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Red Paden, the “king” of the Juke Joint who kept the blues alive, dies at 67

Written by The Anand Market

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Red Paden, who, as the self-proclaimed “king of the juke joint runners,” spent four decades as the owner of Red’s, an unpretentious music venue in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, and one of the last places in the United States to offer authentic concerts. Delta blues in its natural setting, died on December 30. He was 67 years old.

His son, Orlando, said the death, at a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, was due to complications from heart surgery.

Juke joints, once commonplace in the Deep South, were the breeding ground from which blues music developed, a vast network of shacks, old shops and converted houses where itinerant musicians played one night for a part of the entrance fee, then moved on to the next concert.

Red’s is the perfect example: low ceilings and the size of a large garage, decorated with old music posters and lit by neon signs and string bulbs (red, of course).

There’s no stage at Red’s, just a worn carpet, enough for a singer, a guitarist and maybe a drummer. A refrigerator holds beer, and when he felt like it, Mr. Paden (pronounced PAY-den) would fire up the sidewalk smoker and cook a pile of ribs. Informality is key.

“I grew up on the blues and I opened this place to have a place to go and play,” he told Living Blues magazine in 2017. “People come, it’s my living room. Relax and enjoy it.

Mr. Paden opened Red’s in the early 1980s, taking over an abandoned music store called LaVene’s, once popular with Delta musicians. Among them was Ike Turner, a Clarksdale native who used instruments from the store on “Rocket 88” a 1951 hit with his band The Kings of Rhythm that is widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll recording.

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Red’s is the quintessential example of juke joints once commonplace in the Deep South. “I grew up on the blues and I opened this place to have a place to go and play,” Mr. Paden.Credit…Rory Doyle to Visit Clarksdale

Over the years, Red’s has become an institution celebrated for its authenticity, right down to its deep-voiced owner. Virtually every blues artist from Mississippi played at Red’s, including Robert (Wolfman) Belfour, James (T-Model) Ford, Wesley (Junebug) Jefferson and James (Super Chikan) Johnson.

Celebrities came, too: Actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in nearby Charleston and later founded his own club, Ground Zero, in Clarksdale, was a regular. Chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain filmed part of an episode of his show “Parts Unknown” at Red’s.

“It was like stepping into a history book.” Roger Stolle, a local blues advocate, said in a telephone interview. “It was like going back in time.”

Juke joints began to decline in the 1990s, in part because Mississippi began allowing casinos, which offered live music for free, said Shelley Ritter, director of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. Today, Mr. Stolle believes that Red’s may be one of the few remaining in the Deep South, kept alive primarily by Mr. Paden’s singular passion.

“Red was different from everyone else,” Mr. Stolle said. “He was willing to take the hit to keep going.”

Cornelius Orlando Paden was born November 27, 1956, in Alligator, a crossroads town southwest of Clarksdale. His parents, John and Grace (Scott) Paden, were farmers. People called him Red from a very young age, for reasons he never explained.

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He grew up in Clarksdale and studied special education at Jackson State University, graduating in 1979. As a teenager, he had worked on and off for two of his uncles, owners of a juke joint in proximity, and despite his training as a teacher, he quickly followed their example.

For a time he owned two other establishments in and around Clarksdale: the Tin Top, another juke joint around the corner from Red’s, and Redwine’s, a dance hall beyond the city limits where, during On a particularly busy night, the crowd at Red’s could head past closing time.

He married Lisa Foster in 1990. She survives him with their son Orlando, as well as two daughters, Marquita Paden and Yushumia Caldwell; five grandchildren; his sisters, Fannie Wilson and Vinorah Cotton; and his brothers, Herman and Sherman.

As veterans of Red’s died off, abandoned the nightlife or spent more time in casinos, they were replaced by a growing stream of tourists, most of them white and from as far away as Europe and Australia. This didn’t bother Mr. Paden – a crowd is a crowd – although sometimes he seemed to miss the noisier days of the good old days.

“There used to be a lot of editing and filming,” he told Mr. Stolle for his book “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential: House Parties, Hustlers & the Blues Life” (2019). “Now it’s like going to church.”

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As Red’s older customers died or abandoned the nightlife, they were replaced by tourists, mostly white and from as far away as Europe and Australia.Credit…James Patterson for the New York Times

In 2018, he founded Red’s Old-Timer Blues Festival, held every Labor Day weekend. The criteria for participating in the event was vague: You must be over 60, have at least a passing relationship with Mississippi, and, most importantly, be in good standing with Mr. Paden. “Cadillac” John Nolden, a 91-year-old harmonica player, was among its first headliners.

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The festival, Mr. Paden said, was as much about helping older blues musicians as it was about inspiring younger ones.

“What I decided to do was organize a festival for them, let them earn some money, show them how beautiful life can be in old age,” he said. he declared in a video interview published in 2018 on Facebook. “And it would inspire everyone to grow.”

Orlando Paden, a Mississippi state representative, said his father was already well into planning the next festival when he died, and that he and other organizers would continue without him, and even expand it . They plan to line up additional artists and also introduce a barbecue competition.

“It will be the biggest ever,” Mr. Paden said. “It’s what my father would have wanted.”