Archive for the ‘Memphis Music’ Category

Stax

Posted: January 13, 2013 in Memphis Music

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I’m working on telling the tale of these monumental movers of Memphis music:
Jim Stewart
Estelle Axton
Chips Moman
Rufus and Carla Thomas
Jerry Wexler
Packy Axton and the Royal Spades
Steve Cropper
Donald “Duck” Dunn
The Mar-Keys
Booker T. Jones
Al Jackson
Booker T. and the MG’s
Otis Redding
Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson
Isaac Hayes
David Porter
William Bell
The Bar-Kays
Sam and Dave
Wilson Pickett
Al Bell
Eddie Floyd
the assassination of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Albert King
Johnnie Taylor
The Staple Singers
Richard Pryor
Wattstax
Clive Davis and CBS
the bankruptcy of Stax

Memphis has been known to produce an eccentric character or two. The archetypical brilliant eccentric, Dewey Phillips (May 13, 1926 – September 28, 1968) was a pioneering radio disk jockey who disregarded segregated racial boundaries and delivered a mixture of both black and white music— and whatever caught his fancy— with a fast-talking, chaotic, speed-crazed persona that was no act. He endeared himself to black and white radio audiences alike, was a much beloved figure on Beale Street, and was declared to have transcended racial color by Rufus Thomas and B.B. King— “colorless.”

Dewey Phillips was born in Crump, TN and moved to Memphis after Army service in World War II. He managed the record department in W.T. Grant’s five-and-dime store at Main and Gayoso and used its outdoor P.A. system to attract lunchtime crowds and sell a lot of records. Dewey began his radio career in 1949 at WHBQ, broadcasting his Red, Hot & Blue show from the mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel. WHBQ was losing its white teen-aged audience to the hipper music of all-black WDIA. The radio station was doubtful of Phillips’ abilities, while his coworkers were horrified by his unprofessionalism and destructive tendencies. He also became the city’s number one radio personality for nine years running because those same uncontrollable qualities endeared him to his listeners. The station was also swayed by the ad dollars and long waiting list for his advertisers.

youtube: Red, Hot and Blue

Dewey’s brand of madness consisted of any spontaneous, crazy antic that crossed his mind— talking to himself in multiple voices; hilariously ad-libbing advertisements; playing two copies of the same record simultaneously, but slightly out-of-sync; spinning a record he liked over and over again, but also pulling a record he didn’t like off of the turntable with a violent scratch of the needle; coaxing his listeners to honk their car horns at a specified time of night: and a never-ending parade of absurd catch phrases. He became the first to simulcast a radio program on television, with his Red, Hot & Blue program. Phillips also later hosted a television show called Pop Shop with his silent sidekick, Harry Fritzius, who ran amuck wearing a gorilla mask and an overcoat. Dewey’s achievements were numerous and he was the first to break recordings by a number of Memphis recording artists, as well as many national artists, into the radio airwaves.

youtube: Dewey and Jerry Lee Lewis

Dewey was the first DJ to break Elvis into the radio market. Already a friend and former associate with Sun RecordsSam Phillips, they briefly ran a record label together named Phillips – “The Hottest Thing in the Country.” Three days after recording Elvis’ first release, Sam brought an acetate to Dewey, who played it repeatedly on the night of July 8, 1954. Caller response was so overwhelming that Dewey phoned the Presley household and had Elvis’ parents bring him down to the radio station for an interview. In true Dewey Phillips fashion, Elvis was tricked into thinking they were rehearsing the interview when, in fact, it was going out over the air. This began a friendship between the two, which later became strained when Dewey became an embarrassment to the star.

Robert Johnson, a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, recounted how Elvis brought Dewey out to Hollywood in 1957 during the making of the movie Jailhouse Rock. Besides making an embarrassing remark to the actor Yul Brynner, Phillips made off with a pre-release copy of Elvis’ “Teddy Bear” and played it on his radio show, preempting RCA’s release date. Dewey became more of a liability to Elvis than a friend. Following two severe automobile accidents, Phillips had become addicted to painkillers and amphetamines— along with heavy alcohol consumption. Elvis wasn’t the only one who shunned Dewey. He was fired in 1959 from WHBQ while still the number one disc jockey in town.

Randy Haspel on Dewey and Johnny Ace

Phillip’s sad decline through the next decade involved jobs with smaller and more remote radio stations, an attempt at a singing career with a release on the Fernwood label, a number of DUIs, and a stint in a psychiatric ward after becoming increasingly delusional. Foreshadowing the same death as Elvis, Dewey Phillips died of heart failure from drug abuse at the age of 42. He is buried in the Crump, TN cemetery. The musical Memphis is partially based on his career.

