A city’s musical renaissance usually occurs over time, in fits and starts, like an all-night, free-form jam session, before finding its groove. For Columbus, the tempo grew decidedly upbeat in 1992 with two developments: the bustling success of The Loft, and the listing of Ma Rainey’s house on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, both of these storied spots, along with others such as the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the Springer Opera House, and the Liberty Theatre, showcase local and touring talent in this revamped and revitalized, but still irresistibly rowdy, military city in the Chattahoochee River Valley—a region that has produced standards such as “The Columbus Stockade Blues” and nurtured entertainers as diverse as Robert Cray, Marilyn McCoo, Washboard Willie, rockabilly fiddler Curley Money, country duo Darby and Tarlton and Dallas Austin.
“We have acts from Nashville and Europe—The Heavies from the U.K. are coming—to record here, to get that Columbus Sound,” says Buddy Nelms, a genial, ponytailed man-about-town who founded The Loft, a performance venue with a recording studio, as a sort of musical “import/export” hub befitting a port city. He estimates that various entertainers log about 30 hours a week with his world-class analog and digital sound equipment.
The Columbus Sound, he explains, is “soulful, original, people-oriented, with deep roots in the southern, Hammond B-3 organ—we don’t try to be anyone but who we are,” he says, and it is seasoned by salt-of-the-earth homefolk like blues artist Precious Bryant and R&B diva Peggy Jenkins, admired for her amplitude of form and attitude.
“All of it, including the slick, overproduced pop, has its place in music,” Nelms says, “but I’m personally more interested in enjoying a soulful, gospel song than just waiting for a gold record to hang on a wall. Here, we live with this music deeply ingrained all around us, and that’s the blessing of it. Our mission is to foster it, share it, and improve the quality of life for everybody—touring artists, downtown visitors, and Precious, who needs some upgrades on her home.”
A house painted blue
A short walk from The Loft is the Gertrude “Ma” Rainey House and Blues Museum—a starred destination on any music-lover’s pilgrimage—which almost was lost to civic neglect.
“It was about to fall in when the city purchased it for $4,000,” says Florene Dawkins, chairwoman of the nonprofit “Friends of the Ma Rainey House.” “That vote was controversial though, and split along racial lines, because some of the city council members didn’t even know who Ma Rainey was and saw no reason to save this raggedy, old house. She is better known around the world than in her own hometown. It would have been a sad commentary if, after all of her cultural contributions, Columbus refused to pay tribute to her.”
Luckily, B.B. King rallied Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, and Rufus Thomas for a benefit to rehabilitate the building, which now serves as a fascinatingly funky shrine to the “Mother of the Blues” and her art form. “Without B.B. King, that house wouldn’t be standing,” Dawkins says.
Born Gertrude Pridgett and nicknamed “Ma,” the blowsy entertainer with the crooked, gold-toothed grin, made more than 100 records and wrote about half of those songs, turning “See See Rider,” also known as “C.C. Rider,” into a standard.
“She had some, um, fanciful props,” says curator Fred Fussell, citing her headbands, a dress made of gold coins, ostrich-plume accessories, and various items incorporating an eagle, her totem animal.
Adds Dawkins, “She was ahead of her time—openly bisexual, requiring her band members to be immaculately dressed ‘pretty boys,’ as she called them; not above drawing a pistol if things got rough; but also taking in homeless children. She knew she wasn’t very attractive or even the best singer, but she was the best entertainer. Consider the pressures she overcame for her art—the segregation and Jim Crow, the disapproval of her sexuality— and yet, she prevailed. That’s the story. That’s the blues. And that’s why we should be proud of her.”
Rainey made her stage debut with a group called The Bunch of Blackberries at the venerable, 700-
Springer Opera House, built in 1871. That stage has seen Buffalo Bill, Oscar Wilde, and John Phillip Sousa, and more recently, Branford Marsalis, country up-and-comer Keni Thomas, and Garrison Keillor, who became an enthusiastic booster of Columbus.
“For generations, the Springer was considered the best theater between New York and New Orleans, so it was a perfect stopping-off point for big-name artists,” says Scooter MacMillan, the Springer’s marketing director. “We’ve had big success with many musical revues here and in the Springer’s national tour, Springer Theatricals, which travels all across the country and sometimes into Canada. For example The Taffetas and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline—both all music—were big hits for us here and on national tour, and we’re just wrapping up The Blues Brothers Revue, in which Peggy Jenkins will sing ‘C.C. Rider’ as a tribute to Ma Rainey.”
Classical guitarists and composers have made the RiverCenter their home base as part of the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University, while other performers have found their soaring voices at the Liberty Theatre, a historic, African-American venue and the stomping grounds of Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. It functions as the headquarters of the Columbus Jazz Society, which conducts monthly concerts. During one open-mic jam, two young women enter slowly, single file, one letting the other, who wears the darkened glasses of the blind, lean on her. They are sisters, all dolled up, and heads swivel toward them. Ashley Pinckney, 27, is fighting a tumor on her optic nerve but has faith that God will restore her sight, she says.
Meanwhile, after she is guided hesitantly on to the stage, she whips out a clarinet and improvises some deft, confident riffs on “Mr. Magic,” challenging the brassy sidemen to keep up with her woodwind. The crowd erupts in applause. An elderly woman at the next table whoops, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about—we got the music comin’ out the woodwork in Columbus. You go, chile!”