JACKSON, Miss. – Bill Luckett was an attorney, small-town mayor, candidate for governor, blues promoter, friend and business partner of Morgan Freeman and irrepressible teller of tales about the people and culture of his beloved Mississippi.
Luckett died Thursday at 73, a year after being diagnosed with cancer. He will be remembered Tuesday at a party he ordered up and would have loved to host.
Instead of a funeral, his family is having a celebration of Luckett's life with free music and entertainment at Ground Zero Blues Club — the joint that he, the Academy Award-winning actor and others had owned for two decades in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The club's name refers to the the birthplace of the blues: Legend has it that early blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in the Mississippi Delta. Clarksdale stakes its claim with huge guitars marking the intersection of U.S. highways 61 and 49. Nearby Rosedale also claims to be the site of Johnson's Faustian bargain. Luckett shrugged and acknowledged the devil's crossroads promotion was good for Clarksdale, a place that relies on tourism to support an anemic economy.
Luckett was often at Ground Zero to introduce acts and drink and dance with blues pilgrims who had traveled from far corners of the globe.
"Dad loved Clarksdale, its music, and its people with all of his heart," one of his sons, Oliver Luckett, said in a statement. "In true Bill Luckett style, one of his final requests was to forgo a funeral and instead invite the community and anyone that wants to come to Clarksdale for some great music at Ground Zero Blues Club — on the house.”
Luckett ran for Mississippi governor in 2011, pledging to improve roads, health care and technology services in the mostly rural state that has long been one of the poorest in the U.S. He lost in the Democratic primary to Johnny DuPree, then the mayor of Hattiesburg. DuPree became the first Black candidate to win a major party's nomination for governor of Mississippi, and in a state where Republicans hold most statewide offices, lost in the general election to Republican Phil Bryant.
In 2013, Luckett was elected mayor of his hometown of Clarksdale, which then had a population of about 17,700. Clarksdale is in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, and the city's population has now declined to about 15,700. Luckett served one four-year term as mayor.
Luckett and Freeman, who lives near the Delta town of Charleston, also ran an upscale restaurant called Madidi, in Clarksdale for several years.
“The Delta has just been in a decline economically for about the past 30, 40 years, and I think it's gotten to, in effect, the bottom now — or it did in the late '90s,” Luckett told The Associated Press in 2015. “And we’ve been trying to bring it back around with this restaurant, with Ground Zero Blues Club.”
Luckett had lived in Mississippi since he was six weeks old, and considered his birth in Fort Worth, Texas, to be just a quirk before his family returned to the place where they were rooted.
Luckett was part of the June Bugs, a loose-knit group of Mississippi politicians, judges and others — including U.S. District Judge Mike Mills and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker — who celebrate the state's musical and literary heritage, often with tongue-in-cheek presentations.
This year, the June Bugs held a ceremony near Greenwood to remember the fictional Billy Joe McAllister, the young man who ended his life by jumping from the Tallahatchie Bridge in “Ode to Billy Joe,” the 1967 his song by Mississippi-born Bobbie Gentry.
The Greenwood Commonwealth reported that Luckett dressed as a pope and spoke about the possibility that Billy Joe committed some sins, including taking his own life by leaping into the Tallahatchie. Luckett announced that he “grants, conveys and bestows and publicly pronounces a special dispensation” for Billy Joe.
In addition to his son Oliver, Luckett's survivors include his wife of 37 years, Francine; daughter Whitney Luckett; stepson Park Dodge and stepdaughter Douglas Dunavant.
Burns Strider, a Democratic consultant, worked on Luckett's gubernatorial campaign and considered Luckett a mentor.
“I think Bill had one of the largest intellects I have ever encountered. And, I have encountered many,” Strider wrote on Facebook. "But, here’s what made Bill Luckett stand out: For every ounce of intellect, there was two ounces of heart. He loved his family and friends. He loved Clarksdale. He loved Mississippi. Bill loved life. And, he made life matter. He made it fun.”