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VOL. 37 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 29, 2013

A place to play as ‘Night Train’ memories fade

By Tim Ghianni

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Another big show

For those who want their R&B outdoors, there will be a free "Night Train to Nashville"-inspired concert at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the Public Square Park in front of the Metro Courthouse. The Jimmy Church Band again will be the house band.

Featured performers include Levert Allison, Buzz Cason, Clifford Curry, Mac Gayden, Marion James, Robert Knight, the McCrary Sisters, The Valentines and Charles Walker. They will play their own music, as well as salute some of their deceased comrades.

It’s part of a noon-3 p.m. festival celebrating Metro’s 50th anniversary. Other performers include acoustic/bluegrass greats Sam Bush and Del McCoury, as well as the Nashville Symphony Ensemble.

Acclaimed museum curator Michael Gray, who has spent much of his adult life researching and celeabrating Nashville’s rhythm & blues scene, says Carol Ann’s offers up a precious commodity: A place to see some of Music City’s greatest performers in an intimate venue … or any venue at all, for that matter.

“I’m really so thankful there’s a venue where the R&B musicians can go and play,” says Gray, who helped resurrect Nashville’s interest in that large piece of the musical puzzle as a curator of the nationally recognized and Grammy-honored “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970” exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

That exhibit, which closed in 2005, celebrated the “other” Nashville, the musicians and the culture of Jefferson Street and North Nashville. Not only did local performers work in those clubs, but the section of Nashville was a magnet for entertainers from around the country. It also became a popular stop for African-American celebrities and athletes during the days of segregation.

The Grammy-winning “Night Train” recordings were proof of how important the music remains. And Gray and his cronies at the Hall of Fame helped whet the local appetite for the great R&B performers by staging a series of concerts, most of which used The Jimmy Church Band as the house band, with other singing groups and artists – from Clifford Curry to Johnny Jones to The Valentines – delighting the crowds.

But there was a problem. When that exhibit ended, there were no regular venues for people who wanted to see and hear the music played live. B.B. King’s and Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar offer “the blues” – the harder sound, featuring guitars and harmonicas and sad songs of love gone wrong.

But the R&B performers – other than the great show bands like Church’s outfit and the Tyrone Smith Revue – pretty much were left with a new audience but no place to perform, other than at Marion James’ annual Musicians’ Reunion, usually held at the old Club Baron (the Elks Lodge on Jefferson Street.)

Church stepped in by opening a club called “The Place” on Second Avenue. Soon The Valentines and The Commanders and Clifford Curry and the rest had a stage. But Church tired of the business aspect since he is out on the road with his band most weekends.

“When Jimmy decided to close it, I was a little worried there wouldn’t be a regular venue for Nashville’s R&B musicians, the ones who started their careers in the ‘50s and’60s,” Gray says.

That’s when Carol Ann Jenkins stepped in, figuring the R&B musicians not only could have a regular home on Murfreesboro Road, but that it also would be good for business at her meat and three.

Gray emphasizes that this is not just a hodgepodge of also-rans, but a stage filled, front to back, with the great and legendary.

“The first time I was there at Carol Ann’s, Jimmy Otey (Little Richard’s drummer) was playing drums. Then he took a little break and Chucki Burke, who played with Little Milton right up until Milton’s death, played.

“And sitting in the audience was Freeman Brown, the guy who played on a lot of the great Nashville R&B shows and was the drummer on the TV show ‘The Beat.’ He was a part of the Muscle Shoals things,” he says. That North Alabama city contributed much to R&B, country music and rock ‘n’ roll in Nashville and in Memphis.

“So I look around and see three important drummers all in one spot. And you can look at every instrument and see the same thing. All of these guys played with the greats.”

One thing he points out is that Church, perhaps the most-accomplished showman in the room, generally doesn’t perform, although members of his band join the other musicians.

“Jimmy likes to put a spotlight on or pay tribute to a different person each week. He says ‘sometimes people don’t do it until it’s too late. I want to give people the flowers while they are living.’”

Gray points out that while this is a gathering of many long-in-the-tooth musicians, others, including children of the veteran R&B heroes, also take part.

“They have been willing to get younger artists up on stage. It’s a welcoming spirit.” That makes him confident that, thanks to Carol Ann’s, Nashville’s R&B scene can continue to flourish even after the last vestiges of the Night Train generation leave the station for good.

“It’s a gathering place where every Tuesday night you never know who you are going to hear, but you are going to hear some people with important resumes.”

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