Jim Dickinson on Dewey Phillips

Dewey was the forerunner to a radio age of trailblazing disc jockeys, like Alan Freed, Murray the K and Wolfman Jack, who weren’t constrained by Top 40 formats and the market-research-driven, corporate staleness of today’s horrible radio stations. Dewey was more than an innovator and musical taste maker. He was a society changer— tearing down the senseless walls in a segregated culture. Robert Gordon wrote in It Came from Memphis:

“He is best known as the first disc jockey to play Elvis Presley, but the legacy of Dewey Phillips is every attempt by a white Memphis kid to play black music, from the first generation of rock and roll right through Stax Records. His listeners learned not to distinguish between races or genres. He demonstrated that the boundaries of “normal” were arbitrary and heralded a freedom that society shunned. Many took heart in the realization that they might be able, like Dewey, to parlay their own particular weirdness, oddity, or eccentricity into a career. Nowhere else in society was such nonconformist thought publicly condoned. It has taken forty years of corporate rock and roll to rebuild the walls Dewey Phillips broke down.”

Regarding those walls, “load yourself up a wheelbarrow full of nanny goats, go bustin’ through’em— and tell’em Phillips sentcha.”

image credits: Memphis Archives; Robert Dye; WHBQ

Memphis music has often contained heightened racial elements in its constitution—  sometimes purely African-American innovation, or a band of Hispanic musicians, or sometimes strictly white music. But sometimes musicians have crossed racial barriers to create a magical hybrid that wouldn’t have happened if racial restrictions had been observed.

Oppressed blacks in the South often used music in a biblical sense, like Joshua at Jericho, to tear down walls. Freedom songs. There was also something illicit for white teenagers listening to rhythm-and-blues music, in a time of discrimination against African-Americans and black culture, that made it more appealing. Another piece of the racial divide crumbled because these boundaries were breached. Music doesn’t spring fully formed in a cultural vacuum but, instead, is inextricably linked to its context. Segregation, and the fight against it, was a large part of this region’s musical history.

Slavery had been an institution in the United States for over 200 years before the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, African-Americans expected to become full and equal citizens in American society. Instead, a century-long battle against second-class status in a segregated society ensued. During the period of history known as Reconstruction, ex-Confederates were removed from power in Southern states and the Federal government attempted to remake the South. This period was short lived and by 1877, white-dominated Southern state legislatures regained power and enacted laws to disenfranchise blacks and others. This system of laws and discriminatory customs was referred to as Jim Crow, named after a popular minstrel show character. These laws barred blacks from voting by instituting prohibitive poll taxes and literacy tests. The laws also segregated education for their children and created dismal economic conditions and humiliation for people of color. Jim Crow remained in effect from the late 1800s through the 1960s.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismally failed to uphold the rights of African-Americans in rulings on the Civil Rights Act of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. These rulings were the start of legalized segregation. Whites and blacks were separated in schools and colleges, restaurants, trains, public bathrooms and drinking fountains, prisons and churches. Beyond these oppressive laws were terroristic organizations like the Klu Klux Klan, founded in Pulaski, TN in 1866. White-supremacist groups murdered thousands by mob lynchings, burning people alive, shootings, beatings and bombings.


Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931) was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, born in Holly Springs, MS. At age 16, she lost her parents and brother to the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878. Working as a teacher to support her siblings, she moved them to Memphis in 1883. In 1884, she refused to give up her seat on a train and was dragged out of the car by the conductor and two men. Wells sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad company and won the case, but lost the appeal.

youtube: Ida Wells

Ida B. Wells began writing newspaper articles about injustices against blacks. When three of her friends who owned a grocery store were mobbed, lynched and killed, she began a nationwide anti-lynching crusade. Blacks were being lynched for failing to pay debts, not “giving way” to whites and for competing economically. Wells wrote about these injustices in her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its [sic] Phases. A mob destroyed her offices in Memphis so she moved to Chicago. She took her campaign to England and garnered support from the press and powerful public figures in order to put pressure on her foes in the States.

The NAACP was founded in 1909 to fight lynching, voter discrimination, employment discrimination, legal process issues and educational inequality. National politics in the 1920s and 30s were shifting, as well. Herbert Hoover had been sent to the South to deal with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but blacks had been treated poorly in this government program and many were conscripted at gunpoint to build levees. Hoover made promises to the black community that he didn’t keep and there was a major political backlash. FDR’s Depression-era New Deal solution sealed one of the largest political shifts in American politics.

