Pat Kerr Tigrett's love of Memphis music dates to when she sang as a teenager in a quartet called "The Harmonettes" in Savannah, Tennessee.
The group, which performed "Loving You" and other Elvis standards, was asked to sing on a local radio station. "We got fired for giggling," she said. "We were kicked off the radio."
Tigrett still sings at church, but for 22 years she's kept Memphis musicians and their music alive at The Blues Ball. The annual extravaganza has featured legendary performers, including B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Eddie Floyd and Little Jimmy King, and has raised more than $1.5 million for local charities.
Saturday's event, which will honor B.B. King, will be the last. "We have accomplished our mission," Tigrett said. "The mission for us was to create a platform in our hometown for these deserving musicians. For them to be lifted up, appreciated, revered, honored and heard."
"When it comes to music and helping those musicians, she's really for real, man," said Sam Moore, member of Stax vocal duo Sam & Dave, who was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Blues Ball and recently inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. "I consider (Tigrett) one of my best friends. She tells you she's going to do something for you, she does it. And she doesn't give up until she gets it done."
Music always was a part of Tigrett's life. As a teenager, she sang in the choir at First Methodist Church in Savannah. "These incredible gospel groups would come through town — The Statesmen Quartet, The Goodman Brothers, The Blackwood Brothers," she said.
She remembered "dancing in the clubs every night" when she was at Memphis State University. "We all jumped from club to club. Tuesday night, the Whirlaway. Saturday night, Charlie Rich at the Nitelighter. It was a great time. And Memphis music was everywhere. T. J.'s — Ronnie Milsap was playing there all the time. Of course, David (Porter) and Isaac (Hayes) were everywhere. Sun was rolling. Knox (Phillips) and Jerry (Phillips) were friends of a guy I was dating. We went to recording sessions. I thought everybody my age in the whole world was doing the same thing that we were doing in Memphis. Clearly, that was not the case."
The first Blues Ball was held in 1994, and Isaac Hayes, then living in Atlanta, was Tigrett's first call.
She told Hayes her idea: "Memphis music is the only thing that Memphians — both black and white — can celebrate together right now," she said.
Hayes came on board. "He was my honorary chairman, every year until he died," Tigrett said.
Galas up to that time usually featured one headliner. The first Blues Ball featured 12 acts, including Rufus Thomas, Mavis Staples, William Bell, Ann Peebles and Jim Dickinson. "Literally, they were dancing on the tables. Our Memphis sound is so unique. I think we get our energy from the Mississippi cause it's churning and rolling on. It's a maverick — moving, ever-changing, but a solid beat and solid soul that nothing else can touch."
Over the years, Tigrett also used the term "maverick" for The Blues Ball because it was held in several unusual locations. It was at The Pyramid and the Gibson Guitar Factory while the buildings were under construction and at Central Station when it was under renovation.
This year, the ball will be at Gibson, where it's been held for nine years. Performers will include William Bell and Marvell, Vaneese and Carla Thomas. "We are celebrating the 80th birthdays of Memphis music royalty — Elvis, Jerry Lee and Sam Moore," said Tigrett
For the first time at The Blues Ball, Tigrett will hold a fashion show featuring children and grandchildren of Memphis music legends. They will model "their own interpretation of rock star chic," said Tigrett. "It all started in Memphis with Lansky's on Beale Street and it has been a global phenomenon since the '50s."
The venue will be decorated with gigantic likenesses of Elvis, King, Lewis and other performers painted by the late LeRoy Neiman, twinkle lights and miles of mylar ribbon. "There are thousands and thousands of white balloons that are already on the ceiling," said Tigrett. "It's so heavenly looking. It looks like clouds. Because it's B.B. And I wanted a heavenly presence for him."
The Blues Ball "has been an educational process to a great degree," said Tigrett, who notes that many Memphians didn't know who Stax Records co-founder Estelle Axton was at the time she was honored at The Blues Ball. "No one knew she was the 'ax' in 'Stax.' Now, Memphis musicians are the flavor of the month, which is awesome. We now have at least four museums that are honoring our musicians."
Justin Timberlake performing with Moore at the recent Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony "was the best music scene I have ever seen in Memphis. And I have seen a lot." said Tigrett.
As for the legacy of The Blues Ball, Tigrett said, "The musicians know that it is their own ball. I think everything is about relationships. And I think the friendships we developed at those funny clubs growing up — I think they have trusted me and are comfortable coming into a world they may not have been invited to earlier."
"There are events that happen," said Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden. "And there are events that change things. And elevate things. And The Blues Ball's done that."