(Memphis, Tennessee) After a long and arduous fight against two bouts of lung cancer, Fred Sanders, Jr. passed away today at 10:30 AM after suffering from a stroke earlier this week. He was 71 years old. Fred was a true fixture on Beale street, a blues icon who had come up through the years playing at some of the area’s most well known and venerated Blues clubs. Fred never mentioned his illness, although it was obvious in his last days that it had seriously debilitated him. He acted as if everything was just fine, held his head high and trouped off to Beale street to play in famous W.C. Handy Park every day despite the ravages of chemo therapy. This is the park where Fred played with the author so many years ago and again even recently. So many other aspiring Blues performers got their start in Handy Park, including a young Riley B. King who arrived from Mississippi in the late 1940′s.
Fred Sanders was the real article, a true bluesman in every sense of the word. He lived the life, fighting through discouragement and sometimes poverty while always skillfully plying his craft and sharing his knowledge. He had the hard knowledge of the streets and the well worn lines of time and experience etched into his visage. Fred was always looking to make a dollar and play you a song. He was entertaining and witty, charming the beer drinking crowds in the park saying, “It’s ok folks, it ain’t against the law to get drunk.”
Fred Sanders was a skilled guitarist, earning himself the moniker, Fred “Good Guitar-Playing” Sanders early in his career. Fred performed with the likes of some of the world’s finest acts and still kept a great attitude when he played with amateurs and young friends who he allowed to share his stage up until he could no longer perform. Fred played up until he literally no longer had the strength to pick up his instrument. Fred Sanders was destined to receive a brass note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame within the next two weeks. His latest album is scheduled to come out within days as well.
The life on the street for our local musicians is hard and disturbingly lethal to the members of my profession. Fred was a very strong, very tough man. He outlived most of his band mates, including such blues notables as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s peer and friend, Memphian Ricky Harvey, world class bassist Terris “Big T.” Tate, saxophonist to B.B. King and regular denizen of the famous Club Paradise, Evelyn “Mama Nute” Young, elegant guitarist Willie Pettis, drummer Jimmy Ellis, bassist Joe Turner, Ma Rainey II, Little Laura Dukes, guitarist John Paul Reagor and dozens of others.
On a personal note, it was a rare privilege and honor to know Fred, to have him in the roster of my band, to travel with him out of town on touring gigs and to see him charm so many crowds, seemingly effortlessly. I truly enjoyed playing tracks on his upcoming record and am so very proud to have been called to join him for this task. I am listening to my pre-production copy of this recording and am deeply touched by the unbeatable spirit of this beleaguered man, his sound, a sound that echoes the eternal struggle of the artist facing down the cold realities of this world with dignity. Fred Sanders was not beaten by his infirmity, it was just his time to head to glory and join the great Blues pantheon.
Fred’s passing also marks the passing of an era and it would be wrong not to mention what a shame it is that my hometown has no blues preservation hall for such fine aging players to seek refuge, to be held in esteem, to have access to the younger players, players Fred always taught and encouraged. Although we give great lip service to being the home of the blues and birthplace of rock and roll, our citizens actually have little collective regard for the underclass of musicians of which I am proudly a part. They suffer and generally die an ignominious death. As mentor Earl Forest stated, “If you a musician, you have to die in this town to get your name in the newspaper.” Perhaps since that is the way it has always been, that is the way that it is assumed it should continue. For decades Memphis has offered business incentives for distribution centers, for vacuum cleaner manufacturers, and tons of other businesses but nothing for those who have continued to produce the inimitable sound of our city despite tragedy and long suffering. There is often no quarter for those who entertain our tourists, save a spot in the park to beg for tips. Perhaps some of those who are involved with determining the fate of Beale Street will take note of Fred’s absence and act upon it in a positive and tangible way. Hope springs eternal.
Fred had a lot of fun in this life, and he also spent a lot of time encouraging those who sought out the gritty sounds of old Beale Street. He was a good friend and a great musician. There is a pall cast on Beale Street today as his hundreds and thousands of friends and admirers take a moment to remember him and his legacy of playing and teaching the blues. He was truly a remarkable proponent of the old blues tradition, a man who passed along what he knew to the next generations of players. Fred was about the last member of the old Handy Park cadre of old school Memphis musicians. Those who had the opportunity to listen, be entertained and learn from him are truly blessed among men.
Rest well, my old friend. You are much beloved and will surely be missed.
Fred Sanders funeral will be held at Friday, 11 AM at the New Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church at 4920 Horn Lake Road, Memphis, Tennessee.
He will be buried at New Park Cemetery at 4536 Horn Lake Rd.
Copyright, Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms, 2011. Unauthorized use of this text or these photographs without written permission is expressly prohibited.