Last Saturday night was a magical one in the Mississippi Delta! Legendary soul/bluesman Charlie Burgin was given his due when he took the stage at the world-famous Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His appearance, with the band Southbound Train, is a story in itself because Burgin had hit rock bottom three or four years ago.
Burgin had spent most of his life singing in local and regional venues from Columbus to Tuscaloosa and many surrounding areas. Starting around 1965, Burgin became well known in the region singing Percy Sledge classics and other soul/blues songs from that era. He became a staple in the entertainment industry. But in the early 2000’s, Burgin began to have a lot of health problems. His weight had ballooned to more than 400 lbs. He ended up in a rehab center in Winona with failing health and hardly any will to live. He felt broken and alone. He had nearly given up hope.
In the meantime, many area musicians and longtime local patrons to area nightclubs wondered what had happened to Burgin. I was one of them, as well as was local guitarist Ben Ferrell and keyboardist/sax player Bobby Shannon. When I wrote a story in The Packet a few years back about Big Ben Atkins and the Columbus-area music scene from the 60’s, Burgin saw the story and it motivated him to give Ferrell a call. Burgin had ended up in a nursing home in Starkville (Starkville Manor). He also began to get motivated to improve his health and ended up losing over 100 lbs (even if it was to impress a potential girlfriend, he freely admitted). After contacting Ferrell, Burgin, Ferrell and Shannon did a 3-piece at Rick’s in Starkville. That appearance marked the beginning of his amazing comeback that culminated in his appearance Saturday night at GZBC (Ground Zero Blues Club), owned by Bill Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman.
People come from all over the world to visit Clarksdale, known to millions as the ‘Home of the Blues’. And GZBC is one of their main attractions and destinations while visiting. Saturday night, Luckett told me there was a large contingent of college students affiliated with Teach For America, a unique, select group of outstanding students who agree to spend a year or two teaching in public schools in poor areas such as the Delta in exchange for having their college tuition paid. They were among the more than 200 that packed the old cotton-gin turned-juke joint for the Southbound Train performance. Charlie and the band had them from the sound check. (We had to do a sound check in front of the crowd around 8:30 before our 9:00 p.m. start. The crowd roared their approval).
From that first song at 9, most of the college kids had hit the dance floor…and never gave up their position for the rest of the night! These young 20-something year olds began to feel the love for Burgin and the band. They cheered, danced and danced and were all smiles the rest of the evening. Co-owner Luckett (newly-elected Clarksdale mayor – he takes office Monday) introduced us to the big crowd, telling them that, “Ron Williams writes for the Columbus Packet…so you better be careful. You don’t want to end up in The Packet” he joked (except in this case!)
The college girls (and guys) all wanted to take a photo with Burgin. They were all over him the rest of the night. That Charlie Burgin-smile never left his face. He was overwhelmed with acceptance and adorned with love, even telling the crowd, “Now I know how Elvis felt!”
Stage-side, Burgin was telling Bill Luckett that I (Ron Williams) was the reason he had made a comeback. Burgin credited me with his turn-around and re-emergence back into the local music scene. I humbly appreciate that, though it was Charlie who ultimately made the decision to live again. He also has had lots of love and support from his family, musical family, and in particular many of the staff and residents at Starkville Manor, where he resides.2