2019 HANDY AWARDS: A BOFFO SUCCESS By Tony Jones; Photos courtesy the Handy Awards The 23rd Annual W.C. Handy Heritage Awards held Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, at the Holiday Inn Airport turned out “to be the best ever,” co-host Leon Griffin says many attendees told him. Created to honor “Authentic Beale Street Musicians,” the 2019 edition saluted Handy’s 146th birth date with the two-day Handy Birthday Bicentennial Celebration. Pre-events the night before the awards presentation included the W. C. Handy Birthday Bicentennial Parade, a showing of the documentary Mr. Handy’s Blues, and a book signing of Upright Bass: The Musical Life and Legacy of Jamil Nasser, written by his son Muneer Nasser. Griffin shared host duties with “International Queen of the Blues” diva Toni Greene. The pair was dressed to the nines and enthusiastically greeted the honorees whose personal histories underlined the theme aptly presented in the souvenir program given to each guest. “We are nearing the end of the Memphis Bicentennial Celebration and Memphis has put its best foot forward and showcased its history and accomplishments in grand style. But the celebration is not over yet. It is not over until we pause and give respect and honor to the one to whom much honor and respect is due, the man who put Memphis on the International map…When we learn in the media that Beale Street is the “Most Iconic Street in America” visited by millions of people every year, it is important to note that “Beale Street Blues” was written over 100 years ago by W. C. Handy giving it its popularity.” The same respect is due to event producer, Elaine Lee Turner, and posthumously, her sister and business partner Joan Nelson, for creating the award. Opened in 1983, their firm, Heritage Tours, has single handedly curated the W.C. Handy Home Museum on Beale Street for decades now and continues to do so at the company’s expense. Earlier this year, the City of Memphis awarded Turner a 15-year lease for the landmark, adding additional significance to this year’s awards. The company also owns and curates the Slave Haven commemorative museum, an authentic stop on the Underground Railroad. The night glittered with their commitment to keep our true musical roots alive. The Stax Music Academy kicked off the entertainment with Handy’s signature blues titles. Next came the procession entrance of The African Jazz Ensemble, who remained onstage as the house band. Among the powerful performances to follow were teenager Eliyahu Pinkney’s inspired performance of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” in a style evoking Louis Armstrong and a powerful performance by locally popular Melvia “Chick” Rogers saluting her late father, Rev. Melvin Rogers, who was honored by universally respected jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn, vocalist Rev. Melvin Rogers and widely known Mad Lads lead vocalist John Gary Williams. The 2019 W. C. Handy Heritage Awards Recipients are: saxophonist Robert (Bobby Lavell) Garner, recently named “King of Beale Street” Jonathan Ellison, gospel vocalists Frank Phillips, and Teresa Tate-Clardy. Posthumous awards were presented for jazz pianist Harold Mabern, jazz pianist & trumpeter Philip Joyner Jr. and bassist George (Jamil Nasser) Joyner. The Lifetime Music Achievement Award was presented to blues & jazz vocalist Joyce Cobb. She could not attend, but sent a thank you video accepting the honor. Cobb was one of the six original Handy Award honorees at their 1977 inception, an honor she shared with one of the night’s guest musicians, Barbara Perry-Wright. In addition to Stax Records Carla Thomas, saxophonist Herman Green, and Naseer, Perry-Wright was given special recognition as one of the founders of the first Beale Street Music Festival, which has grown to become the city’s biggest annual event, Memphis In May, further solidifying Handy’s importance and the necessary rationale for the event. 10

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