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Meridian Blues and Jazz

Meridian Blues and Jazz - Meridian

Meridian blues and jazz performers have played important roles in musical history, both locally and nationally, not only supplying a foundation for other genres but also propelling music in new directions. Notables with Meridian roots include musicians Alvin Fielder and his brother William, Sherman Johnson, Cleo Brown, Marie Bryant, Carlia “Duke” Oatis, Carey Bell, Lovie Lee, the Mighty Rhythm Rockers, the House Rockers, Pat Brown and Jamell Richardson, and Chicago blues club owner Theresa Needham. Meridian, the largest city in Mississippi in 1910 and 1920 during the ascent of blues and jazz, was a city of opportunity for musicians. Blues and jazz was featured in several locales including the Star Theatre here in the 5th Street African-American business and entertainment district, where Lovie Lee (Eddie Lee Watson, c.1908-1997) played piano during intermissions. Lee, who was inspired by local pianist Cap King, moved to Chicago in 1957 with protégé Carey Bell (1936-2007). Both played in the Muddy Waters band at different times, and Bell became one of the city’s top harmonica players. Each recorded several albums. A fabled blues tavern in Chicago, Theresa’s Lounge, was owned by Meridian native and Blues Hall of Fame inductee Theresa Needham (1912-1992).

The Fielder family pharmacy, a 5th Street landmark, was once operated by renowned jazz drummer Alvin Fielder. He worked with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago after accompanying blues singers when he was in college. William Butler Fielder (1938-2009), an acclaimed trumpeter and educator, taught at Mississippi Valley State, Rutgers and other universities. The Fielders and others studied in Meridian under high school band director and community leader Duke Oatis (1925-2011), who also led a dance band that entertained at many social affairs.

Meridian’s blues and jazz women include pianist Cleo Brown (1907-1995), famed for her 1935-1936 boogie-woogie and jive records; Marie Bryant (1917-1978), a singer, dancer and film star who made calypso records in England; Helen Elizabeth Jones Woods (b. 1923), trombonist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm; Louvet Jackson (1936-1988), who performed in New York; and Pat Brown (b. 1949) and Patrice Moncell (1962-2015), both top singers on the Jackson soul-blues scene.

Radio stations WQIC, WTOK and WOKK featured disc jockeys who were also musicians -- Sherman “Blues” Johnson, aka B.B. Johnson (1919-1982), Clifton “Sonny” Williams (1929-1996) and Lee Arthur Rhodes, “The House Rocker” (1922-2011). Johnson, a pianist and drummer, recorded for the Trumpet label and others, including his own Mel-O-Juke imprint. Williams and Rhodes were in a popular band with Bobo Elliott, Walter Thornton, Jimmy Cole, Marshall Walker, and guitarist Little Crippled Ervin, recalled as the Mighty Rhythm Rockers among other names.

Others born or based in Meridian include pianist Ernest Stewart (1908-1987); Duke Jethro (Pollard, b. 1936), organist with B.B. King; St. Louis drummer James B. Rogers (b. 1929); singer Eddie Houston (b. 1934); pianist Cooney Vaughn, who played on WCOC radio; saxophonist Rosser Emerson (1908-1987); drummer Dudley Tardo (1957-2016), founder of the House Rockers band; guitarist Jamell Richardson, “The Gulf Coast Blues Boy” (b.1988); the blues-influenced “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933); and blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow (b. 1940).

content © Mississippi Blues Commission

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