Mississippi Blues Trail Series – Hattiesburg & Laurel

By Johnny Cole | Photos by Stephen Anderson

Our journey tracing the world-renowned Mississippi Blues Trail now takes us to the state’s Pinebelt region and in particular, the cities of Hattiesburg and Laurel. In the early summer of 2019, we decided to visit the three markers in these cities deemed worthy of the honor to be selected for inclusion in the Mississippi Blues Trail, furthering our appreciation for Mississippi’s rightful claim as “the birthplace of America’s music”.

Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Located north of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and approximately a hundred miles southeast of the state capital of Jackson, Hattiesburg, “The Hub City”, has long been known as a hub for railroads and highways criss-crossing the region. Hattiesburg is home to the University of Southern Mississippi and a growing cultural and arts scene, including numerous annual events (Piney Woods Picnic, Festival South) and award presentations (Best of the Pine Belt Awards). The city has also been added to the long ongoing debate about “the birth of rock and roll”. Putting aside the differences of opinions on what should be considered the first rock and roll recording, the marker located at 614 Mobile Street recognizes Hattiesburg’s contribution to music history by its early recordings, musicians and performers.

The above photo(s): The Hattiesburg marker located at 614 Mobile Street recognizes Hattiesburg’s contribution to music history by its early recordings, musicians and performers.

In July 1936, brothers Blind Roosevelt and Uaroy Graves were located by the legendary talent broker H. C. Speir, who arranged for them to record in Hattiesburg, according to some sources, at the train station. It was later revealed that the recordings took place at a small temporary studio set up by Spier and W. R. Calaway of the American and Brunswick record corporations at the Hotel Hattiesburg (once located at Mobile Street and Pine Street).

Rock journalist, Robert Palmer, writes that the Hattiesburg recordings by Roosevelt and Uaroy Graves along with their Mississippi Jook Band bandmate, Cooney Vaughn, were an influential beginning of what would become globally popular exactly two decades later. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll noted that their blues recordings “featured fully formed rock and roll guitar riffs and a stomping rock and roll beat”.

Rock historian and researcher, Gayle Dean Wardlow, has stated that “Crazy About My Baby” by Blind Roosevelt Graves and his brother, recorded much earlier in 1929, “could be considered the first rock ‘n’ roll recording. Personally, I tend to agree with musician and writer Billy Vera, who argued that because rock and roll was “an evolutionary process”, it would be foolish to name any single record as the first.”

The music recorded on Mobile Street is abundantly felt to the present day.

Regardless of opinions, rock and roll originated and evolved from musical styles such as gospel, blues, jazz, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues, along with country music. The Roosevelt Brothers, Cooney Vaughn and others’ contributions from their Hattiesburg recordings are abundantly felt to the present day and should rightfully be acknowledged.

This blues marker also lists several others who were part of these historic recording sessions representing the blues, gospel, and country music. Such early performers as the Edgewater Crows, the Gold Star Quartette, Rev. R. H. Taylor, the Laurel Firemen’s Quartette, the Madden Community Band, Sunny Spencer and Boy Pugh, Zeke Bingham and Monroe Chapman, Johnson and Lee, Rajah Evans (Jaybird), Benjamin Scott, and Shep and Cooney all recorded in Hattiesburg.

The Steelman Sisters aka “The Singing Steelman Sisters” were also listed. Mary Elizabeth “Sis” Steelman and her sister, Vivian “Shang” Avice Steelman, recorded “country” songs at the temporary recording studio in the Hattiesburg Hotel. Here, Sis and Shang Steelman made four 78 rpm recordings on the Perfect recording label. My Uncle Ronald “Bo” Hall once spoke about his mother “Sis” Steelman Hall being listed on the marker in Hattiesburg – well, he was correct. Today, she is still linked to music. Her longtime family home shared with her husband Jack is the present location of Murky Waters on Government Street in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a venue that brings great live music to the area and serves as a venue during the annual Mississippi Songwriters Festival held each September.

“The Singing Steelman Sisters” Photo courtesy of Ronald “Bo’ Hall and Ocean Springs Archives by Ray L. Bellande

The first of the three markers mentioned in this article also recognizes Cooney Vaughn of Shep and Cooney for his outstanding skills as a pianist. Hattiesburg was known for a number of great pianists including Little Brother Montgomery, Gus Perryman, and Blind John Davis (who became one of Chicago’s most prolific blues session pianists and toured Europe regularly).

As was often the case in those early days, many of the recordings were never released, but the marker serves as a reminder of what took place all those years ago.

Hi-Hat Club

During the mid-20th century, African-American performers toured throughout certain sections of the country in a collection of performance venues known as the “Chitlin Circuit”. They provided commercial and cultural acceptance for African-American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers during the era of racial segregation. At the same time, these venues introduced some of this country’s most beloved entertainers who would help change cultural history.

