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Subway Blues: Robert Mugge discusses the making of “Last of the Mississippi Jukes”
Filmmaker Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his film 2003 music documentary Last of the Mississippi Jukes, which explores the fading traditions of rural Mississippi juke joints. Watch it now as part of our collection of Robert Mugge music documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.
In 1990/91, music director Robert Palmer, producers Eileen Gregory and John Stewart, executive producer Dave Stewart (of the British rock band Eurythmics), and I produced and began screening Deep Blues, a film intended to demonstrate that blues was still alive and well in Mississippi, the place where it began early in the century before heading off to Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, and elsewhere.
The release of the film happened more or less simultaneously with the 1990 release of producer Steve LaVere’s boxed set of Robert Johnson CDs on Columbia, the 1992 release of the Deep Blues soundtrack CD on Atlantic (timed with the start of the film’s U.S. theatrical release), and the 1992 release of the first albums from Mississippi blues label Fat Possum (some of which were produced by Bob Palmer for artists also featured in the film).
The convergence of all these efforts helped to refocus fans on the sorts of raw and authentic blues that were still being performed in various parts of Mississippi, even if mostly out of sight of the rest of the world.
Robert Mugge with Jack Owens filming Deep Blues (photo by Axel Küstner)
Among the films I made over the next decade were two more that dealt with American blues culture: a portrait of Chicago’s most successful latter-day blues label (Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records) and a collaboration with Bob Santelli, Steve LaVere, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum on the influence of America’s most legendary bluesman (Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson).
However, during repeated trips back to Mississippi, I also noted that many of the artists we had documented for Deep Blues were passing away, and that many of the rustic venues where they had played – colorful, often dilapidated buildings known as juke joints – were shutting down.
I therefore resolved to produce a new film not unlike Deep Blues. Only, this time, rather than show that Mississippi blues was still alive and well, I would document all that was rapidly fading.
Katie Webster, Koko Taylor, and Lonnie Brooks in Pride and Joy
In April of 2001, I found myself invited to screen my films Deep Blues, Gospel, According to Al Green, and Hellhounds on My Trail at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Mississippi. The invitation came from guest programmer David Hughes, a Vicksburg-based blues guitarist, collector of music memorabilia, and close friend of Rock Hall President Terry Stewart, who had suggested my involvement.
Thus far, my attempts to raise funding for the new film had led nowhere, and a trip to Mississippi seemed as good a way as any to revitalize the effort. As a result, I soon found myself on a festival panel with David, Terry, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington, and Louisiana blues artist and movie actor Chris Thomas King. It was that session, bustling with the passion of true believers, that gave birth to my project.
Robert Mugge with Chris Thomas King
At some point during the discussion, I mentioned my plan to make a film titled Last of the Mississippi Jukes. From the audience, Hattiesburg-based bluesman Vasti Jackson challenged me to focus on the “real” blues joints of Mississippi, rather than on the glitzier music clubs that had been springing up in the region in recent years. He and I hit it off immediately.
Then, several hours later, David took Terry, Michael, and me to experience the legendary Subway Lounge, a kind of urban juke in the basement of the historic but abandoned Summers Hotel.
Summers Hotel in Jackson, MS (photo by Craig Smith)
What made the Summers Hotel historic was that, when opened by W.J. Summers in 1944, it was the region’s first black-owned hotel, and the first where African Americans could find lodging.
Until the debut of such hotels, black entertainers passing through the South, just like other black travelers, had to stay as guests in private homes. And during the impending struggle for Civil Rights, such hotels provided safe havens for attorneys and activists, including the high-profile Freedom Riders.
Summers Hotel Registration Card (photo by Craig Smith)
More to the point, in 1966, W.J. Summers allowed local jazz singer and biology teacher Jimmy King to open a jazz club in the hotel’s basement.
