t get a trumpet and start writing his own music and improvising; he learned the notes, he played the scales, he did the boring stuff over and over and over. Once he got good at the boring stuff, then he played other people’s music. Then, when he became proficient in other people’s music, people he admired, he took all those things and was able to push it further out than it had ever been pushed before.” That made complete sense to me. I wasn’t in college to make paintings, I wasn’t studying art to make paintings; I was studying to learn how to paint, the paintings would come later.

Visual strength is seeing something that connects deeper than ‘Wow, that’s a pretty horse in that painting.’ Or ‘That painting looks just like a photograph.’ It might be a great painting that looks just like a photograph, or it might be a shitty painting that looks like a photograph; but the fact that it looks like a photograph is irrelevant. It could simply consist of a few squiggly lines in the right place and it would be charged. Dali’s work is cool and interesting and psychological, but it relies so heavily on the subject matter being shocking that it’s a matter of diminishing returns: the more often you see his work it doesn’t grab you like it did the first time. I’m not sure if what he was doing defeated his purpose visually. Van Gogh’s Chair is powerful on both levels. I think good art engages with precariousness in balance between the linear composition and the color; you want unity, but you don’t want so much unity that it’s boring. You have to have some contrast. I guess I’ve allowed for this chaos and order by allowing all the chaos and accidental stuff to happen at first, so I’ve got to put it together. I don’t want to take away that spontaneity, but I want it to eventually look like a flat piece of art with everything fitting within the frame.

Every art professor in the world would probably cringe to hear someone say this, but art is something that you hang on your wall and you look at every day. If people didn’t have art hanging on their walls, then artists wouldn’t exist. I have a painting by Ellen Langford that see every day, and every time I look at it, it re-engages me. And I notice something different about it; either I’ll look at it formally, at the composition, the way she treats the negative space between the trees and around the house, or I’ll look at the expressions on the faces and see the animals in there. There’s a lot going on, but at the same time it’s simple; it’s got this juxtaposition, this push/pull, so what jumps out at me most often is what’s farthest  away. Arnheim talks about this in his book, about flattening the space by making what’s farthest away in the painting come forward.

Even in my non-representational pieces, I’m very much concerned with the negative space and the picture plane. If everything doesn’t look like it belongs there, if everything doesn’t relate to that flat surface, then it doesn’t work. I try to put a sort of weird overlapping depth in there, but it also has to be flattened. So you’re tricking the minds of your viewers with this push/pull going on; it’s a visual element I use to re-engage the viewer. When people say ‘This artist is so talented,’ it’s almost an insult to the hard work it takes to be decent at something. That’s also what’s exciting about it. My work has continued to change and evolve, and I still learn things. They can refer to me as an artist when I’m good.

Anthony DiFatta, self-portrait

Chicken Fricassee from the King Edward

This recipe comes from The Jackson Cookbook (1970), a wonderful addition to any kitchen library, but what sets it apart, raising it to a level no other cookbook in Mississippi can hope to achieve, is the Forward, “The Flavor of Jackson,” a jewel of exposition by Welty. The dish is a classic, old-school fricasee–rich, with a sublime aroma–is characteristic of the haute cuisine fashionable in hotels such as the   King Edward in the middle of the 20th century. Bread the chicken lightly, and slice the onions thickly so they won’t singe. Baste at least once, twice is better. I used boneless thighs skewered and lightly floured (no drenching beforehand) with salt and pepper, early yellow onions, and a mixture of fresh and dried thyme. Use a medium heat—the butter will burn if too hot—and give the chicken a good browning. I wilted the onions in the oil/butter before topping the chicken, drizzled with more of the mix, and baked in a medium (350) oven for about an hour.

Mafiosos, Murder, and Gay Extortion in Missisippi

On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”

Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.

At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.

“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.

When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.

Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.

Mississippi legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out and/or rebuilt after Katrina. Some say that a shadow of the Dixie Mafia still operates on Mississippi’s coast.

Lillian McMurry: Godmother of the Blues

These days it’s difficult enough to think about a turntable at all, much less to think about one as a piece of furniture. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, vinyl record players had become mammoths. These record players (for that’s essentially what they were, hi-fi or stereo) came in all sorts of styles to match your other furniture, too: Mediterranean, French provincial, Queen Ann, you name it. Furniture stores sold these primitive behemoths as well as recordings themselves, and it’s through the furniture business that Lillian Shedd McMurry, a former secretary and law student, fell down a rabbit hole and into the land of the blues.

