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Red Paden, Juke Joint ‘King’ Who Kept the Blues Alive, Dies at 67

Red Paden, who as the self-proclaimed “king of the juke joint runners” spent four decades as the owner of Red’s, an unassuming music spot in downtown Clarksdale, Miss., and one of the last places in the United States to offer authentic Delta blues in its natural setting, died on Dec. 30 in Jackson, Miss. He was 67.

His son, Orlando, said the death, in a hospital, was from complications of heart surgery.

Juke joints, once commonplace across the Deep South, were the loam out of which blues music grew — a vast network of shacks, old shops and converted homes where traveling musicians would play a night for a share of the cover charge, then move on to the next gig.

Red’s is the quintessential example: low-ceilinged and the size of a large garage, decorated with old music posters and lighted with neon signs and string bulbs (red, of course).

There is no stage at Red’s, just a well-worn carpet, enough for a singer, a guitarist and maybe a drummer. A refrigerator holds beer, and when he felt like it Mr. Paden (pronounced PAY-den) would fire up the smoker on the sidewalk and cook a mess of ribs. Informality is key.

“I grew up on blues, and I opened that place so I’d have a place to go and jam,” he told Living Blues magazine in 2017. “Folks come around, there’s my living room. Kick back and enjoy it.”

Mr. Paden opened Red’s in the early 1980s, taking over a derelict music store called LaVene’s that was once popular with Delta musicians. Among them was Ike Turner, a Clarksdale native, who used instruments from the store on “Rocket 88,” a 1951 hit with his band the Kings of Rhythm that is widely considered the first rock ’n’ roll recording.

Over the years, Red’s became an institution celebrated for its authenticity, right down to its gravelly-voiced owner. Virtually every Mississippi blues artist played at Red’s, including Robert (Wolfman) Belfour, James (T-Model) Ford, Wesley (Junebug) Jefferson and James (Super Chikan) Johnson.

Celebrities came by, too: The actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in nearby Charleston and later founded his own club, Ground Zero, in Clarksdale, was a regular. The chef and television host Anthony Bourdain filmed part of an episode of his show “Parts Unknown” at Red’s.

“It was like walking into a history book,” Roger Stolle, a local blues preservationist, said in a phone interview. “It was like walking back in time.”

Juke joints started to decline in the 1990s, in part because Mississippi began allowing casinos, which offered live music free of charge, said Shelley Ritter, the director of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. Today, Mr. Stolle estimates, Red’s may be one of just a handful left in the Deep South, kept alive mostly because of Mr. Paden’s singular passion.

“Red was different than everyone else,” Mr. Stolle said. “He was willing to take the hit to keep it going.”

Cornelius Orlando Paden was born on Nov. 27, 1956, in Alligator, a crossroads town southwest of Clarksdale. His parents, John and Grace (Scott) Paden, were farmers. People called him Red from an early age, for reasons he never explained.

He grew up in Clarksdale and studied special education at Jackson State University, graduating in 1979. As a teenager he had worked on and off for two of his uncles, who owned a nearby juke joint; despite his training as a teacher, he soon followed their lead.

For a while he owned two other places in and around Clarksdale: the Tin Top, another juke joint around the corner from Red’s, and Redwine’s, a dance hall out past the city limits where, on an especially lively night, the crowd at Red’s might head after closing time.

He married Lisa Foster in 1990. Along with their son, Orlando, she survives him, as do two daughters, Marquita Paden and Yushumia Caldwell; five grandchildren; his sisters, Fannie Wilson and Vinorah Cotton; and his brothers, Herman and Sherman.

As the old-timers at Red’s either died, gave up on nightlife or spent more of their time at casinos, they were replaced by a growing flow of tourists, mostly white and from as far away as Europe and Australia. Mr. Paden didn’t mind — a crowd is a crowd — though sometimes he seemed to miss the rowdier old days.

“There used to be lots of cutting and shooting,” he told Mr. Stolle for his book “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential: House Parties, Hustlers & the Blues Life” (2019). “Now it’s like going to church.”

In 2018, he founded Red’s Old-Timer’s Blues Festival, held every Labor Day weekend. The criteria for playing the event were loose: You have to be over 60, have at least a passing relationship to Mississippi and, most important, be in good standing with Mr. Paden. Cadillac John Nolden, a 91-year-old harmonica player, was among his first headliners.

The festival, Mr. Paden said, was as much about helping older blues musicians as it was about inspiring younger ones.

“What I decided to do was give a festival for them, let them make a little money, show them how good life could be at an old age,” he said in a 2018 video interview. “And so that’d give everyone an incentive to grow.”

Orlando Paden, a Mississippi state representative, said that his father was already well along in planning the next festival when he died, and that he and other organizers would go forward without him and even expand it. They plan to line up additional acts, and to introduce a barbecue competition as well.

“It’ll be the biggest yet,” Mr. Paden said. “That’s what my dad would have wanted.”

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