King named it the Subway Lounge, because its entranceway reminded him of New York City subway stations. Over the years, however, fashions changed, and Jimmy’s focus changed from jazz to blues.
Jimmy King at the entrance to the Subway Lounge
By the time of our visit in 2001, the hotel had shuttered, the building was in a state of disrepair, and the original club was now an outright juke joint open Friday and Saturday nights from midnight till 5:00am.
Each weekend, one of two alternating “house bands” would back up a steady stream of local vocalists performing an assortment of popular R&B and blues numbers, including the so-called “soul blues” hits of Jackson-based Malaco Records. Personally, I was delighted and saw the Subway as perfect content for my coming project.
J.T. Watkins and Levon Lindsey with the King Edward Blues Band (photo by Dick Waterman)
A month later, while screening films at the Blues Foundation’s annual awards show in Memphis, I learned that movie star Morgan Freeman, attorney Bill Luckett, and Blues Foundation executive director Howard Stovall (mostly a silent partner) had just opened Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksville, Mississippi, doing their best to recreate the ambience of a traditional juke. And with that, my path forward came completely into view.
Ground Zero Blues Club
Over the summer, I partnered with David Hughes to try and raise funding for the film, but nothing we tried panned out. However, along the way, David informed me that the City of Jackson was threatening to tear down the Summers Hotel building and, with it, the longtime home of the Subway, which added even more urgency to our efforts.
Then I learned that Black Starz, part of the Starz collection of cable channels, had purchased rights to screen both Deep Blues and Hellhounds on My Trail. Using that as my introduction, I contacted Starz executives Stephan Shelanski and Brett Marottoli, telling them that my new project would now center around Jackson’s Subway Lounge and Summers Hotel, as well as Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club, and that both Morgan Freeman and Chris Thomas King (a star of the recently released O Brother Where Art Thou) would participate, as would a diverse group of Mississippi blues artists.
To my great relief, Morgan’s involvement was enough to convince Starz of the project’s viability, and by early 2002, we were under way.
Abdul Rasheed with the House Rockers
Certainly, I would have preferred to shoot in multiple venues around the state as we had with Deep Blues, but that would have required bigger backing than Starz could afford.
I therefore worked out a plan wherein the basics of juke joint culture could be established through archival footage, the photographs of Dick Waterman, the anecdotes of author Steve Cheseborough, and Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman explaining how they had incorporated elements of juke joint design into their newly established Ground Zero.
From there, I would focus on the origins of both the Subway Lounge and the Summers Hotel, and on the efforts being made to preserve the building, memorialize the hotel, and prevent the Subway from closing. Of course, as with most of my music docs, the spine of the film would be musical performance.
Robert Mugge, David Sperling, Quincy McKay, David Hughes, and Dick Waterman (photo by Craig Smith)
With that in mind, David and I arranged to record a full night of live music at the Subway Lounge featuring both of the venue’s “house bands,” the appropriately named House Rockers and the King Edward Blues Band); regular vocalists Patrice Moncell, Dennis Fountain, Pat Brown, Rasheed Ali, Levon Lindsey, and J.T. Watkins; special guests Vasti Jackson, Jesse Robinson, and Greg “Fingers” Taylor, each of whom had a strong past connection to the Subway; and several other respected local musicians, including Vicksburg blues artist Lucille and top Malaco songwriter George Jackson.
Meanwhile, since prominent Mississippi and Louisiana artists Bobby Rush, Chris Thomas King, and Eddie Cotton also wanted to participate but were unavailable the night of the show, we arranged to shoot each of them doing solo performances for Subway owner Jimmy King on a weekday afternoon.
Jimmy King and Bobby Rush in the Subway Lounge
For the sake of balance, even such a musical feast in Jackson was not enough. I also wanted a song or two from Ground Zero in Clarksdale, which sells itself as the heart of the Mississippi Delta and the “crossroads” of the blues. But in the venue’s first year of operation, Bill and Morgan were not yet booking much music.
