Would you like to own a guitar signed by Chuck Berry? Or by B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Les Paul, or the Doors’ Robby Krieger? How about a Beatles dress? Jimi Hendrix tickets? Elvis Presley Sun records? Vintage Beach Boys stage surfboards? Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” which many consider to be the first rock and roll single?
These and more than 4000 other treasures tracing the trajectory of the blues as it thrust itself into rock and roll are about to be sold by devoted curator Theo Dasbach, who has exhibited them for 10 years in the Rock & Blues Museum he founded in Clarksdale, Mississippi — arguably the birthplace of both musical genres.
“It’s hard, but it’s time,” says Dasbach, 67, as he faced the new year. “My wife and I are getting too old to keep doing this. It’s my collection, which I’ve loaned to the museum, a nonprofit. My dream is that someone will buy the collection as a whole and continue sharing it and showing it here. America throws too much away, and this is part of America’s heritage.”
Sometimes it takes an outsider to appreciate what Americans, many of whom have never been to Mississippi, take for granted. [Brits like Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Robert Plant have all come to pay homage.] Dasbach, who is Dutch, fell in love with Delta blues and rock and the contributions of its African-American progenitors in his native Netherlands. “I was eight-years-old when I discovered an old wind-up gramophone and some records in my grandfather’s attic,” the tall, genial Dasbach recalls. “I put one on the turntable — I remember it was Floyd Dixon’s ‘Empty Stocking Blues.‘ I was transfixed. I had never heard music like that before.”
As an adult, Dasbach only craved more: “In Europe we all loved the blues, and early rock. It was hard to get the records or memorabilia. My neighbor, Gonnie Kooij, went to the U.K. and brought back 78 rpm records of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis. I got hold of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker records via a classmate and I started collecting anything music-related I could find.”
Dasbach paid his way through college as a disk jockey in Amsterdam while following a very serious course of study: law and marketing. He then worked all over the world, and in New York City, he managed the trust affairs office of an international bank. That gave him enough money to finance his passion of collecting music memorabilia. “I collected wherever I was. I went to every auction, flea market, poster show and met as many musicians in as many venues as possible,” he says.
Of course, he was magnetically drawn to the source. “In 1978 I came to the U.S. and travelled South and I think I became one of the first blues tourists,” he recalls. “I went to Memphis and Clarksdale, but there was nothing there yet.” He was to change that in the future.
Dasbach continued to treasure-hunt, scooping up such gems as the Rolling Stones’ first single “Come On” and other British invasion artifacts; psychedelic Fillmore and Family Dog concert posters; Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters’ record contracts; a Thomas Edison gramophone and the cylindrical records it plays; a trove of autographed photos, a Stevie Ray Vaughan jacket; Frank Zappa goodies, and not one, but two, Elvis Presley Victrolas.
He’s got a one-sheet from the Beatles’ first club dates in Hamburg, Germany; posters from Elvis movies and “Bad Youth” flicks like “Shake Rattle and Rock,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” and, just in time for legalization, “Mary Jane” — the pot drama starring Fabian — illustrated with an unconscious woman and the slogan “Marijuana: Euphoria or Crutch?” Dasbach’s got lunchboxes, he’s got jukeboxes; and, from his “Soul Room,” he’s got acetate from James Brown and Sam Cooke and vintage vinyl from Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. He also has a rare gospel acetate from the legendary Charlie Patton, who was part Cherokee and who played on nearby plantations.
No doubt Smithsonian-worthy is his 1920 single “Crazy Blues,” by Mamie Smith, who that year became the first African-American blues singer ever recorded.
And Fort-Knox worthy are Dasbach’s rare test pressings by young blues genius Robert Johnson, including Johnson’s original “Love in Vain” — later covered by the Stones. It was at the crossroads of Routes 61and 49 right there in Clarksdale where rivals believed Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar mastery.
Dasbach and his wife Cynthia Hudock first opened the museum in the Netherlands in the nineties. In 2005, they took the leap, bought a building in Clarksdale, started the nonprofit and shipped the collection there. The couple themselves moved to Memphis, Tenn.: They drive the 86 miles into Mississippi and 86 miles back to keep the museum open, and they have done so for more than 10 years.
They’re devoted to Clarksdale, a town built along the Sunflower River, and sacred in blues and rock history. Sam Cooke, the “King of Soul,” was born there, as were Ike Turner, Eddie Boyd and John Lee Hooker. Muddy Waters grew up in Clarksdale; Bessie Smith tragically died there in 1937 in the nearby Riverside Hotel, where her room is preserved as it was and never rented out. Dasbach has an original acetate of Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” and other of the queen’s cuts on exhibit.
“I could auction the collection off piece by piece at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, and I may end up having to do that,” frets Dasbach. “But I would prefer that the collection stays intact and on display forever. Clarksdale is a perfect city historically. The museum provides some jobs, and it promotes all the great local musicians who’ve played here, like Super Chikan, the late T-Model Ford, and Watermelon Slim” — as shown in the documentary “Cheesehead Blues.”
Dasbach is also involved in the Juke Joint Festival, which last summer featured mind-blowing 17-year-old Clarksdale prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Graham. “We hope to keep on doing that,” vows Dasbach. “I cannot imagine myself to be 100% out of Clarksdale.”
Despite hipster influences in Clarksdale, like the burgeoning art scene at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art and the Hambone Gallery and bar; the river-tourism efforts of boat-builder John Ruskey and his Quapaw Canoe Company guides; not to mention the Ground Zero Blues Club co-owned by Morgan Freeman, Dasbach says the town can’t afford to buy this trove — even though he isn’t looking to make a killing.
“It has never been a money thing for me,” he attests. “But I’m not a millionaire, and the collection is part of our retirement.”
We asked Dasbach which of his treasures he feels is the most valuable. He surveys his musical wonderland and concludes, “I cannot choose. There’s a story behind every one.”
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www.tripadvisor.com Clarksdale, Miss.