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Mississippi Blues Trail To Run Through Belmont DeVilliers

Bob Barrett

The Belmont DeVilliers neighborhood will become a permanent stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail this week, with the unveiling of a historic marker at that Pensacola intersection.

"The Blues is life!" said Kamel King, the Bureau Manager for Visit Mississippi and Director of the Mississippi Blues Trail. "The Blues is the Earthly, organic demonstration of what life is. Whether it's slow or it's fast, or whether it's contemporary or traditional, it is really just original storytelling of how life really is for the person behind the mic."

King and a host of other officials and fans will be commemorating that passion for the blues in Pensacola this week, as an official marker along the Mississippi Blues Trail will be unveiled at the corner of Belmont and DeVilliers Streets. It will be only the second marker along the trail in the state of Florida. King says that it’s a well-deserved honor for the neighborhood. "The Belmont/DeVilliers neighborhood was an important, early center of blues and ragtime and jazz activity, and it was just a cornerstone for the Chitlin' Circuit and touring blues and jazz and rhythm & blues acts and local bands were welcome there in that African-American business and entertainment district. And Mississippi born performers such as Sam Cooke and Junior Parker and B.B. King (performed there) constantly. That just helped our state, their state and the genre of blues really cook up at the time."

Once a location submits an application for a marker on the blues trail, the area is researched to see if it meets certain criteria. Blues Historian Jim O’Neal is one of the researchers for the Mississippi Blues Trail. He says an area should have artists who were from the region, theaters and clubs that hosted the blues, maybe even a blues formatted radio station. "(The Belmont/DeVilliers) area had all those things," said O'Neal.

"It had artists that came from there. A lot of artists that came from Mississippi and other places that came through to play in the clubs there like Abe's 506 in particular and Times Tavern and the Savoy. And that scene kept going for a long time. I know there are periodic attempts to revive it and there's still some activity there. It's one of the primary scenes for blues and rhythm & blues and jazz in the Deep South."

The unveiling of the marker will be the culmination of a long process. Maria Goldberg is with the Belmont DeVilliers Neighborhood Association and 5 Sisters Blues Café. "It took me about a year to put all the documentation together because it's a pretty rigorous process. They want to make sure that all of this is current and accurate information."

Once that information was verified, the commission voted unanimously to award the marker to Pensacola. It will be placed on the corner where 5 Sisters Blues Café stands, which is the building that used to house Gussie's Record Shop and WBOP radio. Goldberg says during the process a group of people from the neighborhood association sat down for lunch with Gussie Streeter, who operated the record shop, and her sons Alvin and Derek. "We have now formed a great relationship with (Gussie) and her family.

And because of that, she has opened up her archives from the record shop and has gifted us, 5 Sisters, a lot of the show posters that advertised a lot of these acts that were coming through to Abe's 506." Goldberg says all the artwork that was on display at 5 Sisters has been replaced by these vintage posters. Gussie Streeter will be at the unveiling of the Blues Trail Marker and will be honored during the ceremony.

There will be several events around town leading up to the unveiling. On Thursday, blues historian Jim O’Neal will give a talk at Voices of Pensacola about the local blues scene and the people who made it happen. He'll be spotlighting acts like Wally "The Cat" Mercer, a singer and sax player and a DJ on WBOP and other radio stations, and Peggy Scott Adams. O'Neal says while doing his research he came up with dozens of names of performers who were from the Pensacola area.

The official unveiling of the marker will be Friday afternoon at 4 at the corner of Belmont and DeVilliers. O’Neal, Kamel King, and Mississippi State Senator Terry Burton will be there, as well as local officials from the city and county officials as from Visit Pensacola. Local musicians will be playing before and after the event.