I therefore contacted the multi-talented Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of the stars of Hellhounds on My Trail, and he agreed to drive down from Memphis the same evening we were doing interviews at the club.
I also booked a performance by Clarksdale’s delightfully raw band, The Deep Cuts. [Unfortunately, I was unable to fit any of their songs into the film, though I did get one onto the accompanying soundtrack CD.] In addition, Alvin was backed by legendary Delta drummer Sam Carr and, on bass, Clarksdale guitarist Anthony Sherrod, producing a driving sound quite unlike Jackson’s more polished blues and R&B.
Sam Carr, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Anthony Sherrod
As for the Ground Zero interviews, Bill and Morgan were charming hosts, even though, predictably, Morgan seemed larger than life. Just two years later, the three of us would collaborate again on my ambitious Blues Divas project and, in the process, become fairly close.
But truthfully, you don’t forget the first time a major star steps out of the celluloid, engaging you in smart, sometimes teasing dialogue, and you also don’t forget whose cooperation it was that got your film its financing.
Yes, from their end, Bill and Morgan were looking to promote their latest business ventures. But in both cases, they could not have been more accommodating.
Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman at Ground Zero
Still, for this film, I knew our primary focus had to be the Subway Lounge and Summers Hotel, starting with the group raising money to do three things: (1) restore the slowly collapsing structure, (2) build a museum honoring the hotel’s unique legacy, and (3) bring the Subway’s poorly lit and frequently flooded performance space in line with city building codes.
Therefore, my crew and I timed our arrival to enable shooting of the group’s widely promoted Summers Hotel “groundbreaking,” an event featuring city and state politicians, reporters, architects, money-raisers, and music fans, all of them wearing hard hats and wielding shovels as a symbol of forward momentum.
Working to save the Summers Hotel (photo by Craig Smith)
As it turned out, though, that effort never went anywhere, probably because it was headed by an ethically challenged local who, at the last minute, tried to stop us from filming the Subway unless we agreed to pay a million dollars to the widow of W.J. Summers. This demand was sprung on us with the concert space totally lit, film crew and talent ready to go, and a great deal of money already spent.
So, we were having none of it. Jimmy King, as generous and sweetly reasonable a man as you could ever meet, assured me that this was nonsense, that he was the sole caretaker of the building, that he had a long-term contract to operate the Subway however he saw fit, and that he, along with his wife Helen, even helped to look after the needs of Mrs. Summers.
Somehow, he said, this “con man,” as some called him, had convinced the elderly Mrs. Summers that this was a foolproof chance for both of them to cash in, but the guy had no basis on which to threaten us.
Vasti Jackson and Patrice Moncell with the House Rockers (photo by Dick Waterman)
Trusting Jimmy implicitly, I instructed all to take their places.
However, the situation was not yet resolved. Since this was the first film I had produced for Starz, they had sent a young executive to join us on location, apparently to keep me out of trouble. Unconvinced by Jimmy’s assurances, the executive ordered me to cease and desist so as not to place his corporate bosses in jeopardy.
For a time, I tried to reason with him, but he was shaking with fear and beyond convincing. Finally, I told him if he didn’t stop obstructing our work, the crew and I would tie him up with gaffer’s tape (the filmmaking version of duct tape) and lock him in one of our vehicles until we were finished shooting.
Happily, that shut him up for the next few hours, and even he agreed we filmed a hell of a show.
Lucille with Greg “Fingers” Taylor
I wish I could say that was my only problem on location, but it certainly was not. More than once during shooting, David Hughes became so erratic that I finally ordered him to stay away.
I will not go into detail, because we later became friends again, and the film itself turned out well. But suffice it to say that some people have the personalities to be producers, and some people do not.
David Hughes (right) with Virgil Brawley
Not surprisingly, similar problems plagued post-production as well. Although we had secured a terrific interview with the widow of W.J. Summers, her same self-appointed agent convinced her not to sign a release without a million-dollar payday.
