A Living Room for the Blues

With Indianola’s Club Ebony, Mary Shepard earned her place in blues history

Story William Browning | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

For more than three decades, Mary Shepard brought some of the most famous blues musicians in the world to a small but legendary juke joint in Indianola — Club Ebony. Shepard owned it.

The blues welds sadness to storytelling, offering grace in rhythms. Its best practitioners become stars. No matter how big they became, Shepard managed to bring them to her club where, on the flat Delta land that gave birth to the genre, they performed for large crowds of common people.

Shepard ran Club Ebony from the mid-1970s until 2008. Two years ago she retired and left the Delta. She moved to West Point, where she lives today on East Street with her daughter.

In the spring, I visited.

When I arrived Shepard had just returned from a gas station that sells fried chicken, and she had bought some. We sat at her dinner table.

As you would expect for a woman who operated a successful nightclub, she speaks deliberately but is also warm. She’s passed 70 now and has had some strokes, but she remembers dates like other people remember to get dressed.

For more than an hour I asked about the history of the blues, about the years she owned and operated Club Ebony, about her friendships with blues stars like B.B. King, Little Milton and Bobby Rush. Between bites of chicken, the Mississippi icon answered every question.

HOW IT BEGAN
The place that would become Club Ebony was built in the 1940s. Thirty years later, Shepard, who had moved to Indianola as a small child, had the chance to buy it. She had reservations — she had been taught by an aunt to beware of the blues’ seedy side — but her husband had been wounded in Vietnam, and he was in danger of becoming bed-ridden. Shepard figured if she bought the place it would give him somewhere to go and socialize. On Aug. 9, 1975, it became hers.

The first thing she did was ask Bobby Bland to perform. He was booked. She asked B.B. King. He was booked, too. So she asked Little Milton, and he said he could do it.

Because Shepard did not have much money, she offered Milton this arrangement: He would get the first $1,000 the night earned, and she would take the next $500. The rest they would split. Milton agreed.

The night brought in $1,232. Milton took his $1,000, and Shepard walked away with $232.

“I was happy with that,” she said. “I started booking more and more.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

A hands-on businesswoman, she was there every night. She wanted people to have a good time and for everyone to be treated equally. Because people often bought her drinks, she had a deal worked out with the bartenders: The gin that went into her glass was typically just water. She had a business to run, and it grew and grew.

Over the ensuing decades Club Ebony hosted, among others: Little Richard, Albert King, Ike Turner, Lou Rawls, Jackie Wilson, Clarence Carter, The Staple Singers, Denise LaSalle and Bobby Rush. Many would become lifelong friends of Shepard’s.

B.B. King, too, came to play. An Indianola native, he became friends with Shepard. Eventually he agreed to come play every year. The event was dubbed the B.B. King Homecoming Festival, and for years it was the biggest annual party in the Delta, bringing in people from all over the world.

Charlie Smith, the editor and publisher of the Enterprise Tocsin, the Indianola newspaper, credits Shepard’s vision for making it happen.

“The festival has given the people here, both black and white, something to rally around and be proud of in a place that has suffered through a lot of economic and social problems,” Smith said. “Without Mary Shepard initially getting B.B. to come back, who knows if any of that would have happened.”

In 2008, Shepard sold Club Ebony. Now it is owned by the B.B. King Museum.

Toward the end of our conversation I asked Shepard if she was personally a fan of the blues.

“Oh yes, I liked it,” she said with no hesitation. “But after I got in there and got to working, I liked that money.”

Shepard’s story is flush with inspiration. In 2007, when a book about her life was published, the authors, summing up the friendly confines of her club, wrote, “Mary Shepard created a living room for the people.”

On the book’s inside cover, a quote, attributed to her, occupies an entire page. It says, “You can do it if you want to.”

These days in West Point, where Shepard spends her days caring for grandchildren, she carries herself with grace and hardly any blues.