Red Tops marker, ‘Gold in the Hills’ mural unveiled|[03/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 29, 2008

Two institutions of Vicksburg’s arts and entertainment history were honored Friday.

In the morning, the Mississippi Blues Commission unveiled a Blues Trail marker in front of The BB Club in downtown Vicksburg to honor the Red Tops, the popular. all-black group from Vicksburg who played for black and white audiences in the years of Jim Crow laws and strict segregation. In the afternoon, the city’s 24th mural on the Levee Street floodwall was unveiled. The mural celebrated “Gold in the Hills,” listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running melodrama. The play has been produced annually in Vicksburg since 1936.

In attendance at the Red Tops marker dedication, were its three surviving members — Louis Spencer, Jimmie Bosley and Rufus McKay. The group formed in 1953 as a 10-member blues, jazz and pop group and disbanded nearly 20 years later.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

“This is an indescribable honor,” the group’s former vocalist, McKay, said of becoming the first band to be honored with a Blues Trail marker. The 32 other markers across the state recognize either individual performers or blues establishments.

“I had always hoped all along that someday, somebody would do something like this to honor our music, but I was never sure it would happen,” he said. “This is wonderful.”

As described on the Mississippi Blues Trail Web site, the Red Tops “were the top band in Mississippi during an era when nightlife centered on the dance floor.”

Members of the group had began playing together in the mid 1940s as the Rebops, but on June 20, 1953, they played their first show as the Red Tops at the Sequoia Hills Club in Bovina. Over the next 20 years, the group would play at country clubs, restaurants, ballrooms, high schools and colleges across Mississippi, as well as in neighboring states.

“We never went national or international,” McKay, 81, said to the crowd. “But let me put it this way — we went Mississippi.”

In Vicksburg, the group routinely played at venues such as the Hotel Vicksburg, the Blue Room and The BB Club.

“This is a very deserving group for this honor,” said Alex Thomas of the Mississippi Development Authority and Tourism Heritage Trails Program. “We were especially excited to do this while there are still surviving members of the band. We have honored so many great musicians who are no longer with us, so for these guys to actually be a part of this was very special.”

Thomas, who attended Friday’s unveiling, said the series of Mississippi markers celebrates the Magnolia State as the home of the blues, and provides tourists with an organized trail of its history. The Mississippi Blues Commission aims to install 120 markers. The first unveiled in Vicksburg honors native bluesman Willie Dixon, and was installed in June on Willie Dixon Way.

Funding for the Blues Trail marker came from the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Heritage Trails Program, the Mississippi Blues Commission, the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau and Fordice Construction Company of Vicksburg.

Three blocks away and five hours later, folks got their first peek at the newest mural on the floodwall at City Front. The 3 p.m. unveiling of the “Gold in the Hills” mural coincided with the opening night of the show’s 73rd season and the 72nd anniversary of the melodrama’s opening night in Vicksburg.

On March 28, 1936, “Gold” opened on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barge that had been changed to look like a riverboat. The melodrama began in the River City as a way to promote tourism after Vicksburg resident Julia Arnold decided a theatrical production would be a good way. That same year, the Vicksburg Theatre Guild was chartered.

The show was a success and became a continuous performance for the guild, despite having to move locations over the years. After moving from the barge, the play would be performed at the Old Bowmar Playhouse; The Sprauge, a steamboat purchased by the city for $1 in 1948, which burned in 1974 ; Parkside Playhouse, which was damaged by fire in June 2006 and where the production is now; and other locations.

“It’s a part of Vicksburg,” said Nellie Caldwell, chairman of the Riverfront Mural Committee. “What we set out to do with these murals was capture Vicksburg’s history, and this wall would not be complete with out ‘Gold in the Hills.'”

At Friday’s ceremony was the cast of this year’s production, who led the audience in singing some of the production’s numbers. Former cast members, too, attended, including 102-year-old Harry Gillespie.

“I think these murals are absolutely marvelous, and I’m very happy to be a part of this great addition to Vicksburg’s tourism,” said Gillespie, who said he had performed in the melodrama 30 years.

The scene from the play depicted on the mural features every character of the 1890s melodrama, written by J. Frank Davis in 1930. Robert Dafford of Lafayette, La., created the mural, along with the 23 other completed murals on the floodwall. He will next begin work on a mural celebrating the Miss Mississippi Pageant, said Caldwell. In total, 32 murals are planned.