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The return of Benton Harbor's old-school blues fest



It's about as far from the stereotypical backstreet juke as you can get: a breeze wafts off the lake, easing the scorch of the midsummer sun. There's sand underfoot, barbecue smoke in the air, and several thousand people relaxing in lawn chairs or dancing to the funk-driven blues blasting from a stage at one end of the beach. That was the scene at Benton Harbor's Jean Klock Park every July from 1996 to 2008, when a team led by promoter Joe Jackson (no relation to Michael's father) brought in nationally known artists such as Willie Clayton and Denise LaSalle, along with popular local acts, for what was variously billed as the Benton Harbor Blues or Soul-Blues Festival.

But after 2008, when rain and competition from another advertised blues show cut into his audience and proceeds, Jackson pulled the plug on the festival. Enter Lee Kirksy—aka Mr. Lee, veteran Chicago promoter, emcee, dancer, and comedian—who's defying economic uncertainty and Benton Harbor's political turmoil to resurrect the festival.

The show he put together, which he's billing as Mr. Lee's Old School Blues Fest, is similar to the ones Jackson booked: headliners Denise LaSalle and Bobby Rush are known soul-blues stars, and the lineup includes such local celebrities as Sydney Joe Qualls, Vance Kelly, and up-and-coming vocalist Jeannie Holliday. All told, 11 acts (including Kirksy's mini-revue, Mr. Lee & Company) will perform.

The idea is to tap an underserved audience hungry for the music they love. "I decided to stay with that blues thing," Kirsky says, "because the people up there love the blues."

Kirksy's hopes to draw at least 1,500 people. So far he's filled eight Chicago-originating buses with people who've signed up for package-deal specials; he says the most he ever filled when working for Jackson was two.

If Kirksy pulls off a successful event, he believes it will validate his role in the regional entertainment business. If he fails—well, failure isn't up for discussion: "When [Jackson] lost it, [people] said, 'Mr. Lee, why can't you get the beach?'" Kirksy says. "You're the one that made the beach the beach anyway.'"

Kirksy has worked nearly half a century in show business, with most of those years spent warming up audiences (he cites Natalie Cole, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown as among the big names he's opened for). Recently he's focused mostly on promoting, although he still struts his dancing chops—twirls, pivots, headstands, somersaults—when he emcees.

One of those emcee gigs was his long-running stint at the Benton Harbor Festival, over which he presided during most of its 13-year run under Jackson. That experience qualifies him to bring the festival back, he says.

Kirksy took the plunge a year ago, after a local promoter staked him enough money to put together a show starring Bobby "Blue" Bland and take it south. "I said, shit, if he is willing to give me $50,000 to put on a show for him, why should I be scared to put on a show for myself?"

Kirksy shudders as he admits the project has cost him at least $30,000; an unexpected setback could mean disaster. On the other hand, he hopes to expand the event into a three-day blues festival if this one succeeds.

"I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna finish my career doing something I should've done a long time ago,'" he says. "If I can have a good party, if I can go out here and let them see a local guy that don't sing, ain't never made a record, put on one of the most beautiful blues outings—that's what's gonna make the faith ring. You done proved you're worthy of being in this field." 

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