As you'd expect from a blues/R&B festival, the Bessie Smith Strut has brought in a cadre of singers (both subtle and belters), hotshot guitarists and tight-knit bands.
While many are well-known in blues circles, some are just getting their names out there. Here's a rundown of who's playing and what they're all about.
Bessie Smith Stage
Latimore (9 p.m.)
Born just up the road in Charleston, Tenn., Benny Lattimore (the original spelling) started making music when he joined the choir in his Baptist church. A 13-year-old, he was naturally shy, but one day he took a solo and, as he told soulexpress.net: "It seemed that everybody had liked it, and for me that was the beginning of that feeling of wanting to be up there and sing."
At first, although he did some singing in various groups, he was mostly an in-demand piano player for other artists in the late '50s and early '60s. He first laid down his deep, soulful baritone in 1965 when he released his first singles on the Dade label in Miami (which is located in Dade County, hence the name). His first solo single — "Jolie"/"Be Yourself, Be Real"— was produced by Al Kooper, who produced Lynyrd Skynyrd's first three albums and created Blood Sweat & Tears."
In the early '70s, Latimore moved over to the Glades label (Everglades, get it?), dropped his first name and the extra "T" in his last and, in 1973, had his first R&B hit, a jazz reworking of T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday."
"When we were in the studio and needed another tune I said 'Why don't we do this,' and it turned out pretty well," he said.
A year later his career took off with the tortured Southern soul/blues of "Let's Straighten It Out," which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 31 on the Pop charts. Many of his following singles stuck to a similar pattern, focusing on ballads-of-heartache and the occasional sexy, uptempo tune. Lyrically, he recorded songs that were direct, uncomplicated and produced with minimum fuss.
He ended up with a couple more Top 10 R&B hits — "Keep The Home Fire Burnin'" in 1975, "Somethin' 'Bout 'Cha" in 1977 — and a couple of Top 40 R&B singles, although his songs were played on R&B radio stations. He's released albums on a regular basis since the '70s; the latest was 2013's "Latimore Remembers Ray Charles." He's also worked as a studio piano player, tickling the ivories on singer Joss Stone's "The Soul Sessions" and "Mind Body & Soul."
Back in the day, he also was known for his long, flowing hair, but now, at 76 years old, it's turned pure white, and he's cut it short. But that baritone is still smoky and syrupy.
Jarekus Singleton (7 p.m.)
In high school and a few years in college, Jarekus Singleton pulled double duty; he divided his time between basketball and the blues.
He played basketball at the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss., his home state. After graduating, he thought the NBA would call, but they didn't. After some time in Lebanon playing b-ball, he came home, determined to make the NBA. But he wrecked his ankle, an injury that required surgery. His basketball career was toast.
Luckily, he had another career choice.
Starting with the bass in his grandfather's church when he was 9, he switched to blues after hearing it at age 15. In 2009 he formed the Jarekus Singleton Band and hasn't looked back.
"I know music. I know basketball. And I know hard work," he told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss. "And I thank God for having two talents and two passions."
A student of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and B.B. King, he blends blues, rock and even a bit of a hip-hop vibe in his music.
When I was growing up, I didn't have too much education about the blues," he told American Blues Scene magazine. "Blues wasn't played that much in my house as mama loved Motown. She loved the Jackson 5, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, etc."
He released his first album, "Heartfelt," on his own back in 2011; Through that album and Singleton's playing in various blues competitions, blues label Alligator got wind of his talent, liked what they heard and gave him a contract. His debut Alligator release, "Refuse to Lose," came out in 2013. Since then he's been out on the road, playing around the world and, as he puts it, learning.
"I have no idea where learning ends. The more I learn, the more I understand that I need to learn," he told the Clarion-Ledger.
"It's a hustle and a grind all the time," he said. "My cousin used to tell me when I was playing ball, that we are going to start it right, middle it right and end it right. That's how I take this approach to music."
The Peterson Brothers (5:30 p.m.)
You want a dose of what the future of blues may be, look no further than the Peterson Brothers.
The Austin-based brothers have been playing together pretty much since their ages hit double digits — Glenn was 13 and Alex was 11, actually. And while blues provided a big part of their early playlist, they also heard R&B/funk bands like the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang, Parliament-Funkadelic and Curtis Mayfield through their parents' record collection.
