Pensacola, Florida
Sunday April 21st 2019

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Outtakes—Trail to the Blues Marker

By Rick Outzen

Last Friday, the Mississippi Blues Commission recognized the blues contributions of Pensacola with the unveiling of its 203rd Mississippi Blues Trail Marker at the corner of Belmont and DeVilliers streets.

Maria Goldberg deserves much of the credit for the event. She worked for nearly three years with Robin Reshard and others to document the musical history of the Belmont-DeVilliers area and Abe’s 506 Club, the Savoy, Tom’s Tavern, Elks Lodge, Odd Fellows Hall, Club Rum Boogie, Harlem Club, Cotton Club, Saber Club, Bunny Club, WBOP radio and Gussie’s Record Shop.

The process began with my conversation with Goldberg and Collier Merrill, whose Great Southern Restaurants has co-owned Five Sisters Blues Cafe for nearly three years. Inweekly had long had an interest in the blues and jazz heritage of Belmont-DeVilliers, and our reporter Jessica Forbes had spent weeks researching the musical history of the neighborhood (Inweekly, “Generations of Sound,” 3/1/13).

In April 2015, I interviewed Mary Margaret Miller, the manager for creative economy and culture with Visit Mississippi, about the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of interpretive markers at the most notable historical sites related to the birth, growth and influence of the blues throughout the state of Mississippi and beyond.

I learned that Tallahassee had a marker at the site of the Bradford Blues Club, where B.B. King, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker performed. Any musician playing in Tallahassee mostly also played here, I surmised. Why shouldn’t Pensacola also have a marker?

Knowing that Great Southern Restaurant Group and Fish House General Manager Jean Pierre N’Dione were in negotiations with Five Sisters founder Cecil Johnson, I approached Maria and Collier with my brainstorm. Five Sisters Blues Café was built in 2010 on the site of Gussie’s Record Shop by Quint and Rishy Studer and had become a cornerstone for the neighborhood’s revitalization.

Across the street, the Studers and Eddie Todd had completed the renovation of DeVilliers Square that housed the University of West Florida Innovation Institute and 19 businesses and nonprofits. The Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood Association was active, and new houses were being built on the surrounding streets.

I argued with Maria and Collier that the Mississippi Blues Trail marker would take the revitalization of Belmont-DeVilliers to another level. They fortunately agreed.

In his press release announcing the marker, Visit Mississippi Director Craig Ray said, “Pensacola’s historic entertainment district of Belmont-DeVilliers played an integral role in encouraging the blues genre’s growth beyond Mississippi state lines to locations around the world.”

What are my next bright ideas for Belmont-DeVilliers that will build upon its musical heritage? A Belmont Blues Hall would be an excellent addition—think a smaller Vinyl Music Hall that focuses on blues and jazz—and a national museum on Reconstruction. I will write more about them later. Stay tuned.