It was a rough winter for the community of musicians on Beale Street. On November 28th, blues-rock guitar phenom Corey Osborn — at age 23, already a longtime stalwart on the strip — lost his life in an automobile accident. Just over a month later, singer Ruby Wilson — who had earned her title "Queen of Beale Street" even if she wasn't, at the time, a regular at any Beale club — suffered a stroke that has kept her from performing this year.
But this week at B.B. King's Blues Club — the stage both Osborn and Wilson have graced many times — one musician's loss will be commemorated in service of another's renewal as a concert in celebration of Osborn's life and music will function as a benefit to assist with Wilson's medical costs.
The concert, set to begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 21st, and featuring a who's who of Beale-identified performers such as Preston Shannon, Jason D. Williams, and the Dempseys, is being organized by Osborn's parents, Scott and Lisa Osborn, who created the Corey Osborn Let the Music Play Fund to honor their son by, in part, assisting other local musicians; Rollin Riggs, a senior partner at Resource Entertainment Group, which has been Wilson's booking agency since 2004; and Chris Thomas, the sales and marketing manager for B.B. King's.
"We're trying to take our loss and do something positive with it," Lisa Osborn says. "Corey was so close to the music community. He didn't have any brothers or sisters, and I tell all of his musician buddies that they were his brothers and sisters."
"Corey played here a lot," Thomas says. "He was one of our regular performers. And after he passed away, our owner [Tommy Peters] said, 'I want to do something.' When [Osborn's] parents set up the fund, we approached them. There were a lot of ideas, but we decided that for right now we needed a good party. A blowout one night."
Osborn started fronting his first band — Corey Osborn & the Rhythm System — at age 15 and was a regular on Beale while still a teenager, even placing in the 2001 International Blues Challenge. More recently, Osborn had been dividing time fronting a newer band, the Corey Osborn Band, and playing as a sideman for other Beale performers, most notably Barbara Blue. He'd shared the stage with some of the blues world's biggest stars, including B.B. King himself.
"Corey crammed a whole lot into his 23 years," Lisa Osborn says. "He was very young when he realized what he wanted to do. Music was his life."
"He's part of our family," Thomas says. "We wanted to do something he would want us to do, and that's celebrate Memphis music. So we decided to get his friends, his bandmates, the people he played with, and the people he went to see, and see if we can raise some money for this fund."
The Osborn family created the fund, in part, to help local musicians in need (the other purpose is to assist under-funded schools with purchasing instruments), and Thomas and Riggs say Wilson was an obvious candidate to be the initial beneficiary.
"It's meant to raise money exactly for people like Ruby Wilson — musicians and performers and entertainers who are suffering some hard times."
Though Wilson hadn't had a regular Beale gig for a while, she was at B.B. King's three or four nights a week at one point, Riggs says: "She is very much identified with B.B. King's, and vice versa, and she's also B.B. King's goddaughter, so there's almost a familial relationship as well."
Wilson, a longtime Beale veteran, film presence (with cameos in Black Snake Moan and Cookie's Fortune, among many other films), and internationally recognized Memphis music ambassador, suffered a stroke January 1st. Wilson spent about a week in a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, and another six weeks in a rehab hospital here.
"We've been very concerned about her — her health and her financial situation — since then," Riggs says. "When a performer can't perform, there's no money coming in. But we also wanted to wait long enough so that she could make a good, energetic appearance at a benefit. And we think that time is now."
The concert will be preceded with a ceremony (tentatively set for 6 p.m.) in front of the Tap Room dedicating a brass note on the street in memory of Osborn. Soon after, the music will begin at B.B.'s.
"We're going to start at 7:30 and let the music take on a life of itself," Thomas says. "Corey's banner will go back up in the window that night, and we'll be charging $20 at the door, with all proceeds going to the fund. We'll start with a couple of people playing, and then it'll evolve into a musical jam session as the night progresses. It's going to be an all-out celebration of [Osborn's] life and music."
In addition to the long list of musical performers, there will be a raffle, with the highlights a guitar donated by Martin Music and a ruby donated by Mednikow Jewelers. There also will be copies of a limited-edition Best of Ruby Wilson CD for sale, with Wilson hopefully on hand to autograph them. (Interested parties also can donate to Wilson via a check in her name in care of Resource Entertainment Group. See regmemphis.com for more info.)
For Beale, the concert will be a gateway to spring renewal after those winter shocks.
"We decided that, as tragic as this is, Corey was such a lively, positive, outgoing person that we needed to try to do something," Lisa Osborn says. "We want, as parents, to do something good for the community, and we want his name to live on."
"Corey Osborn Let the Music Play Fund" Benefit Concert
B.B. King's Blues Club
Tuesday, April 21st
7:30 p.m.; $20