Here’s to The Blues: The Blues Foundation’s 35th Blues Music Awards

Posted on June 1, 2014

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By Lees Romano

BluesMusicAwards2014The Blues Foundation in Memphis presented the 35th Blues Music Awards on Thursday, May 8th.  The event, which brings together blues performers, industry representatives, and fans from all over the world, celebrates the best performances and recordings of blues from the previous year. Three awards went to Susan Tedeschi and Derek Truck’s band while a Little Walter tribute, featuring five top harmonica players, received two awards, one of them being album of the year.  First-time winners included Gary Clark Jr., Doug MacLeod, John Németh, Shawn Holt & the Teardrops, and Trampled Under Foot’s female bassist Danielle Schnebelen. 

The Blues Foundation is Memphis-based yet world-renown, currently regarded as the organization dedicated to preserving blues music history, celebrating recording and performance excellence, supporting blues education, and ensuring the future of this uniquely American art form. Founded in 1980, The Blues Foundation has 4,000 individual members and 200 affiliated local blues societies. Likewise, the foundation represents another 50,000 fans and professionals from both Memphis and around the world. Through its support of theBlues Music Awards, Blues Music Hall of Fame, International Blues Challenge, and Keeping the Blues Alive Awards, the Blues Foundation itself is the epicenter of blues music. A twenty-five member Board of Directors governs the Blues Foundation while both the Executive Director Jay Sieleman and a staff of three other individuals manage everyday operations.

“Our goal is to create a memorable experience for the [Blues Foundation] visitor that presents the rich history of blues music through recognition and respect for the men and women who created this music,” says Sieleman, who also states that The Blues Foundation programs “ensure the future of one of the great cultural contributions to the world; blues music.”

The Blues Music Hall of Fame highlights some of Blues most bright and innovative stars, especially during its yearly induction ceremony, which was held on Wednesday, May 7th, the evening before the 35th Blues Music Awards. During the first 34 years of the Blues Music of Fame balloting, only one saxophonist was selected into the hall; Louis Jordan. However, three sax-men, Big Jay McNeely, Eddie Shaw, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson found themselves receiving honors from the Blues Hall this year. Other inductees include R.L. Burnside and Robert Pete Williams. 

Big Jay McNeely, who was inducted during the May 7th ceremony, is known as “The Wild Man of the Saxophone.” An act no one wanted to follow during the “honkers and shouters” era of Rhythm and Blues that preceded rock ‘n’ roll, McNeely wildly wielded his saxophone during the night. Whether it was walking to the bar or leading a procession out the door, he and his saxophone singlehandedly drove his audience into frenzy, never disappointing.

Eddie Shaw, another inductee, continues to build his unparalleled career as a Chicago blues saxophonist and bandleader in a city where guitar, piano, and harmonica players have long ruled. Shaw has played sax with the Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Magic Sam, and with his Wolf Gang, just to name a few. Not only this, but Shaw has racked up more road mileage than any other Chicago band over the past four decades as he travels from place to place to play his music.

Finally, the musical style of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson fits comfortably in a variety of settings, including the areas of blues, jazz, and R&B. His music contributed to the first wave of bebop, but he achieved his great popularity due to his unique singing voice, a voice that features a combination of full-bodied blues shouting with a quirky, broken squeal. Unique in both his music and name, Eddie was nicknamed “Cleanhead” after a hair-straightening lye treatment gone horribly awry.

While many musicians receive recognition in the Blues Hall of Fame, both records and literary pieces are given honors as well. This year, Peter Guralnick introduced both his literary piece Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke and his fourth book into the Blues Music Hall of Fame. The album Hawk Squat (1969) by J.B. Hutto is being honored by the hall, along with Moanin’ in the Moonlight (1959) by Howlin’ Wolf. Music singles inducted during the May 7th ceremony included “It’s Tight Like That” by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom (1928), “High Water Everywhere, Parts I & II” by Charley Patton (1930), “Milk Cow Blues” by Kokomo Arnold, “After Hours” by Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra (1940), and “Catfish Blues” by Robert Petway (1941).

The Blues Foundation fundraising campaign is now in it’s final stages, working to raise the money needed in order to showcase such legendary performers and their work. The Blues Music Hall of Fame works to honor inductees year round while providing on-site interactive and educational exhibits that attract serious blues fans, casual visitors, and students. Through their work, the Blues Music Hall of Fame encourages people to congregate, celebrate, and learn more about blues. The Raise the Roof! campaign hopes to raise the remaining funds necessary to begin construction in June of this year.

The new Blues Music Hall of Fame is expected to attract 20,000-30,000 visitors this year, a number that is estimated using attendance records of other Memphis musical destinations, including the Stax Museum, Sun Studios, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Graceland, and Beale Street. The Blues Foundation strives to create a Memphis-based facility for those from around the world to visit, a place that will attract thousands of visitors who express an interest in not only blues, but Memphis itself.

ArtsMemphis and The Tennessee Arts Commission provide major funding for the Blues Music Hall of Fame. BMI Catfood Records, Eagle Rock Entertainment, First Tennessee Foundation, Jontaar Creative Studios, Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and Sony/Legacy Records also sponsor the 35th Blues Music Awards and Blues Music Hall of Fame events.

Other important aspects of the hall include the Handy Artists Relief Trust (HART) Fund, started by the Blues Hall of Fame, which provides the blues community with medical assistance. Likewise, its Sound Healthcare program offers musicians access to health insurance. Blues in the Schools programs and Generation Blues scholarships expose new generations to blues music and throughout the year, the Foundation staff serves the worldwide blues community with answers, contact information, and news.

According to an economic impact study conducted by the University of Memphis in 2004, music is an integral part of the social and economic fabric of Memphis. Many of the city’s highest-priority economic development plans are built upon initiatives that attract young, dynamic, high-income professionals to the area, and the study recognized that diversity and creativity of blues music are unique advantages for Memphis, a sector of entertainment that draws in both tourists and promotes the economy. Therefore, while the Blues Music Hall of Fame honors legendary inductees and creates a home overflowing with history and permanent recognition for the musicians and the music, it simultaneously promotes a better Memphis community.

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