The Memphis Blues Caravan

by Arne Brogger

The birth of the Memphis Blues Caravan occurred late one night in Steve LaVere's music store in Memphis. LaVere and I had become acquainted through some dates I had booked for Furry Lewis. I had arranged these dates after finding LaVere's number in the Billboard performance publication as the contact for personal appearances for Furry. Steve and I had hit it off as fellow "old souls" supported by our mutual love of the blues.

What Do You Think He Looks Like...?

In June of 1973, I was in Memphis and we were sitting in his shop at about 1:00 a.m., listening to some old 78's in his collection. In the course of the conversation, Steve asked me if I had ever seen a picture of Robert Johnson. I, of course, told him "no," as a picture of the legend of the blues did not exist. He asked me what I pictured Johnson looking like in my mind's eye. I described what I thought he might look like. LaVere then reached for a manila envelope, about 6" by 5" inches in size. He pulled out a black and white photo of a very dapper black man in a suit and tie, wearing a snappy looking hat and holding a guitar. "That's Robert Johnson," he said.

I was dumbstruck. There he was, lost for all these years, looking exactly as I had pictured him. "Are your sure this is him?" I asked. "Without a doubt," Steve told me. "I found his sister in Washington DC. She gave this to me."

We both sat in silence for a long time. Blind Lemon Jefferson scratched on the old 78. We stared at the picture. "People have to see this, Steve," I finally said. He said he had plans to copyright the image in conjunction with Robert's sister. As soon as that was done, he would release it. "Who else has seen this," I asked. "You, me and a couple of folks here in Memphis. I just got it last week."

To Be Seen -- And Heard...

The discussion then turned to the need for people to see the guys who invented this uniquely American art form. Steve had made contact with virtually every blues musician of consequence in Memphis, the "home of the blues in the known universe." It was decided that we would try to put the whole crew who lived in Memphis on the road. It had never been done before. Personal appearances by local blues musicians had been, for the most part, solo date affairs. While most of the musicians knew each other, they had never toured or performed together as a group.

Kill The Fatted Calf...

We began our exploration of potential members with a visit to the home of Revered Robert Wilkins. Wilkins had recorded some powerful sides in the late 20's and early 30's for "race labels" and had enjoyed great success. Unfortunately for the blues world, Wilkins "heard the call" and became an ordained minister in the mid-30's. He vowed never to play the blues again. It was a vow that he would not break.

Sitting in Rev. Wilkins' living room in Memphis, Steve and I described to him what we were interested in doing. Rev. Wilkins explained to us his vow to give up the "Devil's music," though we sensed that his resolve might not be totally unshakeable. The blues he performed on those early recordings were done primarily in the key of A. All of his religious material was done largely in the key of E. He sat with this guitar on his lap and, after much coaching by Steve, he tuned up to A. We sat on the edge of our seats. As he struck the strings after finally tuning up, and that A chord rang though his house, his wife, who was in the kitchen, suddenly appeared. "Robert, you best not be doin' what I think you're doin'." The guitar was quickly tuned down to E and the air went out of our balloon.

Rev. Wilkins told us that he would be unable to join us in this adventure, but wished us well. He then proceeded to play a few tunes he had written. One of these was a song which, he announced proudly, had just been done by "some English boys," a group called The Rolling Stones. He then launched into "Prodigal Son," one of the many choice cuts off the "Beggars Banquet" LP. The tune closed with the chorus verse, "that's the way for us to get along...." And indeed it was. He was still contributing through his music, but on his own terms. He seemed a genuinely happy man.

Hit The Road...

Other visits to various artists followed over the next few days (enumerated in the pieces on Furry, Bukka, Red, et. al). By the end of the week, we had commitments from virtually all of the musicians who would later comprise the last, and only, great touring ensemble of classic country blues, The Memphis Blues Caravan.

It was now my job to get on the phone and start spreading the gospel and exciting commercial interest in the entourage. The first and most logical place to start, I thought, was in contacting college campuses around the country. The reaction was almost uniformly positive and, God bless them, the offers started rolling in.

Once the initial tour dates were booked, the job of logistics became daunting. We had to move twelve performers, a road manager and various pieces of equipment from Memphis to each date. In addition to salaries, we had the expense of transportation, per diems, lodging, "incidentals" (i.e. beverages) and the like to deal with. Hotel rooms had to be booked, stage and lighting plots had to be arranged, set orders and lengths had to a determined, egos had to be considered. The job became more complex by the day. And all of this had to be done before we ever played our first date.

Tour logistics fell to me, with Steve concentrating on set order, billing and "artist relations." Flying to the dates was out of the question, as our budget was tight at best. We were not dealing with "pop star" money, but we had the same problems and requirements as a major rock tour. I decided that the best way to move the group was by chartered bus, and I struck a deal with Greyhound to provide equipment and drivers. Our first few tours were done in leased commercial coaches. This proved to be both unwieldy and expensive. It also did not provide the "comfort factor" needed for a prolonged stint on the road. By the third tour, we had wised up and found a company in Nashville that specialized in tour bus leasing and provided equipment with lounges, bunks, a galley and a head. The real deal. They also provided a driver who would be with us for the duration of the tour and who became, usually by the second night of the tour, a "member of the family." In the space at the front of the bus, facing oncoming traffic, was a sign that usually read "Chartered." We made a sign which simply said "Heaven," put it on the front of the bus and hit the road.

Welcome To Chicago...

Our first date was at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. When Furry Lewis and I first met, I introduced him to a friend of mine, David Calvit, who quickly became one of Furry's biggest fans. David owned a large travel agency in Minneapolis named Corporate Travel. His company specialized in just that, corporate travel. Blues performers were about as far from his usual clientele as you could get.

As I attempted to secure reasonable lodging in the Chicago area, I ran into problems. Eight rooms at bargain rates were not to be found. I called David and explained the situation. He listened quietly. "Furry is going to on these dates, right?" he asked. "Of course," I told him. He said he would call me back.

The next day he called and told me we had nine rooms at the Lake Shore Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. I knew from travels to Chicago that this was one of Holiday Inn's premier properties in the Midwest. "That's great, David, but we can't afford the wood," I told him, as I knew that the rack rate for rooms at that property were in the low $100's. In 1973, this was a lot of money. "Your rate," he said, "is $35.00 per night." I told him it was great to know a man who could pull the right strings. Little did I know.

When we arrived at the hotel from Memphis, the night before the show, the marquee facing Lake Shore Drive was ablaze with the words "Welcome, Memphis Blues Caravan." We checked in to find real "rock star" service. A complimentary fruit basket (with a handwritten note to each artist) was in each room. Furry Lewis had his own room. The penthouse suite at the top of the hotel with panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Life was good.

I will never forget the looks on the faces of these musicians at what they beheld. As I got Joe Willie Wilkins settled in his room, his bass player, Melvin Lee, turned to me and asked in a whisper, "Is all this for us?" "Yeah," I said, as casually as I could. "You're a member of the Memphis Blues Caravan, aren't you?"

So we began ... spreading the gospel, knocking audiences on their collective asses, and having a hell of a time.

Go To:

Robert Johnson / W.C. Handy / Willie Dixon

The Delta Map / The Essays / The Index

The Bluescasts To The Introduction The Blues Mall
The Blues News The Gutbucket The Blues Links

The Blue Highway
For the 'Buked and Scorned

Copyright © 1995-2004 by Arne Brogger