[JPL] The Blues Silence a D.J. Who Knew Them Well
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The Blues Silence a D.J. Who Knew Them Well
August 3, 2008
The Blues Silence a D.J. Who Knew Them Well
By JOHN M. HUBBELL
MEMPHIS Violence and heartbreak have long shaped the music that makes this
city synonymous with the blues. But when the police were alerted to the
slaying of Dee Henderson, a disc jockey whose soft voice piloted ³Cap¹n
Pete¹s Blues Cruise² on the city¹s volunteer radio station, WEVL, for 26
years, the death seemed more like the lyrics of the Howlin¹ Wolf and Muddy
Waters songs he so loved than his friends and fans could stand.
The silencing of Mr. Henderson, 72, a man whose gentle demeanor was far
removed from the raucous Beale Street nightclubs where legions of blues
players got their breaks, came during an especially violent period for the
In March, the city endured its largest multiple killing in 15 years when six
people including two children were found dead in a home. That and other
lesser-noted killings have made Memphis¹s violent crime rate the second
highest in the nation, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
³Memphis has a nasty old crust on the outside,² said Steffen Schreiner, 49,
a fellow D.J. at the radio station. ³But if you dig underneath, there are
these pearls, these diamonds and WEVL is one of them.²
Through the station, Mr. Henderson became a reluctant celebrity. A brake
mechanic by trade, he happened across WEVL¹s Americana programming when it
was a 10-watt secret only enjoyed by central-city residents. Mr. Henderson
installed an FM antenna at his home, amplified the signal and was
Over time, he relayed enough blues knowledge during frequent calls to WEVL
that the station manager, Judy Dorsey, and others gently cajoled him into
becoming a disc jockey.
He was dubbed Cap¹n by friends for his love of fishing and Pete because ³he
looked like a Pete,² said one of his daughters, Sandra Palmer, and his
folksy demeanor made him one of WEVL¹s most popular personalities.
³Once, he put on a Little Walter record and it had a few really bad skips,²
said Steve Franz, 44, a former WEVL disc jockey living in Tucson. ³He faded
down the record, laughed, and said, Well, that¹s the blues, folks.¹ ²
Friends said Mr. Henderson, raised by sharecropper parents in small
Mississippi towns like Alligator and Hushpuckena, explained the blues so
well because he had lived its rural roots. When he was an infant, he told
listeners, his parents sometimes sat him atop a cotton sack as they worked
in the fields.
³If you heard a guitar or music, folks come running from near and far,² he
told an interviewer in 1992. ³People could holler and kids would come home,
man, look like five miles away.²
The family moved to Memphis while Mr. Henderson was a child.
Black disc jockeys are central to Memphis¹s identity as a worldwide
megaphone for rock and blues. In 1949, WDIA-AM became the first among urban
stations to employ blacks as hosts.
Mr. Henderson was killed just days before Steve Ladd, 63, the host of a WDIA
Saturday morning blues show, died of complications from a brain aneurysm.
Ford Nelson, 83, a WDIA disc jockey for 58 years, said Mr. Henderson and Mr.
Ladd had continued a proud legacy of providing blacks ³an opportunity to
express frustrations and become more involved in the American experience
On July 15, Mr. Henderson was felled by shotgun blasts in the backyard of
his longtime family home. The police were called by Mr. Henderson¹s
grandson, Cortez Thomas, 30, who was later charged with first-degree murder
in the case.
Ms. Palmer, who is a Memphis police lieutenant, said detectives had told her
that Mr. Thomas had confessed to shooting Mr. Henderson twice with Mr.
She said that her father had lived in another house nearby since his wife¹s
death and that Mr. Thomas lived alone in the family home. Mr. Henderson
routinely dropped by the home, where he had raised seven children with his
wife, Annie Bell Henderson, who died in 2005, Ms. Palmer said.
³He said that he shot him and he planned to shoot him,² Ms. Palmer said of
Mr. Thomas, who is her nephew. ³He still couldn¹t tell them why.²
Mr. Thomas appeared in court on Friday, the day of Mr. Henderson¹s usual
On the day of Mr. Henderson¹s funeral, inside the sweltering Cathedral of
God Holy Word Temple in North Memphis, hundreds paid tribute as Mr.
Henderson lay in his coffin wearing a white, soft-brimmed captain¹s hat.
Morris Cummings, 55, a harmonica player who is known as Blind Mississippi
Morris, wailed a tribute before the cortege departed for the cemetery,
detouring past WEVL and then down Beale Street, a route requested by Mr.
Henderson long ago.
Ms. Dorsey, the station manager at WEVL, now a 4,800-watt station heard in
three states, said she planned to continue ³Cap¹n Pete¹s Blues Cruise² in
some form. She said she frequently taped the program without the bashful Mr.
³Over and over again, I would tell him about a great blues legend passing,²
said Ms. Dorsey, her voice quavering, recalling talks with Mr. Henderson.
³He was very philosophical about it. He¹d say, It¹s going to come to all of
us. That¹s one thing we know for sure.¹ ²
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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