According to her nephew, recording artist John Webb (“Wilder”) McMurry, “My Uncle Willard, Lillian’s husband, and his family weren’t real musical folks. They all had furniture stores. Willard and a furniture store, my dad, Webb, had a furniture store, and my uncle Carl had Super Furniture Market in Jackson. Willard’s niche was used furniture stores and he would buy the pre-existing stock out of a bankrupt store and get it going again. So there was some stock in a hardware store Willard had bought on Farish Street that included 78s of black music, what would have been called “race music” at the time. Lillian had a lot of get-up-and-go, had played the piano early in her life and was interested in music. But she knew nothing about blues or secular music.” Lillian selected a record and put it on the turntable The record she chose was Wynnie “Mr. Blues” Harris’s “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”, and according to an interview with Living Blues magazine in 1986, what she heard changed her life. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”

“So Lillian,” Webb continued, “being enterprising, set the rest of the records out on the counter and they sold like hot cakes. And she began to get more involved.” Lillian acquired more records and began selling them on a full-time basis. She made trips to New Orleans and Memphis to bring in more recordings and eventually the couple converted the hardware store into a record/furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains. The store specialized in blues, gospel and what was then called “hillbilly” music. Between walk-ins and mail orders the business began to thrive. “The Record Mart became a very big mail-order business,” Webb said. “I didn’t know until recently how big a deal that was.” It wasn’t long before Lillian got the idea to record her own material using local talent. Lillian and Willard McMurry became the founders and owners of the Diamond Record Company, which released records on the Trumpet label. “God, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lillian said later. What she was getting into was a pioneering position in the roots music recording industry. The label’s first releases were gospel recordings by the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a 3-piece jubilee group from the Enoch Grove Baptist Church, and the Southern Sons, who were the most popular and influential gospel groups performing during the early 50s in the Mississippi Delta. McMurry made many trips to the Delta to sign up talent, and on one she signed up a “harp” player who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy Had garnered a devoted following through his appearances on “King Biscuit Time” over station WFFA in Helena, Arkansas. McMurry signed Sonny Boy to a contract in December, 1950. She did not learn until years later that his real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. Miller had appropriated the name of another highly-regarded harmonica-playing blues singer because he had once been convicted of stealing a mule from a neighbor. He had whitewashed the mule, which was a sure disguise for the animal until the next inevitable Delta downpour. With McMurry riding herd on him, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) turned out a string of blues standards, including “Eyesight to the Blind”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Red Hot Kisses”, written by Lillian herself. Sonny Boy also wrote a tribute to McMurry’s car, which was recorded as “Pontiac Blues”.

Edward Komara, former head of the Blues Archive at theUniversity of Mississippi, said, “The main thing I remember about Lillian McMurry is her toughness, which was a combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and a lion-taming instinct. This toughness was not something she had to develop while running Trumpet. She may have well had it since birth. She was also born with a pageant-quality beauty, as evidenced by the published photos of her in her 50s, taken during the Trumpet years. But musicians and record industry people alike learned she was much more than a pretty face.”

However she came by it, Lillian McMurry’s toughness became a key asset in the rough-and-tumble world of the independent record business. Sonny Boy Williamson, her biggest star, was hard-drinking, cantankerous and prone to drunken brawling. Williamson also carried a knife and a gun and freely used profane language, but only once around Lillian. Legend has it that when Williamson began cursing in the studio one day, Lillian told him to leave. When he refused, McMurry took his own gun, which she had taken the precaution to relieve him of, marched him outside and sent him on his way. A much-humbled Williamson returned a couple of weeks later, and McMurry took him back in.

