128 A BICENTENNIAL HISTORY OF MISSISSIPPI 128 MISSISSIPPI PERSPECTIVES area. Two of Mississippi’s most talented blues musicians, drummer and harmonica player Hezekiah Early and guitarist Elmore “Elmo” Williams, were born there, Williams in Natchez and Early ten miles north in Anna’s Bottom. Williams remembered, “The businesses were mostly on St. Catherine Street; you had cafes and juke joints all the way up the street. You could come up St. Catherine and just about every joint you’d find somebody with a guitar.” By the early 1950s, both Early and Williams were playing in the band of blues guitarist John Fitzgerald. By 1954, they were playing at the Wagon Wheel, a white club in Natchez, and at Haney’s Big House across the river in Ferriday, Louisiana. Haney’s Big House was the most important blues venue in the area until its destruction along with most of the jukes on the street in a 1966 fire.Among the top artists who performed there were B. B. King, Fats Domino, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Sometimes white Ferriday native and later rock-and-roll superstar Jerry Lee Lewis sat in and listened. Later, Lewis would assimilate the blues and jump influences into his own music. Trombonist “Pee Wee” Whittaker, later a member of Hezekiah Early’s Houserockers, remembered, “He’d be with us every Saturday night, come and sit in.At that time, they wouldn’t allow him to play with colored, you know in bands around there then. We all couldn’t just travel together and stay together. But he could come in and sit in and play, you know.” Hezekiah Early also remembered Lewis: “I never seed him in Haney’s Big House, but they would be on the street, they would come by. You know. But they was young you know and they didn’t never come in. But they’d hang around there. Well, Jerry Lee Lewis. Before I went out on my own, I played at the Wagon Wheel right over here on 61 North and it was a white club and Jerry Lee would come in on a Monday night an’ they had a AZALEA GARDENS A harbinger of springtime, azaleas are a flower grown all over the South. Imported from Asia when the United States was still a young nation, azaleas follow dogwoods and redwoods in blooming for a short few weeks in springtime. Azaleas are ideally suited to Mississippi landscapes, and decorate the grounds of many of the older homes in the state. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MISSISSIPPI SECRETARY OF STATE’S OFFICE Music as a Unifying Force There was one area of life in the Lower River counties—not to mention the South in general—in which the color line could blur considerably: music. It was far from unknown for African American musicians to play for audiences made up of many races. African American and white musicians listened to each other’s music on radio and records and traded influences back and forth. Working musicians played whatever the audience wanted to hear. After the 1920s, there was a divergence in recorded music that ignored this reality. Record companies in the South would only record African American artists who played the blues or white artists who played country. In the 1950s, a new music evolved out of blues, gospel, boogie-woogie, and country that would shatter this artificial division. It was called rock and roll. Vicksburg was one of its birthplaces thanks to a band called the Red Tops and their electrifying lead singer, Rufus McKay. The Red Tops had a distinctive sound built on the use of trumpet, trombone, and saxophone, but no guitar. They first performed professionally on June 20, 1953, at the Sequoia Hills Club in Bovina, Mississippi. For the next twenty years, they were the most popular rock-and-roll act in Mississippi, performing at nightclubs, colleges, country clubs, and dances. The back-and-forth influences between African Americans and whites can be seen in their music. The style and instrumentation were probably influenced by the high-powered swing blues of Louis Jordan with roots going back to New Orleans jazz, black spirituals, and field hollers. The band’s signature tune was “Danny Boy,” sung unforgettably by Rufus McKay. The lyrics are by a white Englishman, and the melody is an Irish folk tune. There was also a thriving blues scene in the Natchez