Even for the most casual of fans, the Tampa Bay History Center’s Florida’s Got The Blues exhibition is an eye-opening walk into the state’s role in dictating the arc of not just one particular beloved American genre, but the future of popular music in general. On loan from and curated by Tallahassee’s Museum of Florida History, it opens on Saturday. Last week, even with the complete installation only half-unpacked, the story it chronicles was already compelling.
“People don’t realize that Florida has a really vibrant music history and that Tampa was a really big part of that,” Rodney Kite-Powell, museum curator at the History Center, told CL after our sneak peek. “Some of the biggest entertainers of the 20th century came through here, some of them in their formative years.”
He explained that Tampa was a crucial stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” which, in pre-Civil Rights America, served as a means for performers to play in the country’s still-segregated cities. There’s talk about Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Nat and Cannonball Adderley. Ray Charles comes up in the conversation, and while the icon was not born in Tampa, he did move here at 17 years old, taking jobs as the piano player for a white country band, The Florida Playboys, as well as pounding the ivories for Charlie Brantley and The Honey Dippers. Rumor has it Tampa is where Charles started adding his trademark sunglasses to his stage persona. “He may have even recorded his first song here,” Kite-Powell said.
There’s also a huge focus on the state’s living blues icons, and a collection of rock & roll photography featuring other iconic Bay area musical events. If you’re allergic to typically sterile museum conditions, TBHC is encouraging visitors to spin some of their archived blues vinyl or even pick up some acoustic guitars and play on a small stage they’ve installed.
“The blues is such a visceral form of music,” Kite-Powell said. “We want you to feel that.”
Florida’s Got The Blues is on display Sept. 12, 2015 through Jan. 3, 2016, at Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., Tampa. The opening reception is Sat., Sept. 12, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; a related talk with Suncoast Blues Society co-founder Larry Lisk, "Florida Conversations: Celebrating Tampa's Blues," is held Wed., Sept. 23, 6-7 p.m. For more info, call 813-228-0097, or visit tampabayhistorycenter.org.