Marion James, Nashville's "Queen of the Blues," has mentored, worked alongside and sang with numerous blues legends during an exceptional career that dates back to the heyday of Nashville blues, soul and jazz.
She had a Top 10 hit in 1966 with "That's My Man" for Excello, and has maintained a devotion and dedication to the blues and its performers that's remained unwavering despite changing times and tastes.
But James is even better known for an event that she never anticipated would be anything other than a friendly get-together. On Sunday her annual Musicians Reunion Benefit celebrated its 30th anniversary with performances from a host of bands and performers, plus a silent auction and many other special features in a day-long event at Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar.
During an interview this week James recalled the event's origins, while revisiting the heyday of Black music in Nashville.
Did you ever anticipate the benefit becoming this big or lasting this long?
Absolutely not. I remember seeing from the early days when I got started how tough many musicians had it when their careers started to slow down. But this event grew out of the fact our home in Nashville was a major hangout for traveling Black musicians playing in town, especially when they would discover the money they thought they were getting was a lot shorter than expected. My husband (trumpeter/arranger Jimmy Stuart) was playing and arranging songs with B.B. (King). He really knew the music scene inside out. Later he moved over to Bobby "Blue" Bland, then Junior Parker.
Anyway, we did that first one over at the Rodeway Inn. Johnny Jones and Jimmy Church were on that program, and I got some friends to help with the food. I think we got about 350 people at the event, but a lot of musicians came by, and some got on stage and played. Later Christine Kittrell told me she had a great time and this was something that should become an annual event.
So it began taking off from there and getting bigger every year. Ted Jarrett was another person who helped me expand it. Later we developed the Foundation and discovered how few musicians had health insurance and how many were struggling. We've had it at a lot of places over the years, and I'm thrilled at the reception we've gotten, not just in Nashville or Tennessee, but across the region and country.
We've done some good things for the musicians, and it makes me feel really good to see it. I remember once Doc Blakely needing medicine that cost $200 to refill. We passed a Ziploc bag around and got enough to pay for his medicine. Those are things that let you know musicians do care about each other.
Many people both inside and outside Nashville don't realize how vital Jefferson Street was to the national Black music scene for many years until urban renewal.
You could go up and down Jefferson Street and on almost every corner there was a club, and they didn't all do the same kind of music. I remember Hank Crawford leading a jazz jam session on Sundays that would run from 3 p.m. Sunday to late that night. Jefferson Street to me was really the first "Music Row." There were so many clubs up and down the street and in the neighborhood. So much talent, and you never had to leave Jefferson Street to hear any of it.
Did you attend the famous Etta James concert at the New Era that later became one of the alltime great live soul LPs?
No, I was on the road that week with Ted Taylor, but I did see Etta many times and I recall that audiences at the New Era were very enthusiastic in how they responded, whether they liked you or not.
Does it bother you that there's been a big drop in blues interest in the Black community for many years?
Yes, very much. It seems that there are a lot of blacks today, especially young people, who just aren't interested in their history and musical heritage. I really would like to someday found a school where real singing and music are emphasized, and you learn the real story about the blues and gospel. One thing about singing the blues or gospel, you can tell whether a person has really lived and experienced what they're singing about. You can put words on paper, but it's something else to get up on that stage and make people feel what you are singing. That's the power of the blues. It's a lot different from rap, where you're doing a lyric or a rhyme over a beat. With the blues you're telling your story.
You hear all types of tales about Jimi Hendrix. You had him in your band when he wasn't a star, really wasn't even that well known in this area. What type of person was he and could you hear that he had a special talent?
Well, he was very unusual, both as a player and a person. I remember once picking up the musicians for a gig we had to do, and going over to the place Jimi was staying to get him. I rang and rang the bell, and finally he came to the door. He was half-dressed, holding his guitar. He'd been sitting on the bed and playing it while I was ringing the bell. I said, "Jimi, are you ready? It's time to go to the gig and we're already late." He said, "I'll be there in a minute." It took about half an hour before he came out and everyone was hot about it, but it didn't faze him in the least.
Another thing with Jimi was he had his own view about how music should be, and it didn't really matter what might down on the sheets. He'd play what he heard and just kind of expected you to follow along. You always had to be ready, because you weren't sure what he would do or where he would go next. I didn't really expect him to become that big a star because of the unusual personality, but you could also hear he could do exceptional things on the guitar.
You're still on the road, and on Sunday you were working with a nine-piece band that included a horn section. Do you take them on the road?
I wish I could, but it really depends on the job. It takes a lot of money if you're traveling with that many musicians and there aren't that many gigs these days that pay enough for you to even have four people, let alone nine. But whenever I can, I do try to arrange things where I can take them. It really gives me a lot of musical options.
Any thoughts about retirement at some point?
None at all. Retirement isn't something I've even considered. I've got to keep going because there's still a lot I want to do to help keep this music alive, and also help musicians. I've got a new record coming out (Northside Soul on Ellersoul) and some dates in Virginia and North Carolina. So I've got no reason to retire. There's still plenty to do.
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