African-Americans’ service in World War II had a large effect on Civil Rights. In 1945, Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson as the first black Major League Baseball player. Court cases in the 1940s and 50s also began to chip away at segregation—particularly 1954’s Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling which declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

youtube: MLK

In 1955, a year that saw the brutal murder of Emmet Till and the Scottsboro Boys falsely accused of raping two white women, 43-year-old Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, AL bus. She was jailed for this offense and the black community boycotted the bus company for a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged from this boycott as the leader of the movement. Civil rights activists began using acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, boycotts, sit-ins and marches in order to affect change. In 1957, the governor of Arkansas used the National Guard to block nine black students from attending Little Rock High School. President Eisenhower countered by sending in Federal troops. Federal troops also had to quell riots at the University of Mississippi before its first black student could attend. The civil rights activists were continually met with fierce opposition— arrests, beatings, shootings, arson and murder.

Four college students in Greensboro, NC began sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. 1961 saw the Freedom Rides, as activists rode buses from Washington, D.C. into the South to register blacks to vote. Southern white racists responded with violence. Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot in front of his home in 1963. (His killer was finally convicted in 1994.)  A church was bombed in Birmingham leaving four young girls dead. Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi and two more were slain in Selma, AL.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lead protests through the Freedom Summer of 1964, including the marches on Washington D.C. and from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The attention of the world was focused on the civil rights struggle. In 1968, a labor dispute between the City of Memphis Sanitation Workers and the municipal government drew Dr. King to lead a march on their behalf. Marchers held signs declaring their humanity. Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. He joined the ranks of many other lesser-known but equally important Civil Rights martyrs— Willie McGee, Rev. George Wesley Lee, Herbert Lee, Lamar Smith, Clinton Melton, Mack Charles Parker, Corporal Roman Duckworth, Paul Guihard, Clyde Kennard, Jimmy Travis, William Moore, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Charles Eddie Moore, Henry Hezekiah Dee, 14-year-old Herbert Oarsby, Vernon Dahmer, Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson, Benjamin Brown, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair and many others.

youtube: Stax and race

Memphis music couldn’t help but be affected by this racial struggle. The black community has often perceived the white music establishment as having made a lot of profit at the expense of exploited black musicians and their innovations. The lives of Rufus Thomas, Sam Phillips, Elvis, Booker T and the MGs, the switch in programming for radio station WDIA, and the whole Stax story are infused with the racial dynamics of this particular time and place.

youtube: I Am A Man

image credits: Corbis-Bettman; Smithsonian; 1897 unknown; Corbis-Bettman; md.gov; UPI; Will Counts; James Louw

Rockabilly was the earliest stylistic incarnation of rock and roll music from the 1950s— an amalgam of hillbilly boogie, African-American rhythm and blues and traces of southern gospel music. Some popular music historians designate Sam PhillipsSun Studio in Memphis as ground zero for the birth of rockabilly, with recordings like Ike Turner‘s “Rocket 88″ in 1951 and Elvis‘ “That’s Alright Mama” in 1954. There were, however, many precursors to Elvis’ big national breakthrough.

The boogie-woogie piano style of Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis influenced country pianists like Moon Mullican and others. Hillbilly-boogie and honky tonk musicians like Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, as well as the Texas swing music of Bob Wills, were components that informed the development of this new genre. The percussively slapped upright acoustic bass of Texas swing bassists and Fred Maddox became an integral part of rockabilly. Bill Haley was recording tracks in 1951 that are essentially rockabilly, as were other lesser known recording artists in 1953— Zeb Turner and “Jersey Rock”; Curtis Gordon’s “Rompin’ and Stompin’”; Janis Martin’s fusion of country with rhythm and blues in Richmond, VA; or Bill Flagg’s use of the term rockabilly for his early recordings. But something happened in Memphis that caused these latent elements to ignite in the awareness of the world at large. This is the birth of rock music.

On the southwest corner of Madison and Third in Memphis stood the stately old Goodwyn Institute building which housed an auditorium. In 1953, Joe Manuel, a local hillbilly music radio personality, began hosting the Saturday Night Jamboree at this location and many of the emerging Memphis rockabilly musicians played its stage. The show became popular enough for KWEM to broadcast it, but the real action took place backstage where the musicians traded licks. In its two years, the Saturday Night Jamboree saw Paul Burlison, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Johnny Cash, Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Elvis and many others— before their recording careers began.

Scotty Moore was born near Gadsden, TN in 1931 and Bill Black (September 17, 1926 – October 21, 1965) was born in Memphis. Black served in the Army during World War II and Moore in the Navy during the Korean war. After their service, they returned to Memphis and performed together in a honky tonk band called the Starlight Wranglers. When Sam Phillips placed the two musicians with the young Elvis Presley, something clicked— something that not only moved a sea of screaming teenagers, but also profoundly changed popular music forever.

