New blues museum/restaurant opening plans announced

The Parks Chamber of Commerce announced a new business venture in Loves Park last week. The former Top Hat Restaurant has been vacant for quite some time, and in the near future the building will be taken over and renovated for a different kind of facility to be called The Illinois Blues Shack.

Terrence Williams and Debra Newcomer of Williams Entertainment Services, Inc., as well as Loves Park Mayor Darryl Lindberg and other elected officials unveiled their new plans to renovate the space to become a full-service restaurant specializing in Bar-B-que ribs, last Friday, Dec. 12. The facility will also feature a Bukka T. White Memorial Country Blues Museum, which will include original art, photography and musical pieces.

The focus of the museum is on the histories of innovators in the field of traditional American blues and Country music. In honor of Booker T. Washington White (aka “Bukka T. White), one of blues history’s outstanding figures and third cousin of B.B. King, the museum will feature memorabilia of his life.

White was born somewhere between 1902-06 (sources differ) somewhere in Mississippi (sources also argue whether his birthplace was Houston or Aberdeen). His father taught him to play guitar, while his mother influences his musical tastes with various hymns and church music. He worked as a field hand during his teens, and married at age 16 (his young wife died three years later).

In 1930, White recorded some of his first songs in Memphis and married again to the daughter of George “Bullet” Williams. To make extra money, White also played a bit of semi-professional baseball and engaged in professional boxing.

In 1937, White was imprisoned for “assault” at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi Penitentiary, where he wrote more music than ever and even recorded a few songs for the Library of Congress archive of folk songs. When he was released in 1940, he went to Chicago to record for Lester Melrose of Vocalion Records. There he divorced his wife and after the recording, disappeared into history for more than a decade, working as a welder in Memphis.

In 1963, White was rediscovered and encouraged to play professionally again. He toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, played at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, and performed with his cousin B.B. at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

In 1977, Booker T. Washington White died of cancer in Memphis around the age of 65 (but no one really knows), and left a legacy of Southern blues for the world. His impact has been great, although not as well known as Elvis and B.B. King, but still a remarkable influence on modern soul and blues music.

The Illinois Blues Shack is striving to open a different kind of restaurant with a focus on traditional blues and the history behind it, to renew interest in the legacy of White, and to offer a facility wherein guests can hear live performers while experiencing the ambiance of club-museum environment. There is also some talk of opening the basement of the old Top Hat as a full-service A/V recording studio known as BASSment Studios for guest artists.

The tentative opening date of The Illinois Blues Shack is set for Jan. 15-30, 2004, pending inspections and approvals. Williams and Newcomer are working to make the former Top Hat a new culturally enriching facility for the Rockford area, which, in turn, will hopefully generate more tourism revenue. Williams Entertainment Services is an entertainment/hospitality services re-development company that utilizes abandoned and/or under-developed properties to design commercially viable projects.

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