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Pine Grill Reunion

Welcome, Mr. Real
Flying Calvin Newborn brings it to MLK Park

If you dropped by the Plantation Inn nightclub in West Memphis, Arkansas on almost any night between 1948 and 1952 you would’ve been blown away by the house band that featured a high school-aged kid blazing away on the guitar. He played with the instrument behind his head, between his legs, or while leaping into the air and sliding across the stage on his knees. Before Chuck Berry took his first duck walk, and long before Jimi Hendrix electrified mainstream audiences with his pyrotechnics, Calvin Newborn was known as the hottest guitarist on the Chitlin’ Circuit—the collection of segregated music clubs throughout the deep south where blues and R&B acts routinely toured.

Phineas Newborn Sr., the family patriarch, formed the Phineas Newborn Family Show Band in 1948 after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band. Phineas Newborn Jr., Calvin’s brother, was a master of the keyboard and became a widely recognized jazz artist. Though they both took piano lessons at an early age, the younger brother took to the guitar. Every night throughout high school, the family band drove the bridge across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee to West Memphis, Arkansas—where they played until past 2am. Then they’d come back home and the boys would go to school the next day.

“I acquired quite a nighttime agenda,” Newborn recalls, speaking on the phone from his home in Jacksonville, Florida. “It’s hard for me to get up in the morning, early.”

He recalls the years at the Plantation Inn, when movie stars passing through Memphis would stay at the luxurious but segregated Peabody Hotel and come across the river to hear the band. Eva Gabor signed autographs there on the bandstand.

“It wasn’t that time yet,” says Newborn, “they couldn’t invite us to their table for a drink or nothing. We had to go into the back when we got off the stage. But that’s what time it was. White guys used to come over and jam with us. Charlie Rich in fact came over and played with us. Quite a few white musicians would come over from the Peabody and they would bring us back with them to the hotel and we’d be jamming on the rooftop. We couldn’t even go in the Peabody unless we were bussing dishes or waiting tables. But they would take us up on the rooftop and we would jam. We were breaking barriers even back then, before rock-n-roll. People don’t know that rock-n-roll broke the ice for civil rights. They don’t give music the credit that it’s due, but I know that’s what happened because I was there and I was a part of it. I saw it happen.”

Newborn talks about his first tour that took him all the way to Hollywood with Roy Milton in 1949. At the time Milton had a hit called “Junior’s Jive,” which featured Newborn on guitar.

“I played ‘Junior’s Jive’ and wiggled my legs and swiveled my hips and played the guitar like I was making love to a woman,” he says, “I bought a five-hundred-foot cord, and would follow the saxophone player all around the club—even into the ladies restroom if that’s where he went. He’d be honkin’ and squealin’ and I’d be bending notes and playing. I became quite a showman. I used to walk the bars, dance on tables. That’s why I say I passed the ball to Elvis. He was like part of our family. Twice a week he’d show up at the Plantation Inn and he’d talk to my Daddy. And my Daddy would talk to him just like he did my brother and I. He’d tell us ‘You got to give ‘em somethin’ to see, and somethin’ to hear.’ He knew the music business backwards. He preached to Elvis just like he did to us—how you’ve got to be a showman. So, Elvis picked up on my moves.”

At 82, Newborn’s moves are a bit more subdued than they were when he was turning heads in those pre-rock-n-roll days. His playing, however, still makes jaws drop. After all, he’s still the same guy who recorded the solos on B.B. King’s first record. The same guy who literally sat down and taught Howlin’ Wolf how to play the guitar. It’s fitting that his nickname is Mr. Real.

Sunday (8/2) at 3pm, Calvin Newborn will play MLK Park for the 26th Annual Pine Grill Reunion—named for the legendary jazz club that used to be on Jefferson Street near East Ferry. Backing him will be noted jazz bassist and Buffalo native Juini Booth, with Quinn Lawrence on sax and trumpet, and Tony Hiler on Drums.

Former Common Council President George K. Arthur—who was instrumental in putting the first Pine Grill Reunion together—says the event has grown into something of a homecoming for the local African-American community.

“You have different family reunions and different individuals who book their vacations around the dates of the event,” Arthur says. “They set up tents and cook and just have a good time. You get an older crowd and people come early to stake out their locations to get a good spot. It’s two weekends. The first week we bring in the national artists. The second week is for all the various local artists, so folks from Buffalo get an opportunity to play. For many of the local musicians, the crowd is the largest they’ll ever play to. Four, five, six-thousand people are there in the park.”

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