Scotty Moore’s guitar picking style (derived from Chet Atkins and Merle Travis) on a Gibson ES-295 and Bill Black’s percussive slapping (copied from Fred Maddox) on a Kay Maestro M-1 upright bass, along with Elvis’ acoustic guitar strumming and Sam Phillips’ slapback tape echo, became the hallmarks of a classic rockabilly trio sound (like Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two and The Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio). Scotty and Bill were credited on Elvis’ Sun recordings and garnered 25% of the royalties but, even though they followed Elvis to Nashville for his RCA recordings (and to Hollywood for the movies), they weren’t credited anymore. Scotty and Bill eventually left the Presley organization due to poor wages and mistreatment by Elvis’ management.

Scotty Moore returned to Sun as a recording engineer and Bill Black formed his own combo and scored at the top of the charts with several instrumental hits for Memphis’ Hi Records. Both musicians have been subsequently heralded by generations of admiring musical legends.

youtube: Scotty Moore & Eric Clapton

youtube: Bill Black Combo

It was the sport of boxing that brought together Golden Gloves champions Paul Burlison (February 4, 1929 – September 27, 2003) and the Burnette brothers, Dorsey (December 28, 1932 – August 19, 1979) and Johnny (March 25, 1934 –August 14, 1964). Singer, Dorsey, and guitarist, Burlison, both worked at Crown Electric on Marshall Avenue, as did Elvis Presley. Paul Burlison had played some guitar with Howlin’ Wolf at the Sun Studio and on KWEM in West Memphis, AR and his mutual musical interests with the two Burnette brothers carried them from Memphis’ honky tonk nightspots to three rounds on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour broadcast on ABC in 1956.

The Rock and Roll Trio was signed to the Coral division of Decca Records and made appearances on the Tonight Show and American Bandstand. The group picked up Carl Perkins’ cousin as a drummer and, after Dorsey Burnette quit, Bill Black’s brother on the bass. The Burnette brothers argued a lot, especially over the name of the group. Lack of commercial success combined with long and tiring strings of one-nighters precipitated their final break up.

youtube: Johnny Burnett Trio

Burlison interview with Jas Obrecht

Carl Perkins (April 9, 1932 – January 19, 1998) grew up working in the cotton fields near Tiptonville, TN hearing the music of black field workers and gospel music. He learned to play guitar from an elderly African-American man named “Uncle John” Westbrook. Along with his brothers Jay, Clayton and drummer W. S. “Fluke” Holland, Perkins had the hottest honky tonk band in the Jackson, TN area— ninety miles from Memphis.

In the early 1950s, Perkins had been performing on WTJS radio in Jackson, TN for a segment sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour and sending demos to record companies in New York City. When his wife Valda heard Elvis performing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the radio, she exclaimed to Perkins, “It sounds like you!” Elvis, coincidentally, exclaimed after cutting the track, “That sounds like Carl Perkins!” Carl Perkins exclaimed, “There’s a man in Memphis that understands what we’re doing. I need to go see him.”

After successfully auditioning for Sam Phillips, Perkins recorded his first two tracks in 1955 and released his biggest hit “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. The song charted at number one in the country category, number two in pop and number three in the rhythm and blues charts. Unfortunately, Perkins’ career was setback by a tragic automobile accident as the band was traveling to New York for a television appearance. After recovering from serious injuries, he recorded the hit “Matchbox” for Phillips’ label but left in 1958 for Columbia Records.

youtube: Carl Perkins

youtube: Perkins interview

Some of the other rockabilly artists on Sam Phillips’ record labels were:

Billy Lee Riley (October 5, 1933 – August 2, 2009) from Pocohontas, AR, who recorded “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll” and the reworked cheerleading chant “Red Hot” in 1957. Riley’s band, the Little Green Men, worked as the Sun Studio house band until Riley and Roland Janes left to start the Rita Records label in 1960. In 1962, Riley left for Los Angeles where he worked as a session musician on recordings for Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys and Sammy Davis Jr.

youtube: Billy Lee Riley

Charlie Feathers (June 12, 1932 – August 29, 1998) was born in Holly Springs, MS and learned from childhood friend and blues artist Junior Kimbrough. Feathers started as a session musician at Sun and has a credit along with Stan Kesler for the Elvis number, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” After the Sun releases “Peepin’ Eyes” and “Defrost Your Heart”, he left for the Meteor and King record labels in 1956.

youtube: Charlie Feathers

Warren Smith (February 7, 1932–January 30, 1980) was born in Humphreys County, MS and began performing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis, AR after his discharge from the Air Force. His first recording for Sun in 1956, “Rock and Roll Ruby”, hit number one on the local pop charts and outsold releases by Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Smith followed with “Ubangi Stomp” and “So Long, I’m Gone.” He left Sun in 1960 to record on the Liberty Records label.

