The Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues & Heritage Festival, one of the longest running blues festivals in the Deep South, was founded in 1991 by the Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues Commission, Inc. At the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi and later here at the Jackson County Fairgrounds, the festival has featured a lively array of southern soul, blues, zydeco and gospel acts. Mississippi blues and soul headliners have included Bobby Rush, Theodis Ealey, O.B. Buchana and Nathaniel Kimble.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues & Heritage Festival was established by Winston Smith and a core group of blues supporters from the African American community who formed the Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues Commission (MGCBC) in 1991. Smith, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, had just been assigned to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula after serving in California, where he had enjoyed attending the Monterey Bay Blues Festival. When he arrived in Mississippi, he found there was no blues festival on the coast. To fill the void, Smith and the charter members of the MGCBC pledged their own funds to co-sponsor the first festival with the Biloxi Coliseum.
The stated mission of the MGCBC was to hold the annual blues festival every September, to share the proceeds with youth organizations in the coastal
counties of Mississippi, and "to promote the blues as an art form that originated in Mississippi and her southern sister states." Under the leadership of Addie Brent, Phyllis Owens, Isiah Edwards, Sam Walley, Louis Maxey, Finas Belk, Maggie Richardson and their dedicated colleagues, the festival brought a wealth of talent to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum for seven years and then to the Jackson County Fairgrounds beginning in 1998. Only in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina did the festival have to be cancelled.
Festival lineups have featured internationally renowned touring acts, stars on the southern soul circuit, local Gulf Coast blues and soul favorites, Louisiana zydeco bands, and many church choirs and gospel groups. The list of leading blues and soul entertainers has included Johnnie Taylor, the Average White Band, Koko Taylor, Millie Jackson, Clarence Carter, Mel Waiters, Bobby Bland, Latimore, Sir Charles Jones, Marvin Sease and Mississippians Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, Willie Clayton, O.B. Buchana, Little Milton, Ms. Jody, Theodis Ealey, Sam Myers and Nathaniel Kimble. The festival has presented Mississippi Gulf Coast performers Keith "Chicken Daddy" Hunter & Hot Wings, Sue Venable & DeVille, Libby Rae Watson, the Pat Murphy Band, Jerry Fisher & the Music Company, Joe Salmon, the 4 Real Show & Band and Unckle Eddie, as well as the Apollo Blues Band, James
Payne and Geno Wesley from Mobile, and many New Orleans singers and bands, including Irma Thomas, Arthur Foy, Sunpie Barnes and the Crescent City Connection.
The festival has held special ceremonies to honor Charles Fairley of Moss Point, Margie Joseph of Gautier, Rip Daniels of the Gulfport-based American Blues Network, and longtime MGCBC member Victoria Webb, who died in 2013 at the age of 105. The commission has also sponsored other events including an annual Mardi Gras carnival ball, fundraising concerts, and a musical instrument contest for students.