Pensacola, Florida
Monday March 25th 2019

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Pensacola Sings the Blues

By Jeremy Morrison

It’s not the most famous crossroads in blues music, but the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets in Pensacola will soon receive recognition for the area’s rich contribution to the American music genre and culture.

The Mississippi Blues Commission this month is installing a marker at the crossroads to denote the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood’s inclusion in the Mississippi Blues Trail, a collection of sites of geographical significance in blues music.

“I’m excited times 10,” said Robin Reshard, a member of the Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood Association.

Reshard’s office is located in a building at the intersection where the Blues Trail marker will go. As a writer and filmmaker, she has explored the area’s history in depth and is glad to see the recognition.

“I think that’s pretty significant to highlight the contribution that Belmont-DeVilliers and the African American community has made to the music,” Reshard said.

Cornerstone Blues
Throughout the heart of the 20th century, the Belmont-DeVilliers area was considered a particularly energetic hub for the local African American community. Particularly during the days of segregation, the area served as space for both work and play.

“Belmont-DeVilliers was tight. It was dense. For African Americans, it was the place,” Reshard said. “In the day, it was the place they worked and shopped, and during the night, it was the place where they got entertained.”

That entertainment took place in local clubs populating the neighborhood and reads like a who’s who of jazz and blues. In the 1940s, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played the Savoy Gardens on DeVilliers, while Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald performed at the Elks Lodge. Later on, artists including James Brown, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Junior Parker, Sam Cooke, Wally Mercer, the Four Tops and the O’Jays would visit the neighborhood.

Belmont-DeVilliers was a staple on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of destinations where African American performers could find receptive venues and audiences during segregation.

When the Mississippi Blues Commission began researching the Pensacola neighborhood for consideration for a Mississippi Blues Trail marker, its researchers were surprised to find what fertile grounds Belmont-DeVilliers was for blues musicians.

“But the more I researched it, the more blues history I found in Pensacola. It has a very rich place in blues history,” said Jim O’Neal, research director with the Mississippi Blues Trail historical marker project.

O’Neal’s research involved scanning historic publications, such as the Colored Citizen newspaper—“There’s ads for Wally Mercer!”—and discovering gems like the Belmont Theater—“It was one of the first theaters on the vaudeville circuit to present blues on the stage.”

O’Neal will be visiting the Belmont-DeVilliers area next week for the marker unveiling, and he’s presenting a lecture the evening prior. Also in town for the occasion will be Mississippi Blues Commission Director Kamel King.

“Belmont-DeVilliers historic neighborhood became a cornerstone in the blues genre,” said King. “It became a very important stop for a blues artist to perform.”

Tourism Blues
The Mississippi Blues Commission was created by Gov. Haley Barbour in 2003 to promote the history of blues music. The organization accomplishes this mission primarily via the Mississippi Blues Trail and its associated markers.

There are markers all over throughout Mississippi and the surrounding region, as well as northwards to Chicago and in other countries. There is only one other marker in Florida, located in Tallahassee. In total, there are 202 markers around the world.

“Pensacola will be the 203rd,” King said.

As a destination on the Mississippi Blues Trail, the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood will become part of the route that the commission markets to blues aficionados inside and outside the country. It will be detailed in thousands of maps passed out at trade shows and festivals.

“It is the hottest music trail in the world,” said King.

With inclusion on the blues trail, King said that there is typically an uptick in interest from tourists interested in getting a look around an area rich with musical history.

“People from all types of other countries and continents coming to cities and towns that they might not otherwise have ever heard of or visited,” he said. “It squarely puts it on the map.”

Reshard agreed.

“I think it draws both the intentional and accidental tourist,” she said.

Reshard remembers once meeting some blues-loving tourist from way out of town when she and her husband visited the Mississippi Blues Trail locale in Tallahassee, the Bradfordville Blues Club.

“So, we get a seat at the bar, and these two cats from Denmark are there,” Reshard recalled. “It’s a destination. They made this very intentional trip to go there.”

The guys from Denmark were drawn to the blues trail marker, and at least one of them proved to be a pretty good dancer.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta learn this Danish dance because you’re really getting down, brother,’” Reshard laughed.

HISTORY OF THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES LECTURE
WHAT: Blues historian Jim O’Neal presents a lecture
WHEN: 5 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 17
WHERE: Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center, 117 E. Government St.
DETAILS: facebook.com/fivesistersbluescafe

MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL MARKER UNVEILING
WHAT: Mississippi Blues Commission unveils Pensacola’s marker
WHEN: 4 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18
WHERE: Intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets
DETAILS: msbluestrail.org