youtube: Warren Smith

Albert Austin “Sonny” Burgess was born in 1931 near Newport, AR and recorded “Red Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie” for Sun in 1956. Burgess had a band that performed in a circuit of clubs in the Newport area and opened for Elvis’ earliest performances. Presley sent Burgess to Sam Phillips with high recommendation. The Pacers, Burgess’ band, had a reputation for wild antics and an energetic stage show.

youtube: Sonny Burgess

Many of Sun’s lesser-known artists felt neglected by Sam Phillips and resentful when the bulk of promotion resources was concentrated on Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Eddie Bond was born in Memphis in 1933. After a stint in the Navy, he put a band together called The Stompers that included Reggie Young on guitar and John Hughey on pedal steel. After being rejected by the Sun and Meteor labels, Bond recorded for the tiny Ekko Records label in 1955 and for Mercury Records in 1956. The Mercury sides “I Got a Woman” and “Rockin’ Daddy” were Bond’s high point and he toured with Elvis and Johnny Cash, appearing on the Louisiana Hayride. Bond later became a mainstay on Memphis radio as a disc jockey for several decades.

youtube: Eddie Bond

Rockabilly music continued its arc of popularity through the late 50s with artists and songs like: Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti” in 1955, “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille” in 1956, 1957′s “Keep A-Knockin’” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958; Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955; Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, released “I Gotta Know” and “Hot Dog That Made Him Mad” on Capitol in 1956; Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps’ “Be-Bop-A-Lula” also in 1956; Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis began their recording careers in 1957; Ricky Nelson’s “Believe What You Say” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” released in 1958.

The lifespan of rockabilly as a musical genre was short but its influence on the next generation of rock musicians like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and the revivalists like Dave Edmunds, Robert Gordon and The Stray Cats was immeasurable.

youtube: Jerry Lee Lewis

Rockabilly Hall of Fame

image credits: PBS; Birch Harms; EPE; Jas Obrecht; glowimages; Sun; King; Sun; Ibid.; White Label; Sanctuary Records

Rufus Thomas Jr. (March 27, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was born the youngest of five children to sharecroppers in Cayce, Mississippi, near the Tennessee border. He became one of Memphis music’s most beloved figures and outspoken ambassadors. His career spanned the musical genres of blues, soul, funk, comedy and novelty, reaching from minstrel shows to Beale Street and from Sun Records to Stax— and beyond. He billed himself as “The World’s Oldest Teenager”.

youtube: Memphis

His family moved to Memphis when Rufus was two. He became well known for his tap dancing and participated in school productions from an early age. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, he was mentored by his history teacher, Nat D. Williams, who would become WDIA‘s first black disc jockey. Williams involved Thomas in amateur show performances at the Palace Theater on Beale Street.

Throughout the 1930s, Rufus Thomas performed in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels Show, the Georgia Dixon Traveling Show, and the Royal American Tent Shows. He expanded his routine from tap dancing and comedy to singing the blues when a female singer left one of the troupes. A comedy duo was formed with fellow future-WDIA radio personality, James “Bones” Couch, called Rufus and Bones.

youtube: Jump Back

youtube: Walking the Dog

In 1940, Rufus married his high school sweetheart, Cornelius Lorene Wilson, and remained so for almost 60 years. Thomas took employment at a textile plant, American Finishing Company, where he worked for over twenty years without missing a day. In 1943, he began his lengthy recording career with a Texas label named Star Talent and went on to record with Meteor, Chess, Sun, and was with the Stax Record label from its earliest days until it closed its doors in 1975.

Rufus joined the staff of WDIA radio in 1951, hosting a program called Hoot and Holler. While in this position, he helped promote the careers of B.B. King, Ike Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Roscoe Gordon and Junior Parker. In 1953, Rufus Thomas recorded an answer to Big Mama Thornton‘s hit “Hound Dog” on Sam Phillips‘ Sun Records. “Bear Cat” became the first national hit for Sun, but a copyright-infringement lawsuit from Leiber and Stoller, the writers of “Hound Dog”, nearly bankrupted the small label. Sun Records soon dumped Thomas in order to concentrate on its new direction— Elvis Presley.

1959 saw Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla Thomas, become the first stars of the new Stax label with their duet “‘Cause I Love You”. Carla scored a big hit in 1961 with “Gee Whiz”, but Rufus recorded a string of dance-related hits with “Walking The Dog” (1964), “Do The Funky Chicken” (1969), “Push and Pull” (1970) and “The Breakdown” (1971). Rufus was featured in the Wattstax concerts and performed with James Brown’s band and the group, Con Funk Shun.

youtube: The Breakdown

Thomas released a blues album later in his life on the Alligator label and also a live recording. He was featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. His performances at the Italian Poretta Soul Music Festival were so endearing that the amphitheater and park were named after him. He and William Bell headlined performances at the Olympics in 1996. His awards are numerous, among them the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. The city of Memphis named a street in his honor that crosses Beale Street.

youtube: The Funky Chicken

youtube: Rufus is Back in Town

Despite his indefatigable heart and boundless energy, Rufus Thomas, “The World’s Oldest Teenager” succumbed to heart failure in December of 2001.

