Rupert Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rupert Howell

King of Pop pales next to ‘King of the Honky Tonks’

Several national celebrities passed in the last week.

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Maybe all were icons, but last week we lost a local icon–Jesse Yates.

I don’t know who dubbed him “King of the Honky Tonks,” but it fit.

From the Pine Lodge to Rolling Hills and all around rural Mississippi Jesse would wail away the tunes that were so familiar. He once toured Europe during the mid-1970s with a group lead by Mack Allen Smith.

Jesse was a “man-of-the-people” type guy and familiar with hard work. He stayed busy  working as shop manager, body shop owner, logger and trucker during my recollection of him.

The constant in his life was music. It might not have made him rich with deep pockets, but it afforded him the opportunity to meet and know a slew of folks. Truth be told, he enjoyed making music so much he probably would have played for free.

When I knew him best he lived in a home with his wife, Pat, three step-daughters, three daughters, his mother-in-law, a dog named Princess and his only son, L’il Jesse. Can you spell “hormone imbalance?”

 He was “King” of the house and expected both biscuits and cornbread on the table at lunch when someone was home to cook. He helped instill a strong work ethic into each of those who lived in his house. Those who weren’t working could do the cooking.

At least once he ran unsuccessfully for public office. While he didn’t get enough votes to win, fans “voted” for him every weekend when on Saturday night they would fill the honky tonks and dance to his version of oh-so-familiar songs.

Most local musicians played with the self-taught artist over the years and those who didn’t played with somebody who did.

And if Jesse was the King of the Honky Tonks, then L’il Jesse had to be prince of the same. When Jesse quit performing regularly he followed L’il Jesse around.

While in Nashville in 1999 my wife and I remembered the younger Yates was playing in a group that would be at the Grand Ole Opry. While Li’l Jesse was playing I slipped down closer to the stage to take a picture. Leaning on the stage steadying myself, I was elbowed away by another picture shooter more anxious than I to take a snap.

It was Big Jesse, and when he saw me he said, “Rupus. (He never called me by my name) What in the hell are you doing here?”

The younger Yates continues to play gigs and has a day job as band director in Louisville.

After his family had left the area and his late wife died, Jesse married Rose with whom he spent his last days. He never enjoyed being by himself. The more the merrier.

Here’s hoping that Jesse continues to have plenty of biscuits and cornbread and that when he belts out that he’s a long tall Texan, St. Peter will know where he’s really coming from.