After 27 years, Wild Bill’s Juke Joint is thriving
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, the neon orange lightbox sign glows at me from the wall behind the bar. A gridlock of wires runs from the sign into the ceiling’s timeworn droptiles, under which Miss Evelen—the bartender, cook and cover-charge collector—fishes me a 40-oz. Miller Lite from the lowboy. She caps the bottle with a tiny plastic cup, in case, I imagine, I want to feel fancy. Or share.
I tuck the cup beneath my arm, crack open my enormous beer, and take my seat amongst the crowd of not-so-strangers. We’ve all just met—no names needed. We’re all laughing and singing and talking loudly at one another through the windowless dark over the thrumming molasses voice of “Big Don” Valentine: Now, how in the hell you expect me to understand / When I don’t even know what’s wrong? / Let’s straighten it out, baby / Let’s straighten it out…
To clarify, as far as I know, it is nobody’s birthday. But at Wild Bill’s, it feels like it’s everybody’s.
Don is a third-generation blues musician and son of Calvin Valentine, bassist of the local Hollywood All Stars. He played in his father’s band for over 20 years, up until his father’s death. Don opened Wild Bill’s Juke Joint alongside bluesman Big Lucky Carter and the eponymous Wild Bill, a cab driver whose real name is Willie Story.
The venue began as a soul food restaurant that doubled as an after-hours bar—a space where blues musicians could come after their shows to eat, drink, and play.
Originally open only on Saturdays, the venue quickly amassed a cult following of local Black blues fans, following bands from Beale to Wild Bill’s, where they’d enjoy more intimate sets anytime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. As the crowd grew, the juke joint extended its operation to include Saturday and Sunday nights.
It’s a windy Sunday night when I find myself in the passenger seat of Don’s SUV. Before his set, we muse about the magic inside the building we’re parked in front of—the hedonistic synergy between the multinational crowd and the band, food and drinks that flow like a broken faucet, the holistic sense of welcome felt by all who enter. I pick his brain about the building where he spent so many formative years as a drummer and singer. The building where he got his nickname, The Man of a Thousand Songs. I ask him if he can describe it—the magic that possesses Wild Bill’s.
“I don’t think I can put it into words,” Don says. “It’s just the soul of the blues. It’s alive in there.”
While no longer part of the day-to-day operations of the bar, Don still plays at Wild Bill’s nearly every Sunday night. He’s retired from the drums now, he says, but his voice still soaks languidly into the air while his loyalist fans sip and spill their drinks as they dance and sing along with him.
There is very little public information available about Wild Bill’s—only reviews by patrons who come from all over the world to listen to some of the best blues the city has to offer. But one agreed-upon fact is this: Wild Bill’s is one of the last remaining authentic juke joints in the Delta South.
Wild Bill’s doesn’t look like much. If you happen to be driving through the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of North Memphis, you might notice the large, graffiti-style spray paint sign that hangs upon the awning overhead, with the late namesake figure Wild Bill himself portrayed smiling between the two words. It sits adjacent to a corner store, which some guests use to buy their own booze to bring in, since Wild Bill’s doesn’t sell hard liquor.
“When you look on the outside, you don’t want to come in,” says Manny Williams, current manager of Wild Bill’s.
“But once you come in, you don’t wanna leave.”
Over the years, the walls of Wild Bill’s have seen the likes of legends such as B.B. King, Albert King, Denise LaSalle, and Robert Cray. Its walls are plastered in xeroxed photos of the stars who stood between them, a museum-like feature that is of the utmost importance to Manny.
Manny invites me to Wild Bill’s on a Monday, now one of the two days of the week that the bar is closed for business. It’s his day off—but not really. Manny’s a busy man. He’s got a band of his own—the Juke Joint All Stars, which consists of over 100 members worldwide. The band and its many members play in smaller faction bands throughout the city and beyond. The Nite Life Band plays on Mississippi River cruises between Memphis and New Orleans. The Beale Street All Stars band plays party and wedding venues across the South. Manny himself plays drums with them when he can, but simultaneously manages all his bands’ ventures through his booking agency, Bandstand Entertainment.
Manny and I walk beside the photo-laden walls of Wild Bill’s in the daytime. He points out and name drops the candid figures to me—all of whom are photographed smiling and performing in the selfsame space.
“When I took this place on, I didn’t change a thing,” Manny says. “I just put the pictures up, like a museum for the blues. People can come in before it gets crazy and look at the folks who are part of the history.”
Before he ran Wild Bill’s, Manny used to play here. He started out as a funk drummer on Beale before he met Tony Chapman and Dr. “Feelgood” Potts, both of whom introduced him to blues music. In 2018, Tony Chapman encouraged Manny to take on Wild Bill’s from its failing predecessors.
“Over and over again, it just got driven deeper and deeper into the ground,” Manny says. “Sometimes, I’d come here to play and the lights wouldn’t be on.”
Over the years, Wild Bill’s has seen different throngs of management. In fact, it has closed and reopened three separate times since its establishment in 1996. Once Willie “Wild Bill” Story passed away in 2007, Wild Bill’s was inherited by his daughter, Gwendolyn Pitts, who ran the business for more than eight years with her husband, bluesman Chris Pitts.
