As the countdown clock to Southern Heritage Classic 30 inched toward t-minus one week, founder Fred Jones Jr. said, “I think people are excited. We’re just trying to manage our excitement.” (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Two steps inside of Fred Jones Jr.’s home in French Fort just off of Downtown and any visitor would pick up on his affinity for the Southern Heritage Classic. And with it about to turn 30, the founder and his team are in full-execution mode relative to a plan embraced for continued success.

Jones, president of Summit Management Corporation, knows the world of entertainment promotions inside and out. Back in 1972 when the late Isaac Hayes won an Academy Award (Best Original Song, theme from “Shaft”), Jones was in the mix as key players executed a plan to net the Oscar.

“Not planning,” said Jones, stressing to his interviewer the value of a plan. “When you’re planning, you’re trying to figure it out. … (When) you got a plan, it’s like, ‘What are we doing now?’”

Last year’s plan didn’t directly account for the lightening that canceled the game for the first time in 29 years. However, the plan that was in place made for an orderly transition to the question of, “What are we going to do now?”

So as Jones and his Southern Heritage Classic (SHC) team keep watchful eyes on the clock that’s ticking down to SHC 30, they are marking off goals, benchmarks and deadlines that are being met.

Tailgate tickets went on sale May 10th and all 500 spots were gone by May 16th. All 80 spots in the Annual Orange Mound Parade have long been filled. So have the spots in the High School Battle of the Bands.

“I think people are excited. We’re just trying to manage our excitement,” said Jones. “We have so much work to do. …Everybody understands that. It’s not like, ‘Where’d this (load) come from?’ You just might say it for a moment, but then it’s OK, Now, what I’m going to do about it?’”

The beginning…

Prompted by a question and clearly at ease in the refurbished house that was home for his late parents (Freddie and Lula Mae Jones), the South Memphis-born Jones recalled conversations in September/October 1989 that laid the groundwork for what has become known as “The Classic.”

Nowadays, thousands of people – many of them living hundreds of miles away with roots in the southern region – plan vacations and mini-getaways around the The Classic and the expectation of fun and entertainment on multiple levels. If you think Jones subscribes to the adage of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you’d be wrong.

“I don’t go for that,” he said. “I just tinker with it. I’m not going to take The Classic and turn it up on its head because of changing lifestyles.”

Much, however, has changed in the way of lifestyles, a fact Jones makes use of when he’s interacting with young people for whom social media is a way of life.

“When I’m talking to the kids, I say, ‘We started a classic 30 years ago. There was no Internet or very little. …Everybody had a fax machine.’ They say, “What’s a fax machine? .. How did you do that (make The Classic a success) when you didn’t have all of that (Internet, social media, etc.)?

“And my answer to them is that, ‘You’ve got all of that, so you can be better than I was.’ … We took what we had and made the best of it.”

The value of relationships…

Jones had been nurturing “this idea” for a while when it occurred to him that it would make sense to talk with someone at The Commercial Appeal newspaper, who might be able to help. In the course of his work, he’d brought ads to the newspaper, interacting with Faye Ables, who worked as a secretary in the advertising department.

Ables got him an appointment with Dave Swearingen, who was somewhat of an advertising legend.

“That day, the first day I met him, he said, ‘If you pull this off, then you’re going to have the biggest event in this town.’ …on the first day, no name for it, just an idea. And you have to go back and think of how blessed I was to be with somebody who could see where you were going, and had the wherewithal and the influence. …He got me a meeting with Lionel Linder (the late former editor) and the rest is history.”

And if you didn’t pick up on his relationship tip, Jones makes it explicit:

“The person sitting at the front desk, never disrespect them. They can make break or break you. Now, they don’t make the decision, they don’t sign off on the checks, they don’t sign off on whatever is going on, but they got a heck of a lot of influence. …

“The relationship that you build over time, the relationship in a lot of ways gets to be more valuable than money. Because sometimes people believe that money can buy you anything. Well, it helps to have money…I don’t discount that, but if you’ve got a good relationship with somebody, it can work for you. If you got a pure relationship.”

Jones had concluded that to survive he also needed a relationship with influencer FedEx, which now presents The Classic.

“This never was about one year. This was about getting to 30, 35, 40, 50. And you needed these entities to understand what it is that you are trying to push forward. …This represents 26 years that FedEx has been involved with The Classic. It took a while to get through, but we did.”

‘Don’t let them take this from us’

Once while leaving the Orange Parade, a staple event in The Classic, a man yelled out to Jones, “Don’t let them take this from us.” Taken aback, Jones gathered himself, reasoning that he needed to be careful with his response.

“If you go back historically, if something is significant in the black community, something happened to it. He was a young enough guy, so somebody probably told him a story. …I knew exactly what he was saying: This is important; it’s important to us.”

The response?

“I said, ‘As long as you stand with me, I’ll be fine.’”

A woman with the man said, “‘We’ll be with you.’ Man, you had to catch yourself from choking up because you knew what they were saying and how much important that it was to them. And I remember just kind of walking away, just kind of, ‘wow!’”

People are clearly sticking with Jones and The Classic. Impact analysis puts The Classic’s economic benefit to the Memphis area at $21-plus million. Tennessee State University, Jackson State University, Grambling State University and Mississippi Valley State University earned a combined total of $11.8 million for their participation from 1990 through 2017.

And SHC attendance for those years was 1,305,658.

At this point and with a trusted team working with him, Jones focuses on the role of charting a course, while realizing that there other people “as we speak, out doing things to make The Classic what it is. And you have to appreciate that and understand that…

“So, that’s kind of where we are with The Classic. There are a lot of people doing a lot of things, including these volunteers. Some of them have been here 30 years, just making this what it has become.

“I’ve got a role. I’m sitting at the head of the table, but there are other people at the table and you respect them all.”