Meeting Nashville’s Queen of the Blues Introduced Me to a Jefferson Street Version of Music Row
NMAAM Henry Hicks Presenting Recognition to Marion James

Nashville’s Queen of the Blues, Ms. James, accepting a special NMAAM recognition from H. Beecher Hicks, III.

I met Marion James for the first time in 2012 at the Z. Alexander Looby branch of the Nashville Public Library, when the National Museum of African American Music hosted several of our local musical greats for a series of sessions, designed to foster a conversation with us…and allow us to learn about the city’s history.  We wanted to not only hear about our musical history, specifically the music history of Nashville, but experience it through the eyes and voices of artists who knew Jefferson Street, in its heyday. Ms. James was the only woman in the room, and she very astutely guided our conversation, as several of us, including our guest curator from the Smithsonian Institution, sat at the feet of these masters. She told us, with nods from her peers, that, “At one time, there was more black music right here in Nashville than there was anything else. And I bet you didn’t know that every band (during a certain time) had at least, at least, one band member from Nashville. The Nashville connection was so strong – and national – before they even started pushing out that Country music.”

NMAAM knew quite a bit about her, but it wasn’t until we really met and listened that we understood the depth of her knowledge. We knew that she had the hit single ‘That’s My Man’ and that she was instrumental in giving Jimi Hendrix his first gig in Nashville. On Jefferson Street.  We didn’t know that her voice and the hit-you-right-between-the-eyes singing was what gave her the name ‘House Rockin’ James’ before she became known as ‘Nashville’s Queen of the Blues.’ She had that instinct of how to bring a crowd to its feet, entertain, tear the place apart, as well as educate the audience, all while supporting her band members’ artistry and livelihood. She was a woman making money in the music industry, well before it was thought of as ‘an industry.’  She made a place for herself in Nashville’s history and that of the story of how African Americans shaped American culture through the music that she sang, wrote, coordinated and managed.

Over the years I was able to learn more and found that she had become more and more emphatic about making sure that youth today know where their music comes from, and learn about the history of North Nashville and a time when Jefferson Street was a booming district with music clubs on every corner. Black music was the focus of the city, she said, calling Jefferson Street the “first Music Row.” She spoke about Hank Crawford’s Jazz jam sessions on Sundays that would begin at three o’clock in the afternoon and go late into the night. The era lasted until the “urban renewal” program, especially when I-40 broke North Nashville in two in the late 1960s.

NMAAM Story Corp Participants and Honorees

Marion James was one of several local musicians honored by NMAAM at an event in 2015. She is pictured here after accepting.

James was born in Nashville and grew up in a musical family firmly rooted in the church. Her mother played piano, her sister sang gospel with the Claire Ward Singers, her uncle played guitar and banjo, and several of her cousins were professional musicians. As a child, James’ first experience with Blues music came from watching
vaudeville shows, checking out local performers or listening to her mother’s record collection of 78s.

When she began working professionally, she not only sang, she managed the band, handled the business and booked the shows. During the early 1960’s, her touring band included guitarist Jimi Hendrix and bassist Billy Cox. In 1966, she recorded the top-ten hit “That’s My Man” for Nashville’s Excello Records. That track, recorded at the height of her career, featured legendary blues guitarist Johnny Jones, who played with Bobby Blue Bland, and her husband, trumpeter/arranger Jimmy Stuart, a well-known arranger.

Ms. James traveled and performed steadily into the mid-1980s and played to sold-out audiences in the South and in Europe. She recorded and toured in the 1990s with the Hypnotics, and later sang with Rufus Thomas, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Chick Willis. When the Country Music Hall of Fame produced an exhibit on Nashville’s rich R&B music history in 2004, Ms. James had earned her place as a featured performer.

Nashville’s Queen of the Blues told us that she eventually realized she needed a break from the road. “I was tired, it was time to sit down,” she said. She had always helped fellow performers who fell on hard times, misfortunes and physical illness, sometimes just needing enough money for a prescription. In 1983, she founded the Marion James Musician’s Aid Society.  The organization has hosted the Musicians Reunion for 30 years and raised funds for many of the acts that made Nashville a major stop on the Soul/Blues/R&B circuit during the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. Even during her illness, she cared about others – and we want to make sure that work continues.

Never was her genuineness more apparent than when we had a chance to participate in the benefit named after her, a couple years ago. We’re especially proud of catching her on video for several oral history projects that we’ll be sharing in the future.

Ms. James started singing in the church and then her musical talents flowed, just like the rhythm of a river, into what became her Blues and R&B career. There’s a rich history of music that has never before been told, and I look forward to the day when we have the chance to tell Ms. James’ story at the National Museum of African American Music; Ms. James represented what American music is all about.

H. Beecher Hicks, III
NMAAM’s president & CEO

Want to experience Marion James’ hit, ‘That’s My Man?’ Listen to her here:

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