“Where are you from?”
The question came from a neighboring table at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and it wasn’t a formality. The man who asked us spoke in that kind of warm, welcoming tone that comes only from someone who has a genuine interest in the answer and a few follow-up questions already teed up.
“Chicago,” we answered, sensing that we must have given off a clear “not from here” vibe. Or maybe he noticed the beige t-shirt I was wearing with Buddy Guy’s Legends printed on the back?
That was our introduction to Bill Luckett, who invited us over to the table for a chat that lasted for several minutes, right up until the evening’s show started. We talked about blues music (of course), but also about life in general. He didn’t just make us feel at home. He made us feel part of a community.
So we were shocked and saddened to hear the Bill Luckett passed away yesterday at the age of 73.
You probably won’t find that rare gift, that memorable presence, listed among his many influential accomplishments. But it seems that anyone who met him and got to know him – whether for a few hours or a few decades – will most likely have “Bill Luckett” stories like the one above.
He was the former mayor of Clarksdale. He was a civil rights lawyer who held a lifetime membership in the NAACP. He once ran for governor of Mississippi, coming in second in the Democratic primary. He was also one of the biggest advocates of blues music and the blues community.
And that Ground Zero Blues Club, where we met him that night back in May? He co-owned it together with Morgan Freeman (yes, the Academy Award winning actor),and with entertainment executive Howard Stovall. The club celebrated its 20th anniversary over Memorial Day weekend this year, with events that included a party for Mr. Freeman to celebrate his 84th birthday. We regret that we missed that party by a day, because our road trip continued southward the next morning to New Orleans.
Ground Zero is one of many must-visit places in Clarksdale, along with Red’s, Meraki Roasting, Hooker's Grocer,Cat Head, the Rest Haven, the Delta Blues Museum, and too many other places to list. When we returned to Clarksdale earlier this month, we spent a bit of time at each of those places, as we will the next time we go back. And we will pay our respects to a man who helped make the Birthplace of the Blues feel even more like home away from home.
Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC and the author of the book “Blues Flashbacks”