Wilson Pickett, Anson Funderburgh Bask In Glow Of Handy Awards Show

'Mustang Sally' singer takes home three awards; Funderburgh wins, too, but is there mostly for party.

It was Wilson Pickett's night at the W.C. Handy Awards show in Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday as the singer, who's battled health problems in recent years, took three of the most prestigious honors the blues world has to offer.

Pickett, best-known for the raunchy soul of "Mustang Sally" and "Land of 1000 Dances," was named Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year and his It's Harder Now was voted Comeback Blues Album and Soul/Blues Album of the Year.

Taking the stage, Pickett electrified the crowd at the historic Orpheum Theatre with a thoroughly Memphis-soul blues-style rendition of his biggest hit, "In the Midnight Hour" (RealAudio excerpt). It was also the night of Anson Funderburgh, whose "Change in My Pocket" (RealAudio excerpt), a song he co-wrote with his wife, Renee, and Sam Myers and J.P. Whitefield, was voted Best Blues Song.

It's not the first time the Dallas guitarist has been singled out for the blues' highest accolades, though. In fact, he's previously won eight Handy Awards. It may not be a new thrill, exactly, but it's not exactly old-hat yet, either.

"It feels wonderful," Funderburgh said on Friday afternoon from his Memphis hotel room. "It's really great to receive an award that comes from not only fans, not only musicians, not only writers, but all the different kinds of people who are involved in blues music. All of them vote on the Handy Awards."

Funderburgh Plays Best Blues Song

Attendees at the awards ceremony got to hear Funderburgh and his band, the Rockets, play the song of the year.

"I got to hear some of the other performers, too," he said, "and Paul Rishell and Annie Raines were just wonderful. That acoustic blues they do is just great."

Rishell and Raines, winners of the Acoustic Blues Album of the Year for their Tone-Cool disc Moving to the Country (RealAudio excerpt of title track), turned in a stellar performance, causing many in the crowd to take a second look as Rishell played guitar, Raines blew a mean harmonica and the pair sang a duet.

Folk and blues icon Odetta, a nominee for the Best Traditional Blues/Female Award, also moved the crowd with her soaring voice framed by the piano work of Henry Butler, and Gov't Mule backed up Little Milton on "The Blues Is All Right."

Post-Awards Jam Continues Into Morning

Best New Artist award winner Big Bill Morganfield, Acoustic Blues Artist winner Keb' Mo', Blues Band of the Year leader Rod Piazza and numerous other blues luminaries were present at the Daisy Street Theater's post-awards jam.

Funderburgh attended but didn't play. "My wife is pregnant, we're expecting our first child, so we just went to watch and listen this year," he said. "And we had to give it up at about 3 a.m. to go back to our hotel."

But he found a new artist to like: "Tab Benoit — his singing just knocked me out. He was just great."

The hard-working Funderburgh, who plays nearly 300 dates a year, will be on the road again after a Friday night showcase on Beale Street with Rounder labelmates Candye Kane and Smokin' Joe Kubek, but he savored the chance to be in Memphis.

"The barbecue's great. And the music — Stax/Volt, Sun Records, Howlin' Wolf, the clubs along Beale Street — Memphis is just so rich with music," Funderburgh said.

R&B great Rufus Thomas and Tracy Nelson, known for her down-home earthy blues vocals, hosted the awards presentation.

B.B. King received the top award, Blues Entertainer of the Year. Albert King (1923–92) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954–90) picked up two awards, Blues Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, for their posthumous release, In Session: Albert King With Stevie Ray Vaughan. The album, featuring incendiary performances by the electric guitarists from different generations, was originally recorded for Canadian television in 1983.

More Than Just Awards

The ceremonies are traditionally the first event in a weekend that includes a two-day blues festival along Beale Street.

Additionally, there'll also be two children's blues workshops and a panel exploring some of the ongoing controversies in the mist-shrouded history of the blues.

At a session Friday on blues marketing, the recently formed Blues Music Association announced that Delmark Records founder Bob Koester was awarded its first AGES award, in recognition of his work "Attaining Greater Economic Security" for the blues and blues artists.

But the reason for it all, of course, is the music.

"This year's event is a unique celebration in music, of where blues has been and where it's headed," said Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation, which sponsors the event.

Given every year since 1980, the awards are named after W.C. Handy, known as the father of the blues, who notated and distributed blues music in the first part of the 20th century, bringing Delta blues music to listeners beyond its native region.

Blues artists still savor the importance of the wider platform the Handy Awards provide. Rory Block, a contender this year for the Best Traditional Artist/Female award and multiple award winner in previous years, still finds the recognition for her art thrilling.

"After so many years when having a career in the blues barely mattered in the commercial scheme of things," she said, "to see more and more people begin to recognize and appreciate the blues is wonderful. The Handy Awards are an important part of that."

The Winners of the 2000 W.C. Handy Blues Awards:

Blues Entertainer of the Year

B.B. King

Blues Band of the Year

Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers

Blues Album of the Year

Albert King/Stevie Ray Vaughan, In Session

Soul/Blues — Female Artist of the Year

Etta James

Soul/Blues — Male Artist of the Year

Wilson Pickett

Blues Song of the Year

"Change in My Pocket," Sam Myers, Anson Funderburgh, Renee Funderburgh, J.P. Whitefield

Contemporary Blues — Male Artist of the Year

Keb' Mo'

Contemporary Blues — Female Artist of the Year

Susan Tedeschi

Soul/Blues Album of the Year

Wilson Pickett, It's Harder Now

Contemporary Blues Album of the Year

Albert King/Stevie Ray Vaughan, In Session

Blues Instrumentalist — Other

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown

Blues Instrumentalist — Drums

Chris Layton

Blues Instrumentalist — Bass

Willie Kent

Blues Instrumentalist — Keyboards

Pinetop Perkins

Blues Instrumentalist — Harmonica

Charlie Musselwhite

Blues Instrumentalist — Guitar

Duke Robillard

Best New Blues Artist

Big Bill Morganfield

Comeback Blues Album of the Year

Wilson Pickett, It's Harder Now

Accoustic Blues Album of the Year

Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, Moving to the Country

Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year

Keb' Mo'

Traditional Blues Album of the Year

Muddy Waters, The Lost Tapes of Muddy Waters

Traditional Blues — Male Artist of the Year

R.L. Burnside

Traditional Blues — Female Artist of the Year

Koko Taylor

Reissue Blues Album of the Year

Hound Dog Taylor, Deluxe Edition; producer Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records)

(Correspondent Mikel Toombs contributed to this report.)