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Juke joint's caught the blues

Red Paden, owner of a club in the Mississippi Delta, is wistful and angry. His best friend, bluesman Big Jack Johnson, died recently, and his business, considered the real deal, isn't quite what it used to be.

March 25, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Red Paden, owner of Red's Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., grooves with saxophone player Dick Lourie at a tribute to Delta bluesman Big Jack Johnson, who died March 14, 2011.
Red Paden, owner of Red's Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., grooves… (Lance Murphey / For The Times )

Reporting from Clarksdale, Miss. — Red Paden was pouring Bulleit bourbon into little plastic cups, one for him, one for his buddy Antonio Coburn.

It was just the two of them inside Red's Blues Club, arguably the last of the real Mississippi Delta juke joints, set downtown between a weedy graveyard and the lush eastern bank of the Sunflower River. They were mourning Big Jack Johnson, Red's best friend, star attraction — and, arguably, the last of the great Delta bluesmen.

The pair sat at a table next to the worn carpet, patterned like a loud tie, which serves as a kind of stage, and upon which Big Jack had stomped out countless rhythms.

Big Jack had died two days earlier of congestive heart failure. He was 70. A Bud Light-sponsored sign still hung on the club's facade, amid the peeling paint and improvised patches of plywood and corrugated tin: "Home of W.C. Handy Award Winner BIG JACK JOHNSON."

Photos: Mississippi blues tribute

Red — a bearded bear of a man eternally masked in dark shades — was equal parts wistful and angry, grumbling expletives between slugs of the whiskey.

He had planned a benefit show the next night for Big Jack's family. But he had just discovered that another tribute was taking place that night at the Ground Zero blues club, a few blocks away and across the railroad tracks that have traditionally separated black Clarksdale from white.

He knew Ground Zero would draw a big crowd. It had opened a decade ago to much fanfare, the brainchild of Morgan Freeman, the Mississippi-raised movie star; Howard Stovall, a Memphis entertainment big shot; and Bill Luckett, a prominent Clarksdale lawyer running for governor. With its deep-pocketed owners and patina of Hollywood glamour, the club has become a catalyst for a rejuvenated tourism industry celebrating the blues.

Ground Zero is a simulacrum of a juke joint in the House of Blues style, with mismatched lounge chairs on the porch, graffiti on the walls and 21st century amenities — a juke that takes American Express.

At best, Red said, it was a "prefab" blues experience, though he had kind words for Luckett. "One of the few white boys who would jump the tracks back in the day," he said. "The rest … were too scared."

Tonight, Red was feeling upstaged. But he was also heartened to recall that when Big Jack became a hot commodity on the international blues circuit, the guitarist would usually choose to play his hometown gigs at the little tumbledown club. Red said it was an act of loyalty.

"What do friends do?" Red asked. "They look out for one another."

Now with Big Jack gone, he had been wondering whether it was time to shut down the club. It was a hassle, and he was getting old. But he also knew this was something that would have to endure.

Earlier on that March day, Red had been out in the wide, flat Delta farmland where he and Big Jack grew up. He called on his old friend Ruben, whose work shed was furnished with a pool table, two banks of video poker machines and a fridge full of Bud Lights.

Red cracked a Bud: "Funeral's 11 o'clock at the Pinnacle, Saturday" — the Pinnacle being the 5,500-seat basketball arena at the community college, where Big Jack would be viewed, for the last time, in the teal three-piece suit his family had picked out for him.

A few miles down the road, Red delivered the same details to his friend Charles.

"I'm going to have my alligator shuffling shoes," Red said. "And I'm going to get me my walking cane."

Red stopped in a country graveyard on New Africa Road to visit Sonny Boy Williamson's grave. Tourists had left a pile of harmonicas. Red picked one up and blew through the grit.

"If you don't want to die," he said, "don't be born."

The Mississippi juke joint has historically been a word-of-mouth affair, its elusiveness a hedge against the strictures and caprices of the white man or local sheriff. Red Paden is similarly difficult to pin down: He won't disclose his age, although he is a contemporary of Big Jack's. He won't say how he got the nickname Red — although he swears it's a hell of a tale.

Asked if he is married, Red answers with something like a blues lyric: "I guess I don't know, me and that damn woman been apart so long."

He and Big Jack met half a century ago, when Jack was playing house parties out among the cotton and the cane stalks, raucous affairs fueled by homemade corn whiskey and homemade music. He was a strapping young man, 6-foot-3 with the grace of a cat. The music poured out of him — from his guitar, his mandolin, his mouth.

"I'll tell you how he was — you ever been outside when it's lightnin'? That was Big Jack," Red said. "He could move. And the girls? Whoa."

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