TUNICA — The iconic Hollywood Café will be the newest site recognized with a Mississippi Blues Trail marker this week. The marker unveiling is scheduled for today at 5 p.m. at 1585 Old Commerce Road, Tunica Resorts.
The Hollywood Café, both at this site and its original location in Hollywood, Miss., earned fame as a Delta dining institution but has also shared in the area’s musical history. Pianist Muriel Wilkins performed at the restaurant for years, and she and the Hollywood were immortalized in the Marc Cohn hit song, “Walking in Memphis.” Legendary bluesman Son House also performed at this site when the building housed the commissary of the Frank Harbert plantation, where House once resided.
The Hollywood Café had neither live music nor a kitchen when Bard Selden opened the business as a bar in the summer of 1969. But over the years the café began to offer dinnertime music as the menu expanded to steak, catfish and the Hollywood’s signature dish, fried dill pickles (a specialty of Bard’s brother, Tait Selden). Muriel Wilkins (1923-1990), an African American schoolteacher from Helena, Ark., entertained customers with a wide repertoire ranging from standards to spirituals both at the original Hollywood, seven miles south of Robinsonville just off Highway 61, and at its new location. After singer-songwriter Marc Cohn joined Wilkins in singing “Amazing Grace” and other spirituals one night in 1985, he wrote about the inspirational experience in “Walking to Memphis,” which became the hit track from his 1991 debut album.
In June 1973, BBC television used the Hollywood as the setting for blues performances on its program, “The Friendly Invasion.” The show featured a trio from the Clarksdale area with Robert “Bilbo” Walker (billed at the time as “Chuck Berry Jr.”), Big Jack Johnson and Sam Carr, and a Memphis group led by Joe Willie Wilkins with Houston Stackhouse, Sonny “Harmonica” Blakes, Melvin Lee and Homer Jackson. Bob Hall, who purchased the Hollywood from Selden, brought in Muriel Wilkins and also offered music by the Turnrow Cowboys. After the Hollywood was destroyed in a fire on Aug. 27, 1983, the Owen family bought the business from Hall and reopened the Hollywood in Robinsonville. John Almond and Michael Young acquired the Hollywood in 2006.
Both Hollywood buildings had originally been plantation commissaries. The first Hollywood was on the Tate Place and had also once been used an antique store. Delta blues icon Son House was living on the Tate Place at the time of the 1940 census and also once resided on the Harbert Place. Robinsonville resident Phoebie Taylor recalled that House performed at the B. F. Harbert commissary, as well as at various houses, stores and filling stations in town. The commissary became the new home of the Hollywood Café in 1984. House often played together with guitarist Willie Brown, his closest musical associate, and the local blues circle also included Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, Leroy Williams, Woodrow Adams, Willie Coffee and Sol Henderson. Wolf sometimes played at his aunt Lula Prince’s house on the Harbert plantation, according to Taylor. Nolan Struck, a Louisiana-born blues and soul singer, moved to Robinsonville in more recent years.
Another blues event of note at the Hollywood was attended by B.B. King on Nov. 9, 2007, when AT&T presented a $500,000 donation to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. Jackson guitarist Jesse Robinson and the young Tupelo blues band, Homemade Jamz, performed at the ceremony.
With over 175 markers, the Mississippi Blues Trail, a program of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, is a museum without walls taking visitors on a musical history journey through Mississippi and beyond. The trail started with the first official marker in Holly Ridge, the resting place of the blues guitarist Charley Patton, and winds its way to sites honoring B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Son House and others. Out-of-state markers are located in Chicago; Memphis; Los Angeles; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Ferriday, Louisiana; Helena, Arkansas; Rockland, Maine; Grafton, Wisconsin; and Tallahassee, Florida. The first international marker was erected in Notodden, Norway in 2012.