More than just a couple of college teams vying for bragging rights — and high-stepping bands that battle it out at halftime — the Southern Heritage Classic is every bit a cultural celebration.
In fact, that’s the evolved 2018 name: the 29th Southern Heritage Classic Cultural Celebration.
It goes down this weekend — nonstop partying with the first shindig being a Thursday evening VIP party hosted by Mayor Jim Strickland. The invitation-only soiree will feature live music with Trio Plus at the Sheraton Memphis downtown.
For the Southern Heritage Classic weekend, all of Memphis stops to take note. After all, the economic impact over the years reaches well over $20 million.
Fred Jones is the man behind the phenomenon. You have to wonder if his dreams were this big in those early, lean days when the only thing in abundance was hope.
“Well, you never met a songwriter who said, ‘This is going to be a number one hit,’” said Jones. “You just do it, put it out there and hope for the best.”
At historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Jones observed, a football game between two rivals has an added element of entertainment. And that is the halftime battle of the bands.
“When TSU head coach Bill Thomas approached me in the late 80s about his team playing Jackson State University in an annual event, I knew this would work,” Jones said. “The game would be a great draw for fans, but I could see building entertainment around the game to make it a total package. Memphis was halfway between Nashville, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss. Having it here in Memphis was perfect.”
But events need sponsors and big events need bigger sponsors. So Jones reached out to FedEx — in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993 — nothing. But then around Christmas of 1993, a FedEx marketing exec, Bob Miller, reached out to him.
“Bob Miller called and said, ‘Hey, I heard you have been trying to reach us about your event. I think we should be involved.’ And FedEx has been a sponsor since 1994. It wasn’t just my event. A lot of somebodies made this happen.”
A bit of modesty? Not so much. There really were a lot of folks in the beginning who believed in the vision, despite the chorus of naysayers.
There was Tom Prestigiacomo, who was the announcer for the University of Memphis at the time.
“Tom called me and said that very first year, ‘I heard you are having an event at the stadium. It would be my honor to be your announcer.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ Tom is celebrating 29 years this year because he’s been there from the very beginning.”
There may have been “lots of somebodies” who made the Classic the phenomenon it is today, but Jones has been its driving force. He took the brunt of those who said it couldn’t happen in Memphis. Jones bore the weight of discouragement in those meager, early days.
“People could see this happening in Atlanta and they could see it taking off in New Orleans, but not in Memphis,” said Jones. “But I had been in entertainment for 20 years when I started the Classic. Whether it was traveling with Isaac Hayes, BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, jazz festivals with Al Jarreau — I had learned the business at these events. I knew we could make it happen.”
Without the big sponsorships and without the faith of many that this event would go anywhere at all, Jones staged the game and halftime show that first year. It’s been bigger and better every year. And the rest, as they say, is history. The Southern Heritage Classic is, today, a Memphis tradition.
And the tradition continues this weekend. Friday at 5 a.m., V101 is featuring a live broadcast of The Tom Joyner Morning Show, with Tom Joyner and his whole crew on Tiger Lane. The Classic College and Career Fair follows at 9 a.m., in the Pipkin Building.
The Classic Coaches Luncheon will honor Tennessee State University Coach Rod Reed and Jackson State University Coach Tony Hughes. Earl “Butch” Graves, Black Enterprise CEO, is the featured speaker, and attendance is invitation-only.
Later that night, a Classic Music Festival will light the night at Landers Center in Southaven, Miss., with artists Tank, K. Michelle, Ro James and Major.
Saturday morning brings Classic tailgating to the Liberty Memorial Stadium at 8 a.m.
The National Civil Rights Museum will be the setting of a 9 a.m. Classic/NIKE Kids 3K Walk/Run, for children 6-14.
The Classic Parade, featuring Memphis high school bands, is also at 9 a.m., running along the traditional Park Avenue route from Haynes to Airways.
Classic Fashions and Brunch ensues at the Crown Plaza East, 2625 Thousand Oaks Blvd. “Glitz and Glamour” will be presented by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women-Memphis Chapter.
And at 6 p.m., the rival teams take the field for game mastery. Another spectacular halftime show will delight fans on both sides. But the game — to the victor go the spoils!
Want to go to Classic events? Check out who to call for information or where to go to find tickets.
• or information on the Classic College Career Fair, contact (901) 626-6039 or visit www.cityofmemphisyouth.org.
• or tickets to the Classic Music Festival, contact (800) 745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
• or RV and tailgating packages, contact (800) 745-3000.
• or information on the Classic Fashions and Brunch, contact Wendy Jackson at (901) 236-5303.