It's widely held -- if in a bit of an oversimplified way -- that when it comes to musical provenance, New Orleans is for jazz and Memphis is for blues. Like jazz, though, the blues is a sprawling, many-splendored thing that incorporates myriad interpretations, from the acoustic rural guitar picker to the electrified big-city jump band; from Robert Johnson to Louis Jordan. The uniquely funky, syncopated soul sounds of New Orleans rhythm and blues that came from Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio and Joe Banashak's Instant and Minit labels has its place in the pantheon, as does the playful junker-style piano of James Booker, Professor Longhair and Eddie Bo, as does Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's border blues that straddle West Louisiana and East Texas, as do the swamp-rock blues that pour out of Lafayette.
Last week at the annual Blues Foundation awards and Blues Hall of Fame inductions, New Orleans and Louisiana artists more than held their own against contenders from the more commonly invoked blues hot spots of Memphis, Chicago and the Mississippi Delta. That's not to say this year's awards were a revelation. The musical community certainly has long recognized New Orleans' and Louisiana's place in the history of the blues, but it was certainly a chance for local artists to feel proud.
The not-for-profit Blues Foundation is headquartered in Memphis (natch) and was founded in 1980 with a typically sprawling nonprofit arts organization goal: to preserve the history of blues music, further education about the form, and recognize accomplishment and excellence in the arena of the blues. More than a 150 organizations serve as affiliates under the umbrella of the foundation, including educators, festivals, nightclubs, talent buyers and various types of media. Besides handing out the yearly awards, the foundation also oversees inductions into its Blues Hall of Fame, which its Web site says is currently shopping around for a physical location in Memphis. Each year, inductions occur in the categories of performer, non-performer, classics of blues literature, songs and albums. And beyond the annual awards, Louisiana and New Orleans artists have been well represented in the Hall of Fame. In 1981, only the second year of inductions, Professor Longhair was ushered in. 1984 saw the induction of Guitar Slim's classic single "The Things That I Used To Do," which had its part in launching the career of Earl King. And in 1985, the Hall of Fame welcomed the Crowley-based Excello Records label's legendary artist Slim Harpo and Louisiana-born Buddy Guy. In 1989, zydeco/R&B artist Clifton Chenier made it in, 1999 welcomed "Gatemouth" Brown and in 2003, it was piano man Fats Domino's turn.
Last week, soul queen Irma Thomas racked up yet more statuettes for her shelves, with awards for Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year and Soul Blues Album of the Year for the Grammy-winning After the Rain. The Foundation also provided her with a welcome surprise, she said -- a replacement for a previous Blues Award she lost to Katrina's floodwater and sludge.
"My house sat for two and a half weeks in two feet of muck and sludge," she explained. "I lost a lot of awards. So that was so sweet and so unexpected."
Lafayette blues-rocker Tab Benoit also took home a pair of awards, for Contemporary Blues Male Artist and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year. In a press release he said: "I appreciate these awards so much. This recognition helps me to bring attention to the wetlands of south Louisiana and to explain to more and more people that we need everyone's help to save our land and culture. It was truly an honor to be recognized."
Jerry Lee Lewis also won a Best Comeback Album award for his record Last Man Standing, although the irascible Ferriday, La.-born rocker might insist he never left. Marcia Ball received the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year award. And Dr. John, Dave Bartholomew and the late Guitar Slim were this year's inductees into the Blues Hall of Fame -- a bona fide New Orleans hat trick.
"It makes it feel like it's still worth it to do what we do," says Irma Thomas. "Although we'd probably still be doing it anyway, and loving every minute of it."
- Tab Benoit was recently named B.B. King Entertainer of the Year by the Blues Foundation.