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About the Film Series
Feel Like Going Home
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The Road to Memphis
Warming by the Devil's Fire
Godfathers and Sons
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The Road to Memphis
Director Interview
The interesting thing about making a film about Memphis is that it was an extraordinarily fertile ground for the development of a whole musical style that emerged from the Delta. The artists who came to Memphis and then went on the radio suddenly had a huge audience — initially a black audience — which created a life for these guys who went out on the road to play. That is what became the chitlin circuit. That's how they became stars: All of a sudden, the audience out in the Delta got to know them, and they went out and played these clubs. B.B. King represents a generation that came out of the cotton fields and became major figures, major stars on a world stage. And they're not gonna be around that much longer. It's extraordinary to have been able to tell B.B.'s story — a guy who was a tractor driver and heard music and went to Memphis to become part of a world that he'd only dreamed of. B.B. went on to play a much bigger circuit. Bobby Rush is still playing the old circuit that B.B. played back in the early fifties.

Bobby Rush wasn't actually from Memphis, but he was a living embodiment of what Howlin' Wolf and all those guys had lived in the 1950s. Filming Bobby was a chance to show the world that circuit and do it in present-tense terms. The film crew loved Bobby. We made an arrangement to hook up with his band and his bus, and we had no idea what we were gonna get. We'd just had a couple phone conversations. We arrived at this gas station in Mississippi, and we just piled on the bus, took off, and he started telling stories and introducing us to the band members. This was a relief after dealing with musicians who were insulated by managers and handlers. This was a guy on his own, running his own show, and he loved the idea of us being on the bus with him.

It was a world I'd never before had any experience with. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Like a lot of kids, by thirteen I was playing a guitar, learning blues from other white boys. Bobby Rush plays to black audiences by going town to town through the South — it's actually wider now than just the South. He goes from club to club, and audiences love him; they come back every night he plays. He has a huge loyal fan base. It doesn't have anything to do with the recording industry as it currently exists.

At one point we met Bobby outside Jackson, Mississippi, to ride the bus together to Tunica, Mississippi. If we had taken the interstate, it would've taken us two hours, but we asked Bobby if it was okay to instead go up Highway 61, and he said sure, and it took us an extra six or seven hours. We arrived at the concert about five minutes before it was to begin. It represented no problem to Bobby whatsoever. He said 61 is the right road, the road we should take. If we're late, they'll still be there. We were on the bus for an hour or two, and we just looked at each other and thought, this is why we want to make this movie. This is great; it beats dealing with managers. We're in the middle of the real thing. It was exciting.

Personally, I can remember in 1963 as a college student setting off with a bunch of friends in an open convertible to Mexico, and we got stopped and given a ticket somewhere outside Bowling Green and ended up in the courthouse waiting to adjudicate this fine. In back of the courthouse was this jail, near where we were sitting for hours, and suddenly out of this jail window came this singing. I'll never forget it: some inmate singing his heart out.

I always loved the blues: Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf. I remember in the mid-sixties hearing Jimmy Reed play. So it was exciting to be asked to make this film. I remember we saw Jeff Scheftel's film Sounds of Memphis and said, "Uh-oh. It's already been made. What're we gonna do that's different than telling a history of Memphis?" That's why we decided to try to keep everything as much in the present tense as possible. That's why Bobby was so great. You felt you could go back and tell the history, and yet Bobby's still living that today. And someone like Rosco Gordon coming back to Memphis for the W.C. Handy Awards — he was someone who'd been a star in the 1950's, then was a dry cleaner in New York for twenty years. To see the blues world through his eyes today, that was our attempt to try to tell this story in a different way than most historical films usually tell stories.

With B.B. King, his story includes his becoming an American institution. Part of the problem is: How do you get inside? How do you see the man beyond the handlers, managers, beyond the 250 concerts a year? B.B. is a lovely human being who likes to please people. We really tried to get an inner voice from B.B., and it's not easy, because B.B. has been asked the same questions for fifty years. Sometimes you remember telling the stories more than you remember the stories themselves. It was difficult breaking through to get to an inner B.B., but I think our persistence paid off.

Another challenge was: How do you limit the story you're going to tell? Ultimately, you can only tell so much. Blues music, in effect, really told the story of the early fifties, so that's the period we focused on. The blues, in a way, is extraordinarily simple. What makes it complicated is the character and the life experiences of the person who is singing it.

—Richard Pearce

Read an archived version of Richard Pearce's Washington Post online chat.


 

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