According to Webb, McMurry had problems with other artists as well. “She had Elmore James under contract, but Elmore had problems sticking to it. At one point, she got a tip-off and had to go to Canton to bust up a recording session that Elmore had no right to do. There’s actually a tape recording of a telephone conversation between Elmore and Lillian where he’s asking about coming back, and she said, ‘Well, Elmore, would you stand hitched?’ meaning would he honor a contract. But he never followed up on it.” Elmore James’s only Trumpet recording, “Dust My Broom”, became a nation-wide hit and a classic in the blues repertoire. “She and Willard were visiting with my parents when I was in high school or junior high, and she was sitting there in the front room and I was dashing out the door with a vinyl copy of “Tommy” by The Who. And she said something like, ‘Oh, I thought the rock opera was an abortion,’ or an abomination or something like that. And I left thinking, ‘Well what does she know?’ but later I realized they recorded HER song wrong. She cut the original ‘Eyesight for the Blind’ but they did it in a minor key with a whole different feel and melody.”

But the Trumpet label was short-lived. Even with such brilliant talent stock as Jerry McCain, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Willie Love, competition with labels having deeper pockets eventually proved to be too much. According to blues aficionado Dr. Woody Sistrunk, “One of the biggest reasons Trumpet ended was that a large record distributor in Texas went broke. And back then, it was not cash for sale. A lot of business was on credit, especially as records became hits. If a record became a hit, you had to get it to a pressing plant, and no one had a pressing plant except for the big labels. You had to have it pressed, and if you didn’t get paid by your distributors, or one-stops as it were for stocking juke boxes at the time, you simply didn’t have any money to pay them off,” Sistrunk explained. “At the very end of Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson was the biggest artist that the label had. His contract was traded to Buster Williams’ Plastic Products in Memphis as a trade for some of the label’s debts,” Sistrunk said. “Williams then turned over Sonny Boy’s contract to the Chess Brothers with options, who in turn picked up Sonny Boy and ran with him.”

After only five years (1951-56) in the business, this was Trumpet’s last note. “That was it, except for another $50,000 that Lillian and Willard had to absorb, which they did strictly through hard work,” Sistrunk said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important their studio was. Many of the records were cut at the old State Furniture Company at 211 State Street on the corner of State and Pearl. For a long time, they would cut records in the back room on Sunday afternoons with someone else’s equipment. But by 1954, they had a studio at 309 Farish Street where they were cutting a number of things. That was another big expense during 1953-54, and that set them back some as well.” Lillian McMurry was a scrupulous businesswoman, a meticulous bookkeeper and obsessive when it came to royalties. “For eight years, I maintained her Trumpet papers at the Blues Archive,” Komara said, “and she never let a single detail slip by. She fought hard and successfully for the artists whose financial estates she assisted. She continued until her death to assist her Trumpet recording artists, scoundrels though they sometimes were. She demanded honesty and got honesty and delivery of contracted promises from them during the recording sessions, and in return she made sure they received what was due.”

Vitrice, Williard and Lillian McMurry in the 1980s (image via “Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street”, Marc W. Ryan)

“She knew about artists’ egos and she protected them, plus she knew about artists’ sufferings and made sure they all got paid,” Sistrunk said. Vitrice McMurry Rankin, Lillian and Willard’s daughter, said, “Mom was always a strong-willed and fierce person who fought for what was right, treated the musicians with a great deal of dignity and fought for their rights. She was incredibly cagey, and could deal with copyright lawyers on a level of legal think so that she was able to win most of the suits she brought. “She was actually close to graduating from Jackson School of Law when she met my Dad and got married, which seems untypical of her that she wouldn’t have gone ahead and finished school,” Rankin said. “She had that kind of steel clamp of a mind that could handle thousands and thousands of legal ramifications and technicalities and argue to the death. I think some of the settlements she got were just to get her off their backs because she was so utterly relentless in her pursuing of these people who did so much bold-faced thievery. She would tend to spend $10,000 to make$10,000. Who knows ultimately if financially it was worth it, but ethically it was, because so many people were vindicated.”

But McMurry’s upstanding business ethics were often sorely lacking in other recording business personalities of the 50s. And the demise of the Trumpet label may have been in part to unscrupulous machinations on the part of other record labels. “Lillian told me that there were some people who wanted to press her out of the business,” Sistrunk said. “And one big label allegedly said, ‘If you stock her labels, we won’t let you stock ours.’ This was a big label, and every jukebox carried this label, and it seemed pretty ugly.” After McMurry got out of the music business, she still maintained a studio. According to Sistrunk, “’From the Bottom’ and a lot of the later Sonny Boy Williamson songs were recorded there, and she was the one ‘at the knobs’ when Earl King did ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ for Ace Records. ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woofie Flu’ could very well have been recorded there as well.”

