[here] in the ’40s and the ’50s. You didn’t have no choice. All those black singers didn’t have nowhere else to stay back then,” said Ratliff. “They would get a room. Get dressed. Then go and perform and come back. They would eat in here,” he noted, pointing to a cozy room just off the hotel lobby. “Mother had the café in here. Mother was a heck of a cook. I learned how to cook from her. If my wife come home with some Jiffy [baking mix], I’d throw that stuff away. No Jiffy come in my house!”
The Riverside Hotel guest register reads like a blues who’s who. Among the hundreds of musicians, people like Sonny Boy Williamson II, John Lee Hooker, Pop Staples, Sam Cooke, the Original Blind Boys, Peck Curtis and many others stayed here through the years. But Mrs. Hill’s love of the blues goes back even further than that.
“My mother was a fan of Bessie Smith. She was a blues fan,” said Ratliff. “Any time Bessie came to town within a hundred mile radius, my mother would go to her shows.” Before his mother started the Riverside Hotel, the building was forever put on the map as the hospital where the so-called “Empress of the Blues” bled to death in 1937 after a car wreck on the outskirts of Clarksdale. Born in 1940, Ratliff reminds visitors that he wasn’t born yet when this fateful accident occurred. But he is quick to talk about another musical giant whom he does remember fondly. “Ike Turner came here around ’50,” according to Ratliff. “He was about 17 years old. He was living here with some of his band members. Ike moved over here [from his family’s house] because he got too grown and was getting into this band thing. Eugene Fox lived right here on the corner. Jackie Brenston lived in the Brickyard across town.”
BIRTHPLACE OF ROCK ‘N ROLL?
“My mother, her word was just like gold. When they needed instruments for the band, she’d tell them to ‘go pick them out and tell Mr. Levine to call me’,” Ratliff said. Levine’s music store was a source of both musical instruments and recorded music for many up-and-coming blues players of the time. It was located at the corner of Martin Luther King and Sunflower Avenue where Red’s juke joint currently resides. “They practiced and rehearsed in the basement. The Rocket 88 demo was cut down there. The demo was cut before they went to Memphis and recorded,” said Ratliff of Ike and his Kings of Rhythm. (Rocket 88 with Jackie Brenston on lead vocals is often cited by music historians as the first rock ‘n’ roll song. Is it true, or was it one by Bill Haley, Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry? It doesn’t really matter. The point is that it was a pivotal record in the evolution of blues and rock ‘n roll. The demo has been lost to time, but based on this information, one could make a case for Clarksdale being the real “Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll” – instead of Memphis.)
After that legendary trip to Sam Phillips’ recording studio in Memphis, Ratliff reports that, “They were all excited. I was small. About 10, 11 or 12 during that time. I remember when Rocket 88 was a hit because Mother [also a seamstress] did the neckties, dresses and things for the band. They would go down to Indianola and different places and play, but this is where they stayed.”
Another blues legend who called the Riverside Hotel his home was slide guitar legend Robert Nighthawk – a popular recording artist, WROX radio star and father to blues drummer Sam Carr. “Robert Nighthawk lived here about four or five years in the ’50s,” according to Ratliff. When Nighthawk left to go north with his band, Ratliff remembers, “He had to leave a suitcase because he didn’t have room enough to put all of the instruments and musicians in the car. So he left his suitcase here with me. I still have the suitcase. He came back looking for it, but Mother had put it in storage. I found it later next door underneath the house. There was clothes in there but they had gotten old. I just threw the clothes away. I wish I hadn’t now. You want to know the truth? A lot of stuff we didn’t put value on.”
Ratliff also remembers Alec Rice Miller a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson II, saying he was both interesting and funny. “He carried on with a lot of foolishness. All the King Biscuit boys stayed here. They couldn’t go back to Helena if they played in Clarksdale at night. They had to stay here and then catch the ferry back across the river the next day to the 12 o’clock radio show in Helena, Arkansas,” he recalled. “In the 50s, everybody listened to King Biscuit Time at 12 o’clock. That’s when the men would come home, turn their radio on and have their lunches.”
As a long-time resident at the epicenter of the Mississippi Delta, Ratliff is also able to paint a vivid picture of the other African-American people and places that supported 1940’s and ‘50’s blues culture.
