One of the joys of my job is the stolen moment — the brief downtime I try to carve out of each day to savor something special. In Tupelo, Miss., that moment comes in front of a small white frame house, built for $180: the boyhood home of Elvis Presley.
This tiny place is a stark contrast to Elvis' mansion in Memphis, a reminder that the people who change our world often grow up in history's shadow. Local folks, Elvis’ friends, help me shine a light on his later success. One of them says, “He never forgot where he was raised.”
Tupelo is where Elvis first plumbed the depths of gospel and blues music. Here is where he taught himself guitar and began to influence American music — all before he was 13.
In the King’s footsteps
Just a few blocks away, a 10-year-old girl, Taya Perry, and her two brothers, Kyle, 14, and Ryan, 16, are following their famous neighbor’s path. Like Elvis, they grew up listening to the blues and are forging something new. Last year, their Homemade Jamz Blues Band came in second at the Memphis International Blues Challenge, beating out 92 adult bands. This year, their first album, "Pay Me No Mind,” became the No. 1 blues download on iTunes.
“Where does the blues come from, in your life?” I ask Kyle.
“Getting grounded,” he answers with a practiced grin.
Their dad, Renaud (pronounced Ray-NO) Perry, chuckles. “Well, maybe after they got grounded they felt like a ‘Penny Waitin’ on Change!’ ”
That’s the title of a new tune he wrote for them. Renaud Perry pens most of the Homemade Jamz Band’s music — songs about parts of life that they have not yet experienced.
For example: “Have you ever had someone ‘step on your heart’?” I ask.
“No,” Tanya says with a twinkle in her eye.
“And you’ve never gone blind?”
“Or been in prison?”
“No!” gasps Kyle.
“No hungry children you can't feed?”
The Homemade Jamz Blues Band is just that — homemade. Renaud Perry built his kids’ guitars out of parts from the auto store. He began writing blues songs when the Army sent him to Korea without his family. He missed them.
One lonely night he bought a guitar, but he couldn’t play it, so he packed it away. Ryan later found it and begged his dad to look for someone to teach him the blues.
Old blues players can be cranky — after all, that's why they sing the blues. So Renaud, a cop at the time, decided to wear his uniform over to Jabbo Harris’ house.
“Just to get his attention,” Renaud explains with a sly smile. “A bit of friendly persuasion.”
At 59, Jabbo is a blues legend in Tupelo. I find him propped in a cane-back chair on his front porch, picking out a song on his guitar. The dog next door joins in on the chorus.
“Renaud almost scared me to death when he showed up,” Harris recalls.
“Jabbo looked like a deer caught in the headlights!” Renaud puts in.
The old bluesman asked himself: “What is the man looking for? I’m not in any trouble. I’m settled down. My Jesse James days are over!’
“When Renaud said, ‘I want you to teach my son guitar lessons,’ I said, ‘Wheeeew!’ ”
Ryan was just 9.
‘Those are my children’
“We would sweat and we would work,” recalls Jabbo, pushing back his battered straw cowboy hat. “Then we would practice and sweat some more. I said, ‘This guy’s gonna make a guitar player because his fingers are as fast as lightning.’
“Next thing I know, here comes his little brother, Kyle, carrying a bass guitar. Bass was way longer than he was. Looks like the bass should have been carrying him. He picked up strumming right away.
“Finally, their little sister, Taya. She’s the drummer. Just 7 at the time. Reminded me of Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith; just a natural.”
The sun begins to sink behind Jabbo’s eggshell-blue house. He turns and stares at a giant sunflower in his front yard, lost in thought. “I taught them all I know. Even if I’m on a walkin’ cane and I see them at a big stadium, I’m gonna say, ‘Now, those are my children!’ ”
When the Homemade Jamz started three years ago, they couldn’t read a note of music. Now they have a world tour and adoring fans. Which begs a question: How happy can you be and still sing the blues?
“If you love the blues,” says Ryan, “then you’ll play the blues with feeling, as if you’ve lived the blues.”
On the way out of Tupelo, we stop by Satillo Elementary school. Eight hundred kids are hopping like crickets on hot corn: the Homemade Jamz Blues Band is cooking.
A throaty voice hammers above the rest. It could be B.B. King or John Lee Hooker, but it’s not.
It’s a 16-year-old, singing like he’s had seven wives.
Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox.
Here's where to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson:
Homemade Jamz Blues Band
C/O NorthernBlues Music
Fred Litwin, President (416) 536-4892
Want to know more about the Homemade Jamz Blues Band? Visit their MySpace page.
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