Dear Vance: In the 1960s and '70s, I remember a very flamboyant flute player who performed just about everywhere in Memphis, but now I can't recall his name. Who was this musician, and what happened to him? — G.H., Memphis.
Dear G.H.: When I was but a little tyke, I competed in the Mid-South Fair Talent Show, playing "Rocky Top" on my beloved oboe. A newspaper critic the next day noted my performance "caused tears of pain" among the audience — I assume he meant "heartache" because the sounds I created were so moving. But what he inexplicably failed to mention was my compelling stage presence. Realizing that an oboe solo is not the most visual of treats, I attached ostrich feathers to my arms and legs, and also to both ends of the oboe. It was really something to see, I promise you.
I bring this up because the musician you remember so vividly, G.H., also used feathers as a sort of trademark image. Whether he got the idea from me, I cannot say, but I like to think so.
You are no doubt thinking of Edwin Hubbard, a talented fellow who fronted his own bluegrass/jazz band, served as musical director for Going to Market, and was artist-in-residence for Calvary Episcopal Church, among many other ventures. Hubbard played a flute, but he disdained the terms flutist or flautist, preferring to call himself a "flute picker."
Space — or lack of it — prevents me from describing his entire remarkable career, so I'll just touch on the highlights here. Hubbard was born in 1936 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and when he was just 7 years old was already playing saxophone with his father and grandfather in a little group called the Hubbard Orchestra. In high school he organized two separate swing bands for the casinos operating in Hot Springs at the time.
Hubbard got an appointment to West Point, but later told reporters, "I thought the sound of the flute was infinitely sweeter than the sound of a howitzer." Instead, he went to Louisiana State University, where he earned a master's degree in music and served as drum major for the LSU band. After a stint in the Army, he signed on as the musical director for a summer variety series for NBC called Dean Martin Presents Country Music. When the show ended, he went on tour with banjo player Douglass Dillard (of "Dueling Banjos" fame) and fiddler John Hartford. One of their stops was the Miss Nude World Pageant in Canada, and yes, they performed naked.
"The entire audience was nude," Hubbard blithely explained to The Commercial Appeal. "The contestants were nude. It would not have been appropriate at all for us to have appeared clothed."
Somewhere along the way, Hubbard came up with his signature look. He later told a reporter, "An Indian gave me a clutch of beautiful eagle feathers, saying, 'They will give your music strength.' I told him, 'Thanks, I need all of that I can get." Hubbard dangled them from the end of his flute with a long string and was never seen without them.
In the mid-1960s, Hubbard moved to Memphis, where he opened the Pepper Jingle Company, recording snappy commercials for radio. He also served as a backup musician for just about everybody who recorded in Memphis, including Elvis Presley and Isaac Hayes. By the early 1970s, the Memphis Press-Scimitar said Hubbard "was considered about the most in-demand musician in his field." He organized a group called Prana, a yoga term meaning "a sort of life force — a high-energy feeling," and newspaper articles claimed he was "the first to bring about a fusion of bluegrass and jazz." The people who came to his concerts "are going to get a Prana charge, and they don't even know it," he told a reporter.
Hubbard was named musical director of the open-air marketplace on Winchester called Going to Market, but that venture folded after just a year, and he was forced to "recover, get my bearings, and find a new direction." The recovery didn't take long. Within months, Hubbard was performing weekly at the Hyatt Regency and other venues around town, and he began to work on what he called the "Afro-billy sound," a fusion of African, jazz, and bluegrass. "Your music takes you where it goes, or where it wants you to go, he said, "if you give it a life of its own." He also released an album, simply titled Edwin Hubbard, and was named artist-in-residence at Calvary Episcopal Church.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hubbard would emerge from what the newspapers called his "sylvan retreat" near Germantown to perform around town. New challenges beckoned, and on the evening of March 22, 1997, the 61-year-old Hubbard was auditioning at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre for the role of conductor of the Germantown Symphony Orchestra. At intermission, he went to his dressing room, where the concertmaster found him dead from an apparent heart attack. He had just finished conducting Mozart's Requiem — also known as the funeral mass.
Dear Vance: I found an old package of "freezing mix" and noticed the manufacturer was Clyde Collins of Memphis. I could not find any information on this company. Can you help? — H.M., Memphis.
Dear H.M.: Thank you for mailing me the actual package. I will return it to you just as soon as my requisition for a stamp is approved.
I wasn't even sure what "freezing mix" was, but the colorful packet helpfully explains it's for making vanilla-flavored frozen desserts: "Just mix with sugar, milk, and cream." On the back, the package takes on a considerably more personal tone, urging the customer, "Try me. Guaranteed to please or double your money back." Who could resist such an offer?
I had never heard of Clyde Collins Inc., and assumed it was some mom-and-pop business, perhaps run out of somebody's garage. So imagine my surprise when I made a trip to the University of Memphis Special Collections Department and discovered a folder of Memphis Press-Scimitar clippings describing a massive operation that had been in business since 1916.
That's when Clyde Collins, founder and chairman of the board, moved into three buildings at the corner of Monroe and Lauderdale and — according to one article — began manufacturing "extracts, home drinks, jams, jellies, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings, condiments, table syrup, soda water flavorings, and baker's flavorings." And also freezing mix, apparently. Beside the production plant on Monroe, Collins also owned five warehouses throughout the city and distributed a separate line of food products under their "O-Boy" brand.
In fact, at one point, they got into a lawsuit with a St. Louis company, who felt that Collins' "Eat-Um-Aid" soft-drink mix sounded a bit too similar to their own "Like-M-Aid" drink. I don't know how that was resolved, though.
In 1947, Collins announced plans to build two huge new plants in Memphis, and hired local architect Dudley Jones to design a pair of stunning concrete-and-glass buildings that would occupy more than 100,000 square feet. The new facilities, described by the Press-Scimitar as "tremendous," would "embody the finest and most modern factory features."
The newspaper didn't give a clue just where these new factories would be constructed — probably because Collins hadn't yet purchased the land. In addition to a "vast amount of pumping and storage equipment," each building would include "modernistic displays, comfortable lounge furniture, and attractive recreation rooms." The Collins name would be carried in giant letters across the roof.
For some reason, though, those grand plans never left the drawing board. The Clyde Collins Company remained on Monroe for about 10 more years, when the firm apparently went out of business. For a couple of years, the sprawling plant was taken over by the redundantly named Leon-Leon Cigar Company. Today, it houses the Wonder Bread factory, without question the most fragrant-smelling building in Memphis.