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Southern Heritage Classic, a Success? Yes; Automatic? No way!


“It’s actually harder now than before,” said Southern Heritage Classic producer Fred Jones Jr., pausing to reflect on the game’s impact and the road that led to “The Classic” – No. 22.
Jackson State University’s band steps its way through the annual Orange Mound Parade. (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

Friday night before the day of the big game, Southern Heritage Classic producer Fred Jones Jr. ambled to the Orpheum’s entrance for a logistics check for the Shaquille O’Neal Comedy Jam. Matter-of-factly carrying on a cell phone conversation, you’d never guess he was the conductor for the city’s mega-event – the Southern Heritage Classic.

An evening with KEM was a crowd pleaser at the Orpheum during the Classic Concert Sept. 8. (Photo by Warren Roseborough)

Food, music and fun punctuated tailgating around Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

SHC Founder Fred Jones Jr., with Bettye Boone (left) of 100 Black Women of Memphis and Bernice Donald, newly appointed Appeals Court Judge for the Sixth Circuit. (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

The Classic Catwalk & Hair Show closed out the SHC weekend celebration. (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

Carved by who knows how many backstage dramas from his 50-plus years in entertainment management, Jones has a classically non-committal look on his face when he’s working. After checking out the crowd at the Orpheum, his next stop would be Harrah’s for the O’Jays performance the same night.

“It’s actually harder now than before,” said Jones, pausing to reflect on the game’s impact and the road that led to “The Classic” – No. 22.

“People expect more, so we have to work harder to produce something that is to the level of their expectations,” Jones said. This year’s event “seemed to pick up extra excitement. We (the staff) all noticed it. It was tangible. If it ever gets to the point where it’s automatic, I’ll stop doing it.”

More than 1 million people have been drawn to the annual cultural celebration over the course of its 22-year history.

 “I think that’s pretty significant,” said Jones. “But the most important part of it all is that we’ve been able to raise a combined total of $8 million dollars for the schools.  Things are going real well.”

Standing under the bright lights of the Orpheum marquee and greeting people whose attendance tilted another Classic event toward success, Jones recalled a not-so-successful moment 30 years back. Jones had produced a lavish weeklong series of events called Live At The Orpheum that – despite having headline platinum selling artists each night – failed miserably.

“It was the same concept as the Classic, multiple events over multiple nights, and that’s where it all came from. We had James Brown, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, even Tina Turner, who had to cancel…but things have gone good for the Classic.”  

The Classic is a signature event for the Memphis-area African-American community. And yet the comedy show crowd reflected a significant number of white ticket holders.

 “I think it’s because the Classic has been able to appeal to everybody,” said Jones. You can’t do that with an event most of the time. Usually it’s one demographic, one area that people respond to. You’ll really see it tomorrow at the game.”  

Tailgate Time: Sat., 5:30 p.m.

Scampering happily toward his family’s tent, 9-year-old Devante Grant stopped for a hot minute to tell State Rep. Karen Camper how the football uniform he was wearing had gotten so dirty.

“I scored all the touchdowns!” he said, meaning for his pee-wee team, the Tennessee Titans. “We won 21 to nothing. I’m the running back. I’m fast. See?” he said, darting across a field toward his watchful mother.

“That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about,” Camper said. “The Classic is something that will stay here and be a good thing for the city and the community because all generations have developed an affinity for it. Look around at how beautiful this is – from the grandparents to the kids, hip hoppers, everybody.”

Twenty-five-year old Derrick Glover overheard Camper and approached her for advice to help him and his compatriots, B-Doll and Young Rick (Glover says his rap name is Bucket Man), move forward in their plans to become the “local Puff Daddy.” Accompanied by several associates selling copies of their soon to be released Southern Swag DVD magazine, Glover listened patiently to Camper explain the legal aspects they need to have covered, then presented himself.

“CEO, rapper, marketing manager, editor, street team, I’m very, very serious about mine. I know it’s much more to it than just jumping on the mike and jumping on a video.”

A quick stop at the Soul Classics 103.5 tent brought news from promotions assistant for the game Antoine “Lex” Foulks about his personal crusade to build up the Impact Community Outreach domestic violence safe house shelter on Looney and Danny Thomas in Uptown.  

“Our program is called There Is A Way Out,” he said. “We work directly with the police department, who’ve brought several women to us that we’ve housed and kept safe.  We’re getting it done by scraps and scrapes, but it’s a sad statement that there is a growing need for our service and we’re trying our best to grow so we can help more people.”

Inside the stadium: halftime

Jackson State and Tennessee State’s full dress brass ensembles don’t play when it comes to putting on a show, and the precision of both proved to be a jaw dropper again this year.  

TSU was taking the field as we came up, so the comment of JSU mascot A. J. Baker will have to serve as an example of what the Classic means for the participating students. A sophomore therapeutic recreation major, Baker, who had just come off the field after his performance, was still trembling with excitement and adrenaline.

“We (the band and the players) live for this every year,” he said quietly. “It gives us a mutual goal to work hard and be our best and to support each other while we work toward the big game and all year round.  It’s helped me overcome my shyness and learn how to speak and interact better with people. This is a great event that’s got something good for everybody.”  

The WMDEE dance team from West Memphis entertained tailgaters at the 22nd Annual Southern Heritage Classic. (Photo by Warren Roseborough)

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