In its current state, Wild Bill’s is livelier than ever. Drinks and live music are flowing all night from Wednesday to Sunday. Miss Evelen can be found between the bar and the kitchen, dropping fried delights from Thursday to Sunday. I asked Manny what he did differently.
“They built this place just off of talent and word of mouth alone—it’s not like Beale Street,” Manny says.
“You got great entertainment, but you gotta run the place right and be consistent. It’s a lot about finding good people to work for me.”
When the pandemic hit, Wild Bill’s found itself in jeopardy of closing again, this time with Manny in the crosshairs.
“Covid tried to take me out and we were battling—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,” he says, pounding his fist on a bar table. I chuckle, but Manny grows uncharacteristically austere. I see the difficulty of it all in his demeanor.
“We had to live stream performances from here and put up a virtual tip bucket. People came online and tipped the band, and it kept us all going. We did that for about a year.”
When the city’s restrictions on live entertainment were lifted, the folks who streamed knew that Wild Bill’s would be coming back, but many past patrons were left uncertain.
“We had to start all over again. A lot of people didn’t know it was gonna be open because it closed so many times before,” Manny says.
The history of inconsistency that has long plagued Wild Bill’s was a battle that Manny inherited and has fought for four years to overcome. Today, Manny is winning that battle, and he’s doing it all without altering the Wild Bill’s soul that was also part of his inheritance. These days, you can find just as many locals as you can tourists. People from across the globe who love and study the blues make pilgrimage to Wild Bill’s in the same way some do to Graceland and Stax. I asked Manny what about Wild Bill’s people flock to. All it is, he says, is authentic blues, alive and in technicolor.
“People come from all over the world and they want to hear the blues. So that’s what we do—we keep the blues alive,” Manny says.
“This is a real juke joint. No fighting, arguing, shooting, cutting, stabbing. Just down-home Delta blues. Sawdust on the floor. Party all night, get drunk. Eat catfish, ribs, and chicken wings.”
Since the pandemic, Manny has done a lot for Wild Bill’s. For one, he rented the space next door and took the wall down, doubling the size to make more room for the band and, of course, for dancing. He’s able to accommodate the larger and larger crowds the bar seems to draw every night. I ask Manny where he sees Wild Bill’s in five years, with all the demand for it from fans near and far. “Wild Bill’s 2,” he tells me. “We’re gonna be in North Memphis and South.” I smile. I love this.
Later, the same Sunday night, I am sitting between two not-so-strangers—an older North Memphis woman to my left, a man from the United Kingdom to my right. The woman wraps her right arm around me and taps my shoulder to the rhythm, singing along with the band to “Mr. Sexy Man” by Nellie “Tiger” Travis. The British man nudges me with his left elbow and says, “Mate, I’m so glad I came here.” We all decide to get on the dance floor together.
For a moment, this all seems like a three-people-walk-into-a-bar joke. But it’s not a joke. This is real life, I remember. This is the Memphis I read about in the books. And then the words of Don Valentine from our conversation a couple hours ago resound within me: “People can change all they want to. The blues don’t change. The blues are still the same.”
Blues is a music predicated on hardship and pain. You can feel it in the drawling lyrics and in the slow drums and in the picking of guitar strings. Its sounds reverberate with the timeless echoes of Black struggle and resilience in the South. The blues lament the strife and evils that Black Americans have endured for centuries, and simultaneously celebrate the hard-earned triumphs over oppression.
Historically, Black musicians have been left out of the canon and the equation. Left with very little recording of their artistry to help future generations remember. It’s easy to see that there is little information about Wild Bill’s Juke Joint. But it is harder to ask why. Why has it been difficult to keep it alive? Why isn’t there more written about a place that has seen so much talent in a city so entrenched with the blues? Why do we prioritize musical spaces that make music easier to digest? Why do clubs on Beale get immortalized over ones that are purveying a more authentic sound? Why does the success of some venues get left to the word of mouth, and then get left to die when no one commoditizes them?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Neither does Manny or Don. At one time, across the Delta South, juke joints just like Wild Bill’s were places where these unmistakable sounds could be belted into the heavens, into a catharsis from the pain that could only be achieved by letting it go. Now, these spaces are dwindling as I write these words.
The blues are inseparable from Memphis, and Memphis from the blues, but so often, in so many spaces now, there can be found only morsels of its earnest soul. The blues around town are being watered down, Manny says. But not here.
“At Wild Bills,” Manny says, “people wanna hear the real shit, not the watered down shit.”
In so many ways, Manny revamping his space is the act of reclaiming a space that is rightfully his. Rightfully Memphian. Rightfully earnest. Rightfully Black.
On this Sunday night inside Wild Bill’s, there is no place I’d rather be. I am grateful to be, and to be here. To be here, with all of these people I may never see again, is a blessing I never thought I’d know. Even as an outsider, I don’t quite feel like one right now. I feel full. Not watered down.
1580 Vollintine Avenue
Joshua Carlucci is a Memphis transplant by way of California, New Orleans, and New York City. He’s a former professional cook, an MFA candidate in creative writing, and a queer advocate at OUTMemphis. When he’s not working or writing, he’s probably eating, exploring the outdoors, playing with his cat, or some combination of all three. @joshuadcarlucci
Ziggy Mack is an internationally published photographer about town. When not immortalizing the movements of ballerinas, circus performers, and mermaids, he spends his time finding candid moments involving delectable cuisines and the people that create them. @fomoloop