Bright Lights, Bluff City
19-year-old Will Tucker’s journey began with a dusty old Fender 60’s-reissue Stratocaster and brought him to the neon and noise of Beale Street’s legendary music district
story by Samuel Prager photos by Casey Hilder & david bunk
Often referred to as the forgotten folklore of Delta history, the blues still resides deep in the hearts of a century’s worth of veteran listeners at B.B. King’s Blues Club, and in particular, the soul of 19-year-old guitarist Will Tucker.
Tucker has been playing a weekly spot in B.B. King’s Blues Club for more than half a decade, which is impressive when that encompasses more than a quarter of his life. However, it wasn’t always like this. It all started when Tucker’s uncle ‘Buzz Waddy,’ a respected Memphis musician, passed away seven years ago, leaving this world with memories, an untapped passion and a final gift to his unsuspecting nephew: an electric guitar. “When I inherited the guitar, I figured I would learn how to play a little to justify having a nice guitar. I got on the Internet and started looking up chords, just enough to fake a song or two,” Tucker says. “I got hooked on it and just kept on going and going.”
At the time, Tucker was only 12 years old and recently equipped with his uncle’s Fender 60’s-reissue Stratocaster when he was introduced by his father — as most curious, aspiring musicians of that age typically are — to the rock n’ roll greats. His father introduced him to the sounds of legendary musicians like AC-DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd and other bands of that caliber, but what stuck out to Tucker most was Led Zeppelin. “I went nuts over Led Zeppelin. I had to learn every song in and out. Eventually I ended up buying a biography about them. It talked so much about all of those guys, growing up in the UK and being influenced by Delta Blues musicians.”
Tucker was so fascinated with Zeppelin that he was compelled to find where the origins, inspirations and raw energy of their rock n’ roll evolved. After a little research, Tucker found himself drawn to the blues and the deep culture that surrounded it, eventually realizing that it was the kind of music he was meant to make. “I dug Zeppelin but the blues just spoke to me. You know? I could feel it, I could relate to it, it moved me,” reminisces Tucker.
As a few years went by, the then-14-year-old guitarist, who was now capable of playing more than just “a few chords,” was informed about an open jam night at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. With his parents, Tucker took a chance, mustered up some courage and went. Barely out of middle school, a shaky Tucker nervously took to the stage and performed the classic blues tune, “Stormy Monday.” “I dove in right from the start, people went nuts and started cheering. A few measures went by and I thought, ‘man, this feels really good.’ Nervously, I started singing, and somehow or another I got through it,” says Tucker. “It was the first time I got that surge through my body, the chills.”
A video of Tucker’s performance that night was taped by his mother and uploaded to YouTube. As if by fate, she met Tommy Peters, the manager of B.B. King’s Blues Club. Knowing he was the owner of one of the most notable blues clubs in the region, she made small talk by sending him a video of Tucker’s performance at Ground Zero.
Much to Tucker’s surprise, as well as his mother’s, Peters invited the young strummer to come and sit in with the house band, along with longtime blues veteran, Corey Osborn. “I was growing slowly and still getting this great crowd reaction, I was just in awe,” says Tucker. “As you could imagine, I was digging every moment of it.”
After that night, Peters had Tucker performing with the house band weekly for about a year, until the time came for Tucker to form a band of his own. With a little help from Peters and other Beale Street high-ups, the then 15-year-old blues enthusiast had a band of his own, a Saturday night slot at one of the city’s hottest nightclubs and a whole lot of momentum behind him.
Four years later and Tucker can still be found spending his Saturday evenings performing at bars, playing for a generation of blues listeners decades older than him and fully equipped with a lifetime’s worth of blues appreciation. However, this intimidating thought doesn’t faze Tucker, who still isn’t old enough to go into the clubs he’s playing. “They love it and they respect it. They seem to always have. Every now and then, there is someone who’ll shrug and say, ‘You’re too young to be playing the blues — the biggest problem you have is keeping your grades in school,’ but generally the reception is pretty good,” jokes Tucker. “Lately, however, I’ve been trying to implement different styles and come up with my own original vibe, which would be a little targeted toward all ages.”
Being born in a city where blues is integrated with most aspects of daily life would be a simple answer to why a 12-year-old kid might fall in love with the music; however, Tucker says he personally is ingrained with the love of the blues and would likely have been devoted to the genre, regardless of where he was born. Being raised in Memphis is simply coincidental, though it surely does help with the authenticity. “Being from Memphis makes me feel a lot more authentic as a blues player. Everything around here has got the history, the soul,” Tucker says. “Sometimes in the Summer, I drive through the Mississippi Delta and go down the back roads, just to sit for a while, letting all of the history and atmosphere of the area soak in.”
Tucker released his debut album, Stealin’ the Soul, independently in 2009. The album is available on iTunes. As well as being a regular performer at B.B. King’s Blues Club, the young musician has a private pilot’s license, works on building hot rods and attends the Memphis campus branch of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical School, where he is studying to fly the friendly skies. “I’ve got a lot of passions going on between flying, working on cars and music. If there is a happy medium somewhere, I’ll find it. I just want to do something I love to do. Whether it may be music, I don’t know,” Tuckers says. “We’ll just have to see.”
With another album on the way, which has been in the works for about a year, the young musician plans to continue carrying out his passion for the blues. Along with his weekly gigs at B.B. King’s, Tucker will be performing at the Beale Street Music Festival for the third year in a row. “Regardless of what level of success I make with music. Whether I end up a pilot or something else, I will always be here on Beale Street playing music,” Tucker says.
Tucker continues to keep the Memphian blues tradition alive and preserve the genre for a younger generation, while still keeping the veteran listeners happy. “There aren’t many places you can go in this day and age and hear live blues music. Memphis and Beale Street are the heart of the blues culture,” Tucker says. “All music is rooted in the blues; it dates back to the late 1800s. This is where everything comes from and, unfortunately, most people don’t realize it.”