Precious Lord! Saxophone linked to MLK's last request to be on permanent display at National Civil Rights Museum
Marc PerrusquiaUpdated 10:59 a.m. CT Aug. 31, 2017
Vivian Branch, widow of jazz saxophonist Ben Branch, said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked her husband to play "Precious Lord" and to play it real pretty. "And Ben said he told him, 'You know I will,' Branch recalled. Moments later, King was shot. Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal Ben Branch’s saxophone will stay in Memphis, after all – on permanent display at the National Civil Rights Museum.
After months of bouncing around, from a glass case, to storage, to a Whitehaven closet, the horn will be featured on the second floor of the Civil Rights Museum, feet from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood as he spoke with Branch moments before his assassination in 1968.
“See, this is home to Ben," Vivian Branch, the musician’s widow, said of her decision to keep the tenor saxophone in Memphis. It was housed for 16 years at Downtown’s Rock N’ Soul Museum before she severed the arrangement last fall, saying she might send the horn to a place where it would be more appreciated, perhaps to a museum in the East. More:Sax linked to Martin Luther King Jr.'s last words hidden in Memphis closet
Museum president Terri Lee Freeman said she’s excited by the addition.
“It’s going to be something we really treasure," Freeman told Branch as the two women finalized the deal. “We’re going to make you proud."
Freeman plans to display the horn on the second floor near the museum’s most-popular exhibit, Room 306, where King was staying on April 4, 1968, when he was shot by a sniper outside on the balcony of the former Lorraine Motel.
From the balcony, King spotted Branch down in the parking lot, asking him to play his favorite song at a rally later that night. “I want you to play 'Precious Lord' for me," King shouted. “Play it real pretty."
Branch believes the Henri Selmer Paris saxophone the museum now owns is the one her husband had with him in 1968, though a serial number recently spotted on the back indicates it was built later, around 1973. Jon Huff, manager of Saxquest, a St. Louis woodwind pro-shop, who has personally reviewed Henri Selmer Paris’ archival records in France, said a horn of that serial range couldn’t have been built before 1972, though Branch possibly might have retained parts from an earlier horn, such as the neck and mouthpiece, and added a newer horn body at some point.
Freeman said the discrepancy doesn't dampen the horn's importance.
"While we are aware of the issue surrounding the saxophone’s precise date of manufacture, it is more important that we have a part of Mr. Branch to help complete the story," she said in a prepared statement. "And knowing that Mrs. Branch is pleased the instrument has a home in Memphis, at the National Civil Rights Museum, is also important. By displaying the saxophone, we are affirming Mr. Branch’s historical significance, and the significance of his music, especially his rendition of Precious Lord which was a special inspiration to Dr. King."
Freeman’s enthusiasm is steeped in rich history.
Ben Branch was a big name in the Memphis blues scene in the 1950s and early ‘60s, leading the house band at Currie’s Club Tropicana and backing B.B. King on his early recordings. After moving to Chicago in 1964, Branch became active in civil rights, leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket Orchestra that came to Memphis in April 1968 as King tried to rally the city’s striking sanitation workers.
Freeman said it will be at least a couple months before the exhibit is ready for display.
The plan is to construct a custom, transparent case and display the horn between the “Promised Land’’ exhibit, featuring King’s “Mountaintop Speech’’ the night before he was shot, and room 306.
“That area is a high-traffic, very significant area. People can really feel what the moment was like.’’ said Noelle Trent, the museum’s director of interpretation. Branch’s saxophone exhibit will include a phone on which visitors can listen to Branch playing Precious Lord.
“The goal would be for people to not only see this but to hear it.’’ Trent said. “We will treat it with the utmost respect.’’
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