It was, at one time, one of the important stops on what was known as the “chitlin circuit,” featuring the likes of B.B. King, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Louis Armstrong, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Fats Domino and many others.
And while memories of the Hi-Hat Club remain vivid among those who were once regulars there, little else remains except a historical marker at its former site on Airport Road in southeast Hattiesburg. The Mississippi Blues Trail marker was the 102nd marker on the trail. The Trail was developed under the leadership of Gov. Haley Barbour to preserve the state’s musical heritage.
“I am pleased we are able to honor the Hi-Hat, a major contributor to blues music in south Mississippi,” Barbour said at the time. “The club’s owner, Milton Barnes, was a pioneering entrepreneur in the African American community. He brought top musicians to the Hattiesburg area and helped new talent grow.”
“In typical fashion, when history is being made, you don’t think about it,” former Hattiesburg resident Roy Eure said of watching legendary blues artists perform there during the 1970s. “The Hi-Hat was an important place.”
The credit for that, all agree, goes to its owner, the late Milton Barnes, a local entrepreneur whose businesses ranged from Barnes Cleaners, founded in 1935, to the Hattiesburg Black Sox.
And then, of course, there were the nightclubs.
According to a history compiled by Jim O’Neal, research director for the Mississippi Blues Trail, Barnes opened the Embassy Club at the site that would later become the Hi-Hat in the 1940s. After it burned down in 1957, it was replaced for awhile by Smith’s Drive-In before the Hi-Hat opened in the early 1960s.
“The Hi-Hat, one of the largest clubs in Mississippi, often drew crowds of eight to nine hundred, sometimes in excess of a thousand,” O’Neal wrote.
Barnes’ son, Marvin Barnes, said his father never completed high school, but that he had an instinct for business. Barnes, who was born in 1915, died in October 2005. In 2001, he was recognized by an official proclamation of the State of Mississippi.