Baby Blue Drum Line takes on Cooper-Young Festival: Band of brothers mark 5th performance at the 27th festival

Music soared from stages into the streets, but one group took to the sidewalk to perform at the 27th annual Cooper-Young festival. Stationed in front of the Memphis Drum Shop, five brothers known as The Baby Blue Drum Line blasted through a fifteen minute set of percussive arrangements as their father, Leneal Rudgley, stood behind them wearing a pair of reflective sunglasses and a wide grin across his face. “[They] get more comfortable every year,” he said, watching his sons play off of each other. The Rudgley brothers’ band is made up of Levarus, 15, on the tenors, Letrail, 22, and Willie “Left Hand,” 21, on the bass drums, Coren, 21, on the cymbals and Lequan, 17, on the snare and toms. This is The Baby Blue Drum Line’s 5th year at Cooper-Young, and it’s the biggest year that the Festival has ever seen. With 435 art booths, a slew of local craft beers, food trucks and a projected 130,000 attendees, this may be the most growth the neighborhood has ever seen, according to Tamara Cook, the Executive Director of the Cooper-Young Business Association. Fifteen bands took the stage throughout the day, and Baby Blue was not one of them. They have never performed on a stage at Cooper-Young, but rather take their music to the streets in an unorthodox, blues man on the curb fashion. It didn’t seem to have much of an affect on the brothers, however. When Baby Blue started playing, more than 50 bystanders gathered around them, creating a human wall and blocking foot traffic through the street. The Drum Line would play for fifteen minutes without stopping, and the roaring crowd responded with raised beers and applause. After each set, Levarus exchanged his tenors for a tip bucket and made his way through the crowd. Standing at hip level with most adults, he weaved his way through the masses, only stopping to take photos with those who asked. This is what he, along with the rest of the Rudgley brothers, love about Cooper-Young Festival. For them, it’s the one time of year that their city is in complete harmony. People, from downtown to outlying suburban areas, come together as one. When that Memphis melting pot of race and culture form a crowd around their music, it feeds them energy that they can’t find anywhere else during the year. “We come here to have fun,” Levarus said. “We want to let everybody hear us. We’re different from other bands, and people want to hear something different.” The brothers take an untraditional approach to making music together. In fact, the only time they truly make music together is when they perform live. At home, the brothers individually practice their instruments. When they perform in front of crowds, such as at Cooper-Young, every move they make is improvised. The drive of the crowd pushes them to play off of each other – a feeling they can’t replicate in their house. According to Coren, it’s all about “the excitement of the crowd,” and he always finds the magic spark at Cooper-Young. However, his passion for music doesn’t come strictly from Baby Blue’s audience participation. Each of the brothers’ developed a love for music and percussion at a very young age. When Letrail was born, Leneal positioned his drum set in the corner of their living room, and as soon as he learned to walk – he had him on his knee learning to play the drums. He’s done the same with all of his boys. “It’s all because of him,” Coren said. While he can’t prove it, Leneal believes that there is a love for percussion that runs through the Rudgley family bloodline. His father, L.M. Rudgley, started teaching him how to play when he was one year old. When he wasn’t practicing, his father was playing B.B. and Albert King records throughout the house or taking him to see musicians perform all over the city. “The older I got, the more he noticed I loved to play the drums,” Leneal said. “He told me to go down to Beale Street and play with some old guys. That’s what I did.” Leneal has strived to mentor his children just as his father did with him. He keeps Memphis’ soul, blues and hip hop traveling through his sons’ ears, letting them pull their own influences from what inspired him as a young musician. When they aren’t at work or school, he takes them all over the city and lets them share their music with other Memphians. Leneal thinks that by exposing his sons to the adrenaline rush of a roaring crowd, they will stay away from the pressures of drug use and other potential negative aspects of growing up. Cooper-Young Festival has allowed him to lead by example in a big way. “There are a lot of bad things out there,” Leneal said. “I’m just trying to put them on the right path.” The Rudgley brothers agree that they hold each other accountable to make good decisions. According to Left Hand Willie, their father’s motivation is what has kept them playing together for so long. He keeps them practicing and performing all throughout the year – but nothing matches the spirit of Cooper-Young. “It comes down to when you know it, you come out and do it,” Willie said. “We feel it in the heart, and we come out to put on a show.”

"All my life, my heart has sought a thing I cannot name"

Two years ago, I had a friend working as a photographer at the University of Memphis' student led newspaper, The Daily Helmsman. One day I stopped to visit him to find that he was rushing out of the door - he had just received a huge assignment: Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three had returned to Memphis to give a speech at a convention for the first time since being exonerated after 20 years of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. As a long time admirer of Echols, this was exciting news. However, The Helmsman didn't have a reporter to cover the event. My friend the photographer, knowing that I enjoyed writing, volunteered me. At this point in my life, I had never written a story. I knew nothing about the beast that is journalism. Nevertheless, we hopped in his car and sped towards downtown Memphis. As we entered through the doors to the conference room, we were stopped and asked for our credentials. I asked myself what Hunter Thompson would do, and blurted out the name of a newspaper that didn't really exist while flashing my driver's license. Soon enough, we were in front of Echols. After his speech, we were rushed to another room where we were placed in a single file line and one by one were allowed to interview him. I had never taken a reporting class, yet here I was among reporters who had been working in the profession for decades. After ten minutes, I was standing in front of Echols. My blood rushed. My hands were shaking. I felt alive. The next day, my story ran above the fold in the school paper. I didn't even know what a byline was. Since then, I've been pursuing journalism. Buy the ticket, take the ride.