Ralph Lembo’s Music Store: Early Blues in Itta Bena

Ralph Lembo store 2

Ralph Lembo was an Italian immigrant who settled in Itta Bena.  He turned 21 in 1918 and was one of 32 to register for military service, as required, on August 24, 1918, but he apparently was not called up to active duty. The newspapers indicate he was in Greenwood on business in spring of 1919, and also that he took his wife to the hospital for treatment in fall of 1919 following the birth of their daughter. His first business effort was apparently not successful, as his sister, Mrs. Stella Paluso, bought the bankrupt stock and began conducting the business (Macon Beacon, June 17, 1921).  However, by 1924, Lembo was identified as “a prominent merchant” and bought the Dixie Theatre from the Jenkins Brothers, “conveniently located to Mr. Lembo’s general merchandise store being in the building adjacent” (Greenwood Commonwealth, January 12, 1924).  Lembo’s store was the building with the Chevy’s sign, and deciphering that was a long slug.  The address is listed as 114 and 116, depending on which source, on the street now named Humphreys.

Firestone

Leflore County tax records identified the date of Lembo’s store as constructed in 1905, and no address for 116.  To the right of Lembo’s (left in the above photo) was a store constructed in 1915, and to the left (right in the above photo) was a store with hotel on the second floor, constructed 1910.  Adjacent to the store/hotel was a store with a 1920 construction date.  The dates are all complicated by a fire–“disastrous conflagration” in 1902 which destroyed six stores along Lake Front–a street that has since been renamed.  Humphreys Street was originally known as Front Street, and was the center of the business area, parallel to the railroad tracks that bisected the center of town.  Gatlin and Tietz (NR nomination, 2009) also indicated fires in the downtown area in 1897 and 1905.  For that reason, many of the dates are indicated as circa, assuming they were built after those fires.

Lembo's

…triple rows of corbelling along cornice under a brick cap…recessed door flanked by canted windows…original metal storefront elements stamped Christopher & Simpson, St. Louis, MO. (Gatlin & Tietz, 2009, Itta Bena Historic District, National Register of Historic Places nomination form)

According to the Mississippi Blues Travellers, Ralph Lembo ran a blues promotion/booking business in the back of his furniture store during the late 1920s and 1930s.  Lembo was definitely interested in music and performance, as he and his five-year-old son, Frank, participated in many dance contests in the area, with Frank often stealing the show for his rendition of the Charleston.  Lembo also directed his own orchestra which performed in the area.  Lembo’s enthusiasm for performance had earlier prompted him to sell his stock of general merchandise, dry goods, and groceries in February 1926, and sell the Dixie Theatre to his brother-in-law, Joe Paluso, “for the purpose of affording time to place young Frank on the stage” (Greenwood Commonwealth, February 11, 1926).  Although Frank went on to study music at LSU in 1942, it was Ralph Lembo’s venture into the early blues recordings that make some folks think a Mississippi Blues Trail marker should stand in front of his former store.

Lembo secured a recording session for Booker “Bukka” White, and brought Blind Lemon Jefferson to play in his store in 1927.  Lembo also had a hand in working with the Mississippi Sheiks.  By 1928, Lembo operated three music stores: the one in Itta Bena, no.2 in Swiftown, and no.3 in Greenwood.



Categories: Blues Sites, Delta, Historic Preservation, Itta Bena

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10 replies

  1. I do not think Ralph Lembo served in World War I. He registered as required when he turned 21 in August 1918. The newspapers indicate he was in Greenwood on business in spring of 1919, and also that he took his wife to the hospital for treatment in fall of 1919 following the birth of their daughter.

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  2. very interesting; thanks for taking the time to pull all of this information together. and, nice photos!

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  3. Good post. Can you do a post on the Ralph Lembo stores on Carrolton Street in Greenwood and in Swiftown?

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    • I did not find any information about the other two stores other than the news ad. The Carrollton Avenue building is still standing, though in the last Google map images, it has significant damage in areas.

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  4. What an interesting man! His contributions to the community were varied. The town looks closed up or at least this area. With a vibrant past it would be wonderful to see it revive.

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    • His second wife appeared frequently in the news. His first wife, who also immigrated from Italy, died in 1925. Mr. Lembo married an Itta Bena woman, Eura Gay Smith in 1926. She was involved in the usual women’s club activities, frequently associated with the Presbyterian Church.

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  5. Frank Lembo was drum major of the Itta Bena High School Band, and his sister was in the band also with the director being Joe Barry Mullins. Frank consistently won superior ratings as did the band at the state band contest each year.

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