The unofficial mother of Deep Ellum died of liver disease Oct. 2, leaving orphaned musicians and artists behind to mourn. Jeanne Blanton, 60, was a self-made millionaire who married into Don Blanton’s real estate empire. The Blantons' holdings stretched across Deep Ellum; he was one of the original four investors who turned the neighborhood from an industrial center into a commercial art and music hub.
The Blantons didn’t just invest in the neighborhood; they lived there in a spacious, upscale loft across the street from BrainDead Brewing, above the space formerly occupied by Filament. Jeanne Blanton was often out and about, spending time with locals and soaking in the culture. She loved live music — jazz and blues especially — and could be found at the Free Man three times a week, owner John Jay Myers says.
“She’d get her typical drink, a double Grey Goose and a splash of coke, and tip the bartender $150,” Myers says. “She was so happy to be helping people. She would wander around Deep Ellum like a Santa Clausette, giving out money and telling people to keep playing what they’re playing.”
That was a regular occurrence for musicians like Stephen Ketner, whom Blanton tipped $500 every time she saw his band play at the Free Man.
“I might not still be doing music if it wasn’t for her and the opportunities she gave me — recording records and a place to live. God knows how much money she tipped me,” Ketner says.
When Blanton found out Ketner was having a hard time affording rent after he quit his day job to focus on music, she offered him a spare room in her house, free of charge. She paid for Ketner’s side project, the Freeloaders, to record an album. (The band is fronted by Myers.) She also started calling Ketner her “son from another mother.”
“She took in the stragglers and the underdogs, opened up her home and her heart. She’s truly a modern patron of the arts,” he says. “She was always at my shows. When she was in town, she’d find out where I was playing and she’d be there smiling. If someone’s not performing well, she’s the first one to stand up and cheer for them.”
Ted Levin is another musician Blanton took a shine to, and like Ketner, she also referred to Levin as a second son. The duo hit it off instantly after Blanton saw Levin playing to an empty room at St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin in Deep Ellum.
The next time Levin had a gig at St. Pete’s, he walked into a room with Blanton and 25 of her friends. Each person in the group had an envelope containing a song request from Levin’s catalogue and a $5 tip for him.
Between that and Blanton’s generous tipping, “I walked out with $600 in my pocket that night, and I met all these great people that I still consider friends,” he says. “She was a great collector of friends. Her friends became my friends.”
From the start, Blanton was a supporter of Levin’s music.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d play and she’d have a huge smile on her face and a tear in her eye. My music actually made her cry,” Levin says. “She was like a mother to me; she took me in. It helped my career so much. I will forever be grateful to her.”
Blanton’s generosity wasn’t confined to Deep Ellum. She took in a distant relative when he was a baby and raised him as her child because his parents couldn’t care for him. Blanton provided him with the best schooling and opportunities that money could buy, Ketner says.
She treated her art and music friends to lavish vacations, too. After Blanton found out Myers and his wife needed a getaway, “Jeanne hired us a babysitter for the week and flew us first class to Costa Rica,” he says.
“She said, ‘You guys deserve a break. You’re working too hard.’ She really wanted us to have a great time. Jeanne was a always in bed by 9:30 or 10, but she’d give us $500 and tell us to go have fun,” he recalls with a laugh.
And there were other friends like Warren and Karen Harris, a photographer and oil painter whom Blanton met at Warren Harris' booth at Deep Ellum Art Festival in 2013.
Jeanne pointed and said, “I want that one right there,” he says. “She lit the booth up with her incredible personality. It was like we’d been friends forever. She invited us over to her place and offered to let us use it for whatever reason during the festival.”
Karen Harris agrees.
“She was so generous and giving of heart. If she liked you, she’d do anything for you,” she says.
Blanton was a supporter of local arts, buying the Harrises' art and filling her home with pieces from other locals.
“She bought tons of local art — went to tons of galleries,” Ketner says. “If she saw a piece on a wall, even if it wasn’t for sale, she’d find a way to buy it. She was very extravagant but very generous with everyone."
Her extravagance may have reached a peak when Blanton paid for 19 people to take a weeklong cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. The Harrises and Levin were among the group.
“She loved to party and for everyone to have fun. She really threw the best parties and danced like no one was looking,” remembers Karen Harris, who says Blanton even packed two suitcases full of props.
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“They were two suitcases full of blinky shit,” Levin says, laughing. “She was such a Southern belle and always wore the most sparkly things.”
Bubba Feathers, Blanton's widower and third husband, was on that cruise — as a performer on ship — the Harrises recall. They believe Blanton may have met Feathers on that trip.
After marrying Feathers, Blanton’s time and attention were diverted elsewhere. The pair settled in Memphis and traveled between her many houses all over the world. Blanton eventually sold her loft in Deep Ellum and wasn’t seen as often in the neighborhood, but the creatives remembered her fondly. After she took them in, they became her tribe.
“She had her causes. Some people's cause is breast cancer. Hers were music and fun, her friends, Deep Ellum and the people who make it,” Myers says. “She took up the mantel to save the people of Deep Ellum, or at least make their lives better.”