With those sounds rolling around in his head, guitarist Glenn, now 18 years old, combines blues with funk and a bit of jazz in his playing. The list of his guitar favorites features contemporary players such as Ernie Isley and Robert Cray with icons like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins, but he also lists jazzmen Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell.
Alex, 16, started on violin — and will pull it out in concert sometimes to play "Amazing Grace" — but switched to bass guitar early on. For him, the influences range from Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck's Flecktones, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins and Stanley Clarke.
"We don't finish each other's sentences," Glenn told the San Antonio Express-News. "But onstage, musically, we finish each other's musical sentences. We're out there having fun. It's all smiles and jokes for us."
They released their first album, a self-titled affair, last year on Blue Point Records, which is owned by Grammy-winning producer Michael Freeman.
"There's how technically proficient they are for their age," he told Texas Music, "and I've watched audiences in so many different places react to them"
Perhaps the clearest description comes from Margaret Moser, music writer and former Austin Chronicle columnist and one of the first journalists to see the Peterson Brothers play live. She had one thought at the time.
'"What I saw was the future."
Mr. Sipp (7:30 p.m.)
Castro Coleman, a.k.a Mr. Sipp the "Mississippi Blues Child," needs a pickup truck to haul away all the awards he's won in the past couple of years. The list is impressive, especially considering that he's only been playing the blues fulltime since 2012:
- 2016 Best New Artist Debut from the Blues Music Awards for "Mississippi Blues Child."
- 2015 Jus Blues Music Awards Entertainer of the Year, Blues Artist of the Year and National Male Artist of the Year.
- Winner of the 2014 International Blues Challenge, held each year in Memphis by the Blues Foundation
- 2014 Gibson Best Guitarist
- First recipient of the Bobby Rush Award the Jus Blues Music Awards in 2014.
Playing the blues has not been easy for the 39-year-old. Growing up in the small town of McComb, Miss., west of Hattiesburg, local preachers told him he was going to burn in hell when he started playing the blues back in 2012, a situation he details in "TMBC," the first song on "The Mississippi Blues Child" (notice the acronym between the song and album title). Making the shift was even tougher because he had spent 22 years in the gospel music business, racking up credits on more than 125 records.
On "The Mississippi Blues Child," his debut recording for Malaco Records, he handles all vocals, all guitars and a load of other instruments. He also wrote 13 of the 14 songs. While he's working on material for his next album, he's not just sitting around, pen in hand, writing lyrics and musical notes. Next week he heads to China for three great events. Last November he was in the Far East, playing shows in Hong Kong and mainland China.
"It's not just a show. I feel it. I really get into this thing," Coleman told the Vicksburg Post. "The music is the energy. It's my push. The longer I play, the better I feel."
And when he plays, he's not inert, standing behind a microphone, feet firmly planted. He duckwalks. He bobs and weaves. His feet tap and his head swivels.
"I'm going to keep it blues. I don't want to water it down. I want to make a mark that the blues is still alive and standing tall," he told the Post.
Peggy Ratusz & Daddy Longlegs (6 p.m.)
Hailing from Asheville, N.C., singer Peggy Ratusz has music in her soul. Whether it's blues or soul or jazz or R&B, she rips right into them, recalling the work of icons like Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James while not ignoring "newcomers" like Bonnie Raitt or Susan Tedeschi. Bringing her band Daddy LongLegs to Chattanooga, she doesn't just sing onstage; she also tells infectious stories and engages the audience.
She and the band already have racked up awards — Southern Fried Blues Society Blues Challenge 2010, the Piedmont Blues Challenge 2007 and were semi-finalists at International Blues Challenge in 2008 and 2010.
"Our philosophy is 'play it forward,'" Retusz says in her online biog. "As lead vocalist and main writer for the band, I'm inspired by the incredible chops and inherent listening skills of each instrumentalist. These attributes translate into astounding performances.
"The groove is where it's at in this band, and the duty of layin' in down is in very capable hands. Blues-infused originals, rockin' blues, funky blues, soul-filled blues, country blues, traditional blues we love and we play it all."