Roger Friedman wrote:

“He was a vaudevillian, a jokester, and a gentle kidder who was always heading toward a well worn punch line. His comic bits were older than he was, but it never seemed to matter. Rufus’ gift, in music and comedy, was taking what existed and making it seem brand new. Even though he wore hot pants, and often comically sang off key, make no mistake: Rufus was himself a serious musician. He just made it look so easy.”

youtube: A Full & Funky Life

image credits: Henry Diltz; amazon; Michael Ochs Archives; Wattstax; Maldwin Hamlin


One of the iconic singers of the 20th century, Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977) was born in Tupelo, Mississippi to 18-year-old Vernon Elvis and 22-year-old Gladys Love Presley. His identical twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. As a young boy, he was often taunted as a “white trash” hillbilly from the wrong side of the Tupelo tracks— the local African-American neighborhood. Elvis was a fan of country radio station WELO in Tupelo, but when his family moved to Memphis in November of 1948, he fell under the spell of WDIA‘s rhythm and blues.

The Presleys moved into public housing in Memphis and Elvis became known as a shy boy at Humes High School. He learned some guitar from his neighbor, Jesse Lee Denson, and became musical friends with future rockabilly pioneers, Paul Burlison and the brothers, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. By 1953, his senior year, Elvis was greasing his hair, sporting sideburns, wearing flashy clothes from Lansky Brothers on Beale Street and performing in the school’s talent show.

Presley took a job driving a truck for Crown Electric company, but also auditioned for several music groups— and failed. Local Memphis music figure, Eddie Bond, told Elvis to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.” However, in August of 1953, the young man walked into Sun Records and payed to have his singing recorded on a two-sided acetate disc as a gift for his mother. The studio’s more-than-a-secretary, Marion Keisker, took note and recommended him to her boss, Sam Phillips. Phillips turned the singer over to guitarist, Scotty Moore, and bassist, Bill Black. All of them were unsure of Elvis’ singing ability until late in an unfruitful demo session, when he started clowning around with Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup‘s tune, “That’s All Right”.  At that moment, Sam Phillips found what he had been looking for— “a white man who could sing black.”

youtube: ‪That’s All Right‬

youtube: ‪Baby Let’s Play House‬

A test pressing was given to Phillip’s friend and WHBQ radio DJ, Dewey Phillips, who played it repeatedly on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. The program’s listeners overwhelmed the station with calls. Sam Phillips loaded copies of the single into the trunk of his car and tirelessly promoted it to radio stations in the region. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill increasingly performed in the area, opening for Slim Whitman at the Overton Park Bandshell. A local radio DJ, named Bob Neal, became their manager and soon had them booked on competing radio programs, The Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride. Scotty Moore remembered, “During the instrumental parts he would back off from the mic and be playing and shaking, and the crowd would just go wild”.

The Grand Old Opry spurned Elvis, but the Shreveport-based Louisiana Hayride radio program booked him for a year’s worth of popular weekend appearances. Elvis’ trio picked up the house drummer from the show, D. J. Fontana, and by 1955 the music act was a regional success, despite the radio industry finding Elvis “too black sounding for country stations, too hillbilly for R&B.” Sun records had released 10 singles on Elvis… among them “That’s All Right”, “Good Rocking Tonight”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, and “Mystery Train”. Colonel Tom Parker, who had worked with country stars Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow, became his manager, and RCA Victor offered Sun an unprecedented $40,000 for Elvis’ contract. Presley’s father had to sign on his behalf because, at age 20, Elvis was considered a minor.

youtube: Heartbreak Hotel‬

youtube: Blue Suede Shoes

In 1956, recording began in RCA’s Nashville studio and included Elvis’ musicians, as well as Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, and Gordon Stoker of the gospel singing group The Jordanaires. “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single and Elvis’ self-titled RCA album became the first rock and roll album to top the Billboard chart— a position it held for 10 weeks. Parker began pitching Elvis to national television programs, pitting the variety shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan against each other. Sullivan had declared Elvis “unfit for family viewing” but the ratings for the singer’s appearances on his competitors’ shows forced Sullivan to change his mind. The show’s camera work attempted to conceal Elvis’ wild gyrations, but the studio audience screamed in a frenzy. That moment on The Ed Sullivan Show signaled Elvis’ breakthrough into national stardom.