Soon thereafter, a hotshot lawyer from Starz declared that, without a written release, we could not use any of her marvelous stories about her late husband, the Summers Hotel, the assassination of Medgar Evers, or the Civil Rights struggles of the early 1960s.
For that reason, the film ended up much more about the Subway Lounge than about the hotel, which is okay. However, I found it extremely painful having to leave so much important history on the cutting room floor.
Summers Hotel owner W.J. Summers (photo by Craig Smith)
For me, the most distressing part of the project was meeting the remarkable Jimmy King and his beautiful wife Helen, then having to see Helen die of cancer a few months later.
In fact, not long after shooting was completed, I convinced Starz that a cameraman and I needed to return to Jackson for a last few cut-aways. But the real reason for our trip was to get a shot of Helen which I could use in the film.
That first time Terry Stewart, Michael Wilmington, and I had visited the Subway, it was Helen’s smiling face that welcomed us there, just as she and Jimmy had welcomed thousands before us. And yet, because of Helen’s illness, she had been unable to join us for our big shoot.
So, as our special tribute to these two wonderful people, we hopped on a plane, flew to Jackson, and captured footage of her that still touches my heart whenever I see it.
Naturally, I dedicated the film to Helen because she and Jimmy are its heart and soul, just as they were for the Subway itself.
Helen King at the Subway Lounge
In November of 2002, we premiered Last of the Mississippi Jukes at the Starz Denver International Film Festival, with several of the film’s headliners performing afterwards. The following March, the film was premiered over the Black Starz channel (later renamed Starz in Black), and Sanctuary Records released both a DVD and a CD soundtrack album.
Then, a month later, it helped to open the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Vasti Jackson and Patrice Moncell performing live.
Jukes theatrical premiere at the AFI Silver Theatre (photo by Robert Mugge)
Ironically, that July, I was hired as Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. This meant moving full-time to Jackson, Mississippi, where I got to spend a lot more time hanging out with Jimmy King, Vasti Jackson, and other good friends in the state.
In fact, my son and I lived only blocks from Schimmel’s Fine Dining, a high-end restaurant where, weekend nights, Jimmy would hold “Subway Reunions” for those who missed the “buckets of beer,” “blues dogs,” parades of local performers, and musical camaraderie that characterized his bygone establishment.
Working at MPB also allowed me to collaborate with Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman on the aforementioned Blues Divas project, which we shot at Ground Zero and at Bill’s and Morgan’s French restaurant Madidi. And in 2005, when the city finally tore down the Summers Hotel building, I was there to film it in the background as Jimmy reminisced in the foreground.
Robert Mugge, Irma Thomas, and Morgan Freeman filming Blues Divas at Madidi (photo by Dick Waterman)
No, the Subway was not the “last” of Mississippi’s jukes, and neither was the film’s title meant to imply that, even today, all traditional blues venues have disappeared. The film was simply a preemptive strike – an attempt to capture a quintessential juke joint experience while doing so was still possible.
In the years since, singers Patrice Moncell and Levon Lindsey, along with drummers Sam Carr and Dudley Tardo (leader of the House Rockers), have all passed away, leaving us only images of the times they shared, which also have passed.
The late Patrice Moncell (right) with Vasti Jackson
In 2007, Sanctuary Records was purchased by Universal Music Group, and suddenly, our DVD and CD became unavailable.
However, on October 21, 2016, MVD Visual released a Special Edition DVD which includes my 2005 video update and all of the music from the original CD soundtrack. Incredibly, the video post house we had used in Toronto could not find our original film negative, leaving us unable to remaster the film for Blu-ray release.
Therefore, we are releasing on DVD again, and the picture is not as perfect as we would have liked. But hey, this is the blues, and I am thrilled to have Last of the Mississippi Jukes widely available again!
© 2016 Robert E. Mugge