The Hi-Hat Club was opened in the mid-20th century by Hattiesburg businessman, Milton Barnes, one of Mississippi’s most successful African American entrepreneurs. The Hi-Hat Club hosted such phenomenal talent as B. B. King, James Brown, Otis Redding, Ike & Tina Turner, and many others who played to packed houses at the highly successful venue. At its commercial peak, The Hi-Hat Club was one of the largest clubs in the state, often attracting crowds as large as one thousand patrons.

The second of two Mississippi Blues Trail markers in Hattiesburg recognizes the legendary Hi-Hat Club in the Palmers Crossing community.

According to Jim O’Neal, research director for the Mississippi Blues Trail, Barnes first opened the Embassy Club in 1940s. Following a fire in 1957, it was replaced for awhile by Smith’s Drive-In before the Hi-Hat opened the early 60s.

Due to less restrictions, the area just outside Hattiesburg’s city limits known as Palmers Crossing flourished with clubs in this area’s growing market. An impressive list of clubs including Club Desire, Blue Flame Beer Parlor, Thelma’s Place, Club Manhattan, Aquarius, and others helped make this a popular scene.

The growing popularity of rock & roll and rhythm & blues in the 1950s & ’60s also led to The Hi-Hat Club attracting young white audiences who came to see some of their favorites like Fats Domino.

Some other Hi Hat Club regulars were Sam Cooke, Al Green, Ray Charles, Rufus Thomas, Louis Armstrong, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke and many more who made stops in Hattiesburg while touring the “Chitlin Circuit”.

Milton Barnes proved his place, not only in business, but in music history. He would open additional clubs in nearby Laurel and a second Hi-Hat Club in Gulfport. Following its period of great success, The Hi-Hat Club’s business slowly declined due to changing times. As the era of segregation ended, the bigger shows by popular African-American performers moved to auditoriums and arenas. The Hi-Hat Club closed its doors in 1994, but is recognized for its influential achievements with a Mississippi Blues Trail marker at its former location on Old Airport Road in the Palmers Crossing community.

Jones County Blues – Laurel

On a recent trip to the Slowboat Brewing Company in Laurel, Mississippi to attend a show, The Southland Music Line’s photographer, Stephen Anderson, stopped by a number of Mississippi Blues Trail markers including one recognizing the Jones County Blues. His photographs are featured in this article.

Laurel and its neighboring towns and communities have long had a rightful place in the history of the blues and American roots music. Several performers and influential music figures have called Jones County their home.

The Jones County marker is located at 230 N. Maple Street in Laurel.

The founder of “Ace Records”, Johnny Vincent began selling records (used 78’s) from the jukebox of his parents’ Laurel restaurant before moving to eventually start his Jackson label. The Laurel-born Sam Myers began his career as a drummer for Elmore James before becoming famous as a blues vocalist and blues harp player. He would accompany other blues greats for over five decades. The famous blues and jazz singer Albennie Jones was born in the small Jones County community of Errata before becoming famous in New York City in the 1940s. We earlier spoke of Blind Roosevelt Graves, he, too, was from Jones County. Roosevelt and his brother Uaroy (Aaron) would often play for tips on the streets of Laurel. There were others from Jones County such as The Nelson Brothers who took their show on the road following the first World War. Ellisville’s Arnett Nelson struck it big in Chicago in the 1930s. A decade later, Laurel’s Andrew “Goon” Gardner would, too.

For more than 60 years, Ellisville’s Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt has played the blues, including performing with Bo Diddley, the Rhythm Aces, the Five Royales, and others. Lee “Tennessee” Crisp, who performed locally with Pruitt, later toured Europe as part of the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. And then there is L.C. Ulmer, originally from Jasper County, who performed across the country for decades before calling Ellisville home.

Jones County has a cherished history associated with American music. Each year, several events celebrate music including Laurel’s Mother’s Day Blues Festival. The Jones County marker is located at 230 N. Maple Street in Laurel.

The Southland Music Line is looking forward to bringing our readers more articles highlighting the Mississippi Blues Trail markers. Our trips to Hattiesburg and Laurel have widened our appreciation for Mississippi’s amazing musical history and its influence on the rest the world.

Click Here for more articles in the Mississippi Blues Trail Series at The Southland Music Line

References:
▪︎ Mississippi Blues Trail/Mississippi Blues Foundation
▪︎ Oceanspringsarchives.net
▪︎ Ocean Springs Archives by Ray L. Bellande
▪︎ Ronald “Bo” Hall

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Page Designed & Edited by Johnny Cole
© The Southland Music Line. 2019. All rights reserved

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