The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. “You can’t describe Trumpet’s contribution to music history strictly within a blues niche,” Sistrunk said. “You’d have to describe it in terms of the music of Mississippi that was not being recorded, that being gospel with the Southern Sons Gospel Quartet, that being Lucky Joe Almond, Jimmy Swan and all the other hillbilly artists and that being Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love with the blues. Because all of those folded together are basically what made rock-and-roll as we know it. It’s all incredible.”

My Uncle L.

Larry Wayne Thomas breezed into my life on a random wind, and we sailed together happily for many years.

We first met in April, 1976. I was a freshman at Ole Miss, where L.W. was teaching English. My roommate, a dissolute mental lightweight who went on to serve two spectacularly disgraceful terms in the Mississippi legislature, was his student. He paid me to write his term paper for L.W.’s class. Not only did I write it, but I was prevailed upon to deliver it to his teacher’s office at the last minute. L.W., a handsome young man in a tiny office in Bondurant, received the paper and my lame excuse about the roommate being called home due to a family emergency with undisguised ill-humor. The paper got an “A”, the roommate passed the class with a “C” and I walked away with thirty bucks. When I finally got around to telling L.W. this over twenty years later, he said, “I knew that idiot couldn’t have written a paper that good, but I couldn’t prove he didn’t.”

We came to know each other well during the intervening years, seeing one another around town, mostly at watering holes such as the Rose, the Gin or Ireland’s, among many mutual friends such as George Kehoe, Jere and Joe Allen and his future bride, Jean Tatum. L.W. began working at the Warehouse about that time while I bounced from one ill-fated restaurant to another. After the failure of Audie Michael’s, I found myself unemployed. Shortly after that, L.W. came to my apartment and offered me a job at the Warehouse. I don’t know whose idea it was, his, Frank Odom’s or Don Carlisle’s, but of course I took the job and for years he and I worked shoulder to shoulder in Oxford’s best-known and most respected dining establishment.

L.W. was my boss, the primary liaison between the kitchen and the floor, a job that’s bound to make anyone a nervous wreck, and L.W. was no exception; busy nights reduced him to fussing and fretting to no end. My job, as I saw it, was to keep the kitchen working smoothly, which involved a minimum amount of interference from management. L.W. and I had our disagreements (most notably over his insisting on adding bell peppers to a shrimp boil), but after the last tables were served, everything was rosy. Outside the kitchen doors, with his droll wit and unfailing good humor, L.W. was the most congenial, amiable restaurant host possible. He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and (for the most part) their knowledge of one another was infused with warmth and life. L.W. and I usually traveled in different circles, but we would often bend elbows together; he was smart, funny, a joy to be around, and I basked in his company. I began to call him Uncle L., a sobriquet his many friends used. He put up a fuss about that, but anybody’ll tell you it didn’t take much to ruffle his feathers.

The morning after the Warehouse burned, February 16, 1983 we met one another on the northeast corner of the Square and walked east on Jackson Avenue. We barely spoke until we got to the smoking ruins of Country Village. We stood there for a moment, and L.W. gave voice to what was running through both of our minds: “It didn’t start in our kitchen.”

We both moved away after that; me to Florida, L.W. to Colorado. I returned to Oxford after four years and re-entered Ole Miss, but I got L.W.’s address from a mutual friend and wrote to him, saying how much I missed him and half-jokingly urging him to move back. Well, he did, and though I have a feeling that he was just as miserable in Colorado as I was in Florida and my plea was just added incentive, he later told me on more than one occasion that my letter made him so homesick he just had to return.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I moved from Oxford again. To my everlasting regret, I missed his wedding to Jean, and as fate would have it, I never saw my Uncle L. again. How I wish I could write him another letter and tell him to come back to us.

The irascible Howard Bahr with the irrepressible L.W. Thomas

Jack Myers: Civil Rights Pioneer

Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.

This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open, and I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.

The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.

I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.

I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.

I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.

Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)

The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.

When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”

Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.

 

When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.

(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out here but could there.