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I demand a recount. The non-attending B.B. King may have won Entertainer of the Year at last week's W.C. Handy Awards -- the definitive annual awards given by the blues industry -- but for anyone who was actually at the ceremony Thursday night at The Orpheum it was pretty clear that soul-blues icon Bobby Rush was the real entertainer of the year. Rush's roughly 20-minute set, which kicked off the second half of the show, was the night's highlight. Ribald, funny, soulful, and flashy, Rush's chitlin' circuit stage show may not have been exactly dignified, but it presented blues as a living music more forcefully than any other performance at the Handys. With five "hoochie mamas" backing that azz up and a crack band featuring a brilliantly suave guitar player, Rush owned the night. They should have just canceled the rest of the awards and let him keep playing.

Unfortunately, that peak quickly devolved into the night's low point, when Rush brought out Kentucky Headhunter guitarist Greg Martin for a deflating anticlimax to his set. No offense to Martin, but he was about a fourth as skilled and entertaining as Rush's own house player, and to have Rush reduced to pimping for this great white savior (and trying to coax the crowd into a standing ovation that Rush himself and his great guitarist didn't receive) was pretty much a travesty.

Outside of Rush's set, the night belonged to Shemekia Copeland and B.B. King, who each took home the biggest awards but weren't there to claim them, and Memphis' younger generation of blues players. The North Mississippi Allstars won the Best New Artist Debut Award, with bassist Chris Chew accepting for the band, and International Blues Challenge winner and local club regular Richard Johnston delivered one of the night's most memorable performances, winning over the large crowd with his one-man-band traditional blues. Other notable performances came from Corey Harris and Henry Butler, who did two songs from their great Vu-Du Menz album in a set that was slightly marred by sound problems, and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, who closed his brief set with the rousing Chuck Berry homage "I Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down."

The night ended with Rufus Thomas and the great Ruth Brown giving the Entertainer of the Year Award, proving, as the Premier Player Awards did a couple of months ago, that Rufus Thomas plus a Memphis audience equals a standing ovation. And rightly so.

The complete list of winners: Blues Song of the Year: Rick Vito -- "It's 2 a.m."; Blues Band of the Year: Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band; Traditional Blues Album: Son Seals -- Lettin' Go; Acoustic Blues Album: Robert Lockwood Jr. -- Delta Crossroads; Historical Album: Otis Spann -- Last Call; Soul Male Artist of the Year: Little Milton; Comeback Blues Album: Mel Brown -- Neck Bones & Caviar; Soul Blues Album: Irma Thomas -- My Heart Is In Memphis; Blues Album of the Year: Shemekia Copeland -- Wicked; Contemporary Male Artist: Eddy Clearwater; Traditional Female Artist: Koko Taylor; Acoustic Blues Artist: Keb' Mo'; Blues Entertainer of the Year: B.B. King; Contemporary Blues Album: B.B. King/Eric Clapton -- Riding with the King; Contemporary Female Artist: Shemekia Copeland; Soul Female Artist of the Year: Etta James; Traditional Male Artist: James Cotton; Best New Artist Debut: North Mississippi Allstars -- Shake Hands With Shorty; Blues Instrumentalist Guitar: Duke Robillard; Blues Instrumentalist Harmonica: Charlie Musselwhite; Blues Instrumentalist Bass: Willie Kent; Blues Instrumentalist Drums: Chris Layton; Blues Instrumentalist Horns: Roomful Of Blues Horns; Blues Instrumentalist Keyboard: Pinetop Perkins; Blues Instrumentalist Other: Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (fiddle).

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.



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