SID SALTER: Music, politics echoed from the old Sun-N-Sand

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

When I saw the obituary for Joe Martin in the Jackson newspaper, my mind shot back to a place that only exists in fading memories from three decades ago – the old Sun-N-Sand in Jackson.

Martin, 85, died Sept. 15 in Forest. A longtime resident of the Harperville community in Scott County, Joe was a professional musician. From age five, Joe Martin was a natural. He could make the bass guitar walk and talk and Joe logged a stellar 60-year career making music.

Along with such jazz greats as trumpeter Al Hirt and clarinet player Pete Fountain, Martin was a staff musician for WWL, the clear channel AM radio station that could be heard across the Gulf Coast in the daytime and across much of the U.S. at night.

His wife, Irene Martin, is one of Mississippi’s best known pianists and for many years was the official pianist for the Mississippi Baptist Convention meetings. In her own right, Irene has had a remarkable career as a musician and recording artist performing both religious music and standards.

Together, their music took them to California and there’s another column worth of stories about the musicians they performed with, the people they met and the places they performed. But after returning to Mississippi, one of the venues where Joe and Irene and their musician friends played regular gigs was the Sun-N-Sand.

The Sun-N-Sand “motor hotel” was the brainchild of R.E. “Dumas” Miller in 1960, who brought a Polynesian motif to the place. As I’ve written before, my reaction in seeing the place in the early 1980s was that it was sort of a dump.

But in that era, it was the “dump” of choice for most of the power brokers in the Mississippi Legislature and at the same time it was the place that I learned most of the lessons of value regarding any reasonable attempts at covering legislative news.

After years of reading about the nocturnal excesses of legislators the supposedly endless parade of receptions and dinners and cocktail parties that made so many headlines I was prepared to visit the Sun-N-Sand and see the bacchanal first-hand.

My first visit there was at the request of a young North Mississippi state representative from Monroe County. Now a federal judge, Mike Mills was in 1984 a freshman legislator from Aberdeen. Former House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi was also one of my hosts. I was expecting to see a bunch of drunken middle-aged men slugging scotch and chasing secretaries.

What I found was something different. I found a bunch of married guys living in cramped hotel rooms, sitting around in their bare feet and undershorts eating popcorn, parched peanuts, hoop cheese, Vienna sausages, and sardines and crackers. A few had drinks, but not many and not much.

Most of the rooms had hot plates, dorm refrigerators or other small appliances. As in most places where men are in charge of decor and housecleaning, the place smelled like a goat and was not in danger of making the cover of Southern Living. Rent was by the month.

I went back many times over the years mostly unannounced looking for legislators I’d learned who to trust and who seemed to trust me. I ate a lot of sardines. I heard a lot of stories. Got a lot of news and made a lot of friends. The hotel closed in October 2001.

My friend and legendary Mississippi newspaper man W.C. “Dub” Shoemaker introduced me to Joe and Irene Martin during a break at one of their performances at the Sun-N-Sand bar. Shoemaker and I had been sharing a table with then House Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman.

We were trying to talk politics with Newman, but he was far more interested in enjoying Joe and Irene’s music and watching the action on the dance floor. There were a lot of politicos that Newman only knew as “scannelbooga” (a word that Newman coined combining “scoundrel” and “booger”), but the most powerful man in Mississippi in that era knew Joe and Irene Martin by their first names.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.