Elvis’ music and stage movements created an outrage from television critics and authority figures. Ben Gross of the New York Daily News wrote that popular music had “reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” Crowds in Nashville and St. Louis burned Elvis in effigy, but larger and more frenzied crowds attended his live shows. The phenomenon had taken hold.

Elvis’ success afforded him the purchase of his mansion, Graceland, in Memphis where he housed his parents, but the late 1950s and early 1960s were the apex of his career and a number of management missteps from Colonel Parker and bad blood between crucial personnel lie ahead. Parker pushed Presley into a schedule of Las Vegas engagements and formulaic movies that were profitable and popular, but critically panned and a strain on his credibility. The publishing arrangement with the company Hill and Range Music, forced songwriters to give up a larger percentage of their profits for Elvis numbers. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had penned “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and a number of other Elvis hits, were eventually alienated. Scotty Moore and Bill Black, who had been Elvis’ band from the beginning, were grossly underpaid and shunned. Elvis’ mother Gladys died of hepatitis at the beginning of his two year stint in the army, devastating him and what had been an unusually close relationship. While in Germany during his military service, Elvis met, then 14-year-old, Priscilla Beaulieu, who he would marry seven years later.

youtube: Love Me Tender

By the time he returned from military service in 1960, he had accumulated ten Top 40 hits in the course of his 2 year absence. From 1960 to 1964, three of Elvis’ soundtrack albums charted at number one, but from 1964 to 1968 there was only one hit— “Crying in the Chapel”, which had been recorded back in 1960.  Elvis’ manager and record label were slow to realize the problems. In the midst of a failing career, Elvis married Priscilla in Las Vegas during 1967. Lisa Marie was born in 1968.

Parker made a deal with NBC to broadcast a Christmas television special in 1968 that was intended to be full of holiday music, but Elvis and Steve Binder, the director of the show, conspired to make it something better. What would later be called Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special featured a relaxed and engaged Elvis, strumming his guitar in the midst of a live audience. It became the network’s highest rated show that season and the soundtrack album made it into the Top Ten. A reinvigorated Elvis was guided by radio DJ and studio owner, Marty Lacker, to record his next album with Chips Moman at his American Sound Studio, which was producing hits for The Box Tops, Neil Diamond and Dusty Springfield. The result was 1969′s Elvis From Memphis album, which featured the hits “In the Ghetto”, “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds”. The last two years of the decade were a triumphant comeback, without a doubt, but continually mismanaged business affairs and the unraveling of Presley’s personal life would haunt him and drag him down. Chips Moman was not given credit or any royalties on the Memphis album.

The next decade would be one of spangled jumpsuits and metal-framed sunglasses, Las Vegas shows, weight gain and drug abuse for Elvis. The image of Presley posing with then-President Richard Nixon and taking an anti-drug stance, while increasingly abusing prescription drugs acquired from Memphis physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, was jarringly indicative of a celebrity becoming unhinged— out of control. Priscilla and Elvis were divorced in 1972 and he twice overdosed on barbiturates in 1973, once remaining in a coma for three days. There were some successes— a concert at Madison Square Garden, the satellite broadcast Aloha From Hawaii, and his single “Burning Love”, which was the last to reach near the top of the pop charts. Elvis, however, was performing concerts in a drug-induced stupor, barely intelligible, and with shortened stage time and cancellations. He spiraled into a world of drug-fueled paranoia, karate and firearms. When his retinue of bodyguards, the “Memphis Mafia”, were taken off of the payroll, they retaliated with a tell-all book, Elvis: What Happened? Presley unsuccessfully tried to stop its release. Tony Scherman wrote, “Elvis Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.”

youtube: Suspicious Minds

youtube: A Little Less Conversation

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, Elvis’ girlfriend, Ginger Alden, found him unconscious on his bathroom floor. Attempts to revive him failed and his death was officially pronounced at 3:30 pm at Baptist Memorial Hospital. Lab tests revealed “fourteen drugs in Elvis’ system, ten in significant quantity.”  Presley’s physician, Dr. Nichopoulos, escaped criminal liability but eventually had his medical license permanently suspended. After an attempt to steal the body from Forest Hill Cemetery, the remains of Elvis and his mother were moved to Graceland, which became a tourist destination and pilgrimage for Elvis fans.

An editor of the New York Times once wrote:

“For those too young to have experienced Elvis Presley in his prime, [his commemoration] must seem peculiar. All the talentless impersonators and appalling black velvet paintings on display can make him seem little more than a perverse and distant memory. But before Elvis was camp, he was its opposite: a genuine cultural force. He was, famously, the white boy from Tupelo, Miss., who sang like a black boy and who shocked refined sensibilities by moving, as Time magazine observed in 1956, ‘as if he had swallowed a jackhammer.’

