By Jack Mallette Photos by James Patterson
I was born of Mississippi Mud and Southern longleaf pine and pitch, when Jackson was still an awkward adolescent. I have a spine of tempered I-beam steel, and feet of concrete six feet wide. The rest of me is made from bricks so hard and timbers so long and thick they would break the backs of most men. But not the men who returned from fighting the Kasier’s troops amid the mustard gas in the trenches of the Great War and labored under the wilting Southern sun to build me. No, not these men. Somehow, they seemed to know what I was destined to become. So they built me well. They erected a special wildcat lumber mill at the site of my birth in 1919. They cut the finest old growth pines from Mississippi’s vast forests, then hauled them here by rail, by truck, even by mule train so I could begin my life as a Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad freight depot. Eventually I became the home for the Merchant’s Food Company, one of Mississippi’s premier wholesale grocers, and their famous Big M Brand of foods. I saw millions of tons of dry goods and the fruits of the labors of Mississippi’s farmers shipped to all parts of the country. Big M sugar, cheese, seeds, sides of beef and bananas ripened by methane gas in the room with the ventilation holes that now serves as an office – all flowed non-stop through my doors. I’ve witnessed heart-wrenching farewells as the young men of Mississippi mustered their platoons on my platforms before shipping out to the far corners of the earth to fight for their country in World War II. I saw the tearful reunions as some returned…different, yet for the most part, whole. And some did not. Thousands of human dramas have played out within my walls. But it took a man with a vision for me to reach my full potential.
You know me today as Hal & Mal’s.
“A roadhouse,” proclaims founder Malcolm White, “a good ol’ Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood restaurant and bar... only we can’t say ‘bar’ in the name, so it’s just a restaurant.”
AND WILLIE MORRIS WAS JUST A WRITER.
“Willie used to sit at that round table up front,” remembers Hal White, co-founder, Malcolm’s brother and chief cook and bottle-washer on a daily basis now that Malcolm is director of the Arts Commission.
“He’d hold court and have a drink or two and play practical jokes on people sitting around him,” remembers Hal. “He’d send a drink to a complete stranger at one table, compliments of so-and-so at table three, then have one sent back to the other person, compliments of the first guy.”
Hal and Malcolm share the story of the night Willie was discussing over dinner and drinks the finer points of writing with a young Southaven, Mississippi, lawmaker and aspiring writer named John Grisham.
“It came time for us to close,” says Hal, “and Willie used to say Malcolm came over and tried to run them out.”
“So Willie said, just gimme the keys, and I’ll lock up when we’re done,” continues Malcolm. “So I did. At least that’s what Willie used to say. I don’t remember it.” Neither does Hal, but John Grisham does.
“It’s very true,” says the best-selling author. “Willie and I were having dinner at his table during the 1989 legislative session, and I’d just finished my first book. The working title was “Death Knell.” I’d spent three years working on it, and nobody liked the title, especially Willie,” he recalls. “So he and I met at Hal & Mal’s for dinner – I love the red beans and rice – and he said he was going to help me come up with a title.”
“Now, Willie liked to drink,” Grisham says with a touch of sarcasm. “He’d get this blank look on his face, and he’d stare off into space and blow smoke out, just thinking. By now he had this huge pile of napkins with titles and words he liked, like ‘blood’ and ‘dust.’ Somehow he got fixated on those. Anyway, it got late, and Malcolm was trying to close. Willie said “We’re not leaving yet,’ so Malcolm just threw us out. Willie went around to a side door, went back in and ordered three Irish Coffees slam full of bourbon, which was his idea of sobering up. We left around 3 a.m. without a title, and headed back over to the Sun N’ Sand Motel, where we were both staying with all the other legislators and lobbyists. Willie finally staggered off to his room about sunrise. The next night we were at it again! This was a typical night for Willie, but after two nights, I was wiped out. I couldn’t keep up with Willie. Nobody could. We never did come up with a title,” John recalls wistfully, “but we sure had a lot of fun trying.”
The book was eventually called A Time To Kill.
“I actually had my first book signing party at Hal & Mal’s,” John Grisham remembers. “Nobody knew who I was, so it was mostly legislators who bought it. I had 5000 hardback copies printed up, and I couldn’t give ‘em away!”
Grisham also recalls the time in the late 1980s when he sat at a table next to actors Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe when they were in Jackson filming Mississippi Burning.
"They were just sitting there,” he says, “Hackman with his wife, and Dafoe with his date, having a quiet dinner, and nobody was bothering them for autographs. That’s the kind of place Hal & Mal’s is.”
Malcolm points out the remnants of Willie’s signature on the Writer’s Wall, where the famous, like Hackman and Dafoe, the not-so-famous and the infamous have all inscribed their names as they passed through Hal & Mal’s. “Ellen Gilchrist signed her name on the Writer’s Wall,” adds Malcolm, “and she added ‘I write in Willie’s Shadow.”’
“Willie tried to re-create the ‘café society’ he enjoyed in Oxford here,” he says, remembering his late friend. “I guess he succeeded. For the most part, anyway.”
Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade? “The St. Paddy’s Parade has become the largest single-day event in Mississippi,” says Malcolm proudly. “It’s a big ol, green love-in,” he says, “sort of a middle-aged female Mardi Gras. They come in from all over the country, and now it’s turned into a giant reunion.”
“And,” he admits quite frankly, looking at his brother, “if it weren’t for the parade, we probably wouldn't still be open.”
Hal quietly nods assent.
Jill Conner Browne remembers, “Sitting at a table in George Street, and Malcolm sharing his vision of what he could do with the old Merchant’s Warehouse. I even bussed tables opening night! I remember running around asking ‘what can I do?’ Malcolm told me to start picking up beer bottles off the tables. I thought: I can do that! I can pick up trash!”
“Hal is the King of Soups,” she adds. ‘Omigod! Trust me, whatever Hal is making in that stock pot is worth traveling for!”
“I’m a cook,” says Hal, characteristically understated. “It’s what I do. Just real people, and real good food.”
“John Maxwell ate the first meal we ever served,” notes Malcolm, “right there. It was on Elvis’s birthday, January 8, 1986. We just had the kitchen and an oyster bar, that’s it. No heat and air. Just kerosene heaters, and me and Hal and David Patterson and a couple of others doing the labor, building the place.”
Maxwell, the former artistic director for Jackson’s New Stage Theatre and actor best known for his one-man show Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write? also had a studio upstairs, as did a lot of other artists and writers.
“Richard Kelso, the painter,” he continues, walking past the Elvis bathroom. “Sandy McNeal, Carol Pigott…” He stops and looks at his brother.
“…John Hamrick,” adds Hal. “O.C. McDavid, the Clarion Ledger editor.”
“I even lived up there for thirteen years,” says Malcolm as he stops to point out the neon and the Art Deco grillwork, which he brought with him from the old Lamar Theater.
“It was the New Lamar first,” he says. “We were Friday and Saturday night honky-tonk, just beer and bands. We had college night; Wednesday night was Disco night. We had a lot of African-American show bands, like Freedom, and rock groups, like Telluride, and we kept it that way until the over twenty-one drinking age law was passed.”
“Albert King, the great blues guitarist, was our first big act,” he notes. “I co-promoted it with Charles Evers, if you can believe that!” he says with a chuckle. “It was Saturday, December 27, 1986,” he adds as he leans over a table to check the original poster, one of many the White brothers have framed and hanging on walls.
“We’ve had ‘em all,” he says. “Son Thomas, B.B. King, Big Joe Williams…”
“Emmy Lou Harris, Freddie and Fingers, Johnny Winter, Jack Owens…” It’s the White brothers in stereo, as they rattle off the names of the countless performers who have filled the halls of Hal & Mal’s with an incredibly diverse array of music over the years.
“Snoop Dogg even played here,” adds Malcolm. “And that doesn’t count the acts we had just show up to jam a little.”
“We even had Three Doors Down play here,” says Hal, “only they weren’t in the main part. They were literally three doors down.”
“We’ve heard that they tell the story that so many people kept coming in here asking for the band, that we just started saying “Three doors down,’ and that’s how they got the name. We haven’t checked it out, though.”
“The Vernon Bothers were the first act to play up front in the main part,” says Malcolm, but “I had to talk him into it,” says Bill Ellison of the Vernon Brothers bluegrass band and host of MPB’s Grass Roots. “He didn’t want to do it up front. Then I talked him into a sound system and lights. He didn’t want to do that, either,” he recalls, laughing.
Does Willie still have the run of the place? “I don’t know,” says Hal after a moment’s thought. “Sometimes… I just don’t know. It can get pretty weird up here when you’re by yourself. I’ll hear things rolling, or things crashing, all kinds of things. And I’ll be the only one here.” Malcolm adds, “Some of the older guys from Merchants swear they remember Elvis picking up loads for Memphis. Maybe he never left the building.”
What does the future hold for Hal & Mal’s? “I’d like to think someone in our family would still want to be a part of it,” says Malcolm, “I’d like to be able to come up here and have a cup of coffee and some lunch if I want. My daughter works here some. Her mother, Vivian, named the place Hal & Mal’s.”
“Me, too,” adds Hal. “My wife, Ann, busted her rear end up here nearly every day for ten years, and my daughter, Brandi, and son Taylor, work here as well. But I won’t still be doing this in twenty years, maybe even ten.”
“We started Hal & Mal’s here in downtown Jackson because that’s where we wanted it to be,” says Malcolm. “We could’ve opened it anywhere, and we’ve had many offers to move it: North Jackson, Madison County, Oxford, Memphis, you name it. If we wanted it to be in Memphis, we’d have opened it there. I remember Bert Case saying in that voice of his, ‘Malcolm, you’re gonna lose your ass!”
“We’ve defied all the odds; I have peace and contentment,” says Malcolm. “There are not a lot of people who can say ‘Look at this. I did this.”'
The gumbo. The Mambo. The libations. The vibrations.
Yes, all that you’ve heard about me is true.
As long as her sons and daughters pass through my portals, as long as I hum with the movers and shakers, the lawmakers and literati, or throb with the songs of Southern nights, the heart of Mississippi will beat strong and true.
And it will be me. It will always be me.