“You had the old Roxy Theater [beside the site of the recently reopened New Roxy Theater on Issaquena Avenue, downtown]. It was the biggest. Different musicians would come in to play,” he says. “They had two shows. They had an early show where parents could bring their kids with blues and comedy, like a fellow dressed up with paint all over his face. Then they had a late show for adults only. We had a 12 o’clock curfew during that time. This town here, at 12 o’clock, baby, you had to be off the streets. If you didn’t have a job, you’d go to jail… if you were black. That’s how strict it was,” he stressed, looking and sounding very serious.
JUKE JOINTS AND GAMBLING HOUSES
Ratliff also recalls some of the personalities surrounding the blues world of the time. “Hardface was a big time gambler in Tunica,” remembered Ratliff. “Hardface was a professional. He played poker, dice and all that. He had a juke house in Tunica. They juked in the front and gambled in the back. A lot of people from here used to go there. There was also a big club in Winstonville [called the Harlem Inn]. That’s where all the stars used to go – Little Milton, Ike Turner and them.”
Since blues was the pop music of that generation, juke joints and clubs were more common to the Delta landscape then.
“How many clubs were there in this town? About 40 in the ’40s and ’50s,” he boasted with a chuckle. “Around here you had so many musicians back then. You’d go to this place tonight to hear a band. Tomorrow night you go to another place and hear a band. That’s the way it was.”
Ratliff still recalled the names of several blues clubs – The Green Spot, Day & Night Club, Big House, Leroy’s Place – plus many other jukes with names lost to history. Most, he says, were situated between Issaquena and Yazoo Avenue on the African-American side of the tracks. Many doubled as cafes and at least one as a rooming house. “Big House was on Fourth Street. It had a blues club in it, and the lady rented rooms on the top floor,” he said.
Before Ratliff was born, Clarksdale was even more of a blues town. “In the 30s, this town used to be wide open. This is where all the juke joints were,” he noted. “There was a liquor store on every corner. On this corner there was a liquor store and on the next corner was a church. That’s how it was.”
By the time Ratliff was growing up, regional blues bands were more common than the traveling street performers of the Robert Johnson era. “No, they didn’t never play on the streets. You had to go to New Orleans to see musicians play on the street. The only somebody you ever saw play on the street was under the viaduct over there on Issaquena. There was a blind man who had a cup and a nickel, and he was shaking it. If you walk up and reach for it, suddenly he wasn’t deaf, blind or nothing!” he said with a hearty laugh. “Everybody had a hustle. If you didn’t have a hustle, you not going to make it,” he explained, returning to his serious look.
HUSTLING TO SURVIVE IN THE DELTA
While Ratliff’s mother was certainly not a hustler, she was in his words “a very independent lady.” “My mother only had one [outside] job in her life,” according to Ratliff. “She worked half a day.” His mother cooked and cleaned at this employer’s home just a single day, he said, “Until the white lady said to clean up behind the cat.” That sent Mrs. Hill on her way. Besides the hotel, his mother eventually owned a flower shop and a professional seamstress business. “She tied me out on Fourth Street on a rope. People used to pass by there, ‘Miss Hill you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have that boy tied out there.’ Mother never stopped a beat because she had to pedal that sewing machine.” Later, Hill’s was one of the few African-American households to have both a car and a TV in this small, segregated Delta town. “She was a business-wise person. That’s why I’m a business-wise person,” he explained.
Like his mother, Ratliff was never afraid of hard work, but he wanted to do it on his own terms. “When people was going to the fields to chop cotton in summertime, I didn’t chop cotton. I went out and caught roaches at night and sold them for a penny apiece for fishing. I made $15 or $20 a day, and you don’t get but $2 a day chopping cotton for 8 hours, 10 hours.”
These days, Ratliff spends most of his time hosting visitors from all over the United States and the world. The Netherlands, France, England, Italy, Germany, Australia, Japan. You name the country, and Ratliff has been here to greet them. “This is a hotel, they say. But many call it a home-away-from-home. I give them the keys. They go and they come. And if they want to come in here and sit down and play music, they’re welcome,” said Ratliff with a smile. One such visitor is a guitar-playing Japanese gentleman who goes by the name Gypsy. He has left his guitar at the Riverside since his first visit in 2002 and returns yearly to soak up the history and hospitality – and play a few tunes. Other musicians like James “T-Model” Ford of Greenville, have been known to drop by for a tune as well. Other visitors of note include the late John F. Kennedy, Jr., who spent a weekend at the Riverside Hotel in 1991.
According to Ratliff, “I’m here to stay in this business. I was born and brought up in this thing. And I know it. My mother has written a book. I just need to finish it.”