It’s stunning how influential Nashville’s R&B history really is. For instance, Etta James recorded her popular live album, Etta James Rocks the House, at Nashville’s New Era Club in 1963. Bobby Hebb first appeared there as a child with the band Hebb’s Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra, then joined Roy Acuff’s Grand Ole Opry Troupe at age twelve before going on to write and record his hit ‘Sunny.’ Ray Charles and James Brown also recorded and performed there. Everyone from Little Richard to Jimi Hendrix spent hours of bandstand time apprenticeship in Nashville’s black nightclubs.
“Nashville really jumps,” declared early R&B star Cecil Gant in 1946. “To play dance music was our main goal. To bring in the people and to have them do something we enjoyed and they enjoyed,” explains legendary Imperials guitarist George Yates. Little Richard agrees, “I used to work in Nashville quite a bit when I was young. I used to come in and work because that’s where I really made my $100 a week at. I didn’t make $100 a week nowhere but there, really.”
Co-Curator (with Dan Cooper) of “Night Train to Nashville”, and Associate Editor and Producer of the wonderful companion CD, Michael Gray explains the draw to Nashville, “One thing Nashville had going for it was the radio station WLAC which was the first station with 50,000 watts of power to broadcast R&B music across the country. It started playing R&B music in 1946. And if you read the autobiographies of Little Richard, James Brown, or B.B. King, they all mention that it was WLAC that really broke their careers. It was the first station to play their records. So a lot of these early R&B stars were attracted to Nashville because of WLAC. They wanted to come to town and meet the deejays and stop by the station so they could get their records played. ” “If some Southerners could have segregated the airwaves, they would have. But the beautiful part is that airwaves are free,” explains B.B. King.
In the early 60’s, after completing military service at nearby Fort Campbell, Kentucky, future legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix moved to Nashville and started long stints at clubs in Printer’s Alley and the Club Del Morocco on Jefferson Street. “That’s where I learned to play really…Nashville,” Hendrix said. Imperials drummer Freeman Brown played with Hendrix while he was in Nashville. “There used to be a theater called the Ritz Theater down on Jefferson Street, it was there for the longest. We went to a show one day and Jimi carried his guitar in a shopping bag. He always kept his guitar with him. And every time he would just play, just play, just play; it was kind of like having a little baby to him.” “It was like a third arm, you know. And like he (Freeman) said, I saw him on a bus with it one day, you know, in a shopping bag, in a plastic bag, whatever. That’s the way he was. It was not unusual at all. Not usual at all,” confirms George Yates.
“Jimi and I, being left-handed guitar players, just talked. We hit it off real smooth,” Yates recalls. “Everybody thought we were brothers. We were skinny, very young, and I guess, women chased us, you know. We played together one time. It was with a group called The Bonnevilles, and I believe Jimi named the group. His manager had us on the road one night, supposedly the three best guitar players in town- me, Jimi, and Larry Lee from Memphis. The people just went crazy because we were all doing crazy acts, you know, guitar behind the head, biting it with the teeth, falling on my knees, and I have bad knees because of it today. But Jimi was the showman. We were admirers of each other, you know.”