Elvis’ reputation lost some of its luster during the disintegration he underwent in his final years— the pill-popping, the weight gain, the disorientation on stage. But he was less a victim of his failures than of his success. Elvis’ breakthroughs are underappreciated because in this rock-and-roll age, his hard-rocking music and sultry style have triumphed so completely.”

image credits: Ben Heine; Keith Haring; RCA; Debbie Crawford; Peter Mars; Tim Mount; John Wayne Gacy; Dan Dalton

Riley B. King (September 16, 1925) was born on a plantation between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi to sharecroppers, Albert King and Nora Ella Farr. His middle name is “B.” and is not an abbreviation. King’s mother left his father in 1930, and his mother and grandmother died when he was around ten years old. He began working as a farm hand and moved in with his aunt, uncle, and cousin— blues singer Bukka White. King’s aunt owned a Victrola (an old, wind-up record player) and often played recordings by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

The young B.B. King worked for $15 a month on a plantation milking cows, picking and chopping cotton, and baling hay. At age 12, he ordered his first guitar from a Sears and Roebuck catalog with money loaned by the plantation owner, Mr. Flake Cottledge. King stated in an interview with Living Blues magazine, “I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin’ cotton or choppin’ or something. When I sing and play now, I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then as a kid.”

He walked 5 miles to attend school after his farm chores were finished and made it through the tenth grade. He also sang and played guitar with several gospel groups. In 1943, King was making $22.50 a week as a tractor driver on a plantation. “I’d go to town on Saturday, after I would get through with my tractor, and sit on the street corners with my little guitar. I’d always start with a gospel song.” King recalled for the Academy of Achievement that the gospel tunes earned him a pat on the head, but the blues tunes put coins in his bucket.

At age 17, King was married to Martha Lee Denton of Europe, Mississippi. The marriage lasted eight years. In 1947, he hitched a ride on a grocery truck to Memphis. King told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “Before I left home, I thought I could really sing and play the guitar. When I got to Memphis and went down to Beale Street Park and heard those people out there… it was like a community college on the streets! Memphis and Beale Street were, for me, the college of hard knocks, the college of learning.”

In 1948, King sought out one of his favorite blues performers, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller), who had a radio program sponsored by Hadacol Elixir on West Memphis, Arkansas station KWEM. Williamson was also known for his King Biscuit Radio Program on KFFA in Helena, AR. Williamson was impressed enough with King to offer him a radio spot and a steady gig at Miss Annie’s 16th Street Grill. B.B. King recounted to Ed Bradley on the television program Street Stories, “Twelve dollars a night! I’d never heard of that much money in the world before.”

King was able to translate this foothold into a ten minute radio spot with African-American staffed, Memphis radio station WDIA— promoting another elixir called Pepticon. King’s radio moniker became The Beale Street Blues Boy, which was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually to B.B. King. His radio spot on WDIA became popular enough to expand into a full program called Sepia Swing Club. While working at the radio station, King met another great blues influence, T-Bone Walker, and was inspired to purchase an electric guitar. King’s band, consisting of Johnny “Ace” Alexander, Ford Nelson, Solomon Hardy and other Memphis musicians, became popular in local clubs and on Beale Street, and began traveling the region.

youtube: ‪Why B.B. King’s Guitar is Named Lucille‬

B.B. King often tells this iconic story: In the winter of 1949, while playing in a roadhouse in Twist, Arkansas, a fight erupted and a kerosene stove was knocked over, setting the place ablaze. King escaped the building only to remember that his guitar was left inside. The guitar was barely rescued, but on finding out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he named his guitar after her as a reminder to never do a crazy thing like that again.

youtube: ‪Miss Martha King‬

youtube: Catfish Blues‬

youtube: Woke Up This Morning‬

In 1949, King cut four tracks for Jim Bulleit’s Nashville-based Bullet Records, which issued the single “Miss Martha King”, named after King’s wife. King recalled in an interview with Wayne Robins for Blues Access, “I had horns that very first session. I had Phineas Newborn on piano; his father played drums, and his brother, Calvin, played guitar with me. I had Tuff Green on bass, Ben Branch on tenor sax, his brother, Thomas Branch, on trumpet, and a lady trombone player. The Newborn family were the house band at the famous Plantation Inn in West Memphis.”


In that same year, Ike Turner, acting as a talent scout for the Bihari Brothers’ Los Angeles-based RPM Records, helped B.B. King sign with the label. Sam Phillips, later of Sun Records fame, cut many of the B.B. King sides. In 1951, King’s cover of Lowell Fulson‘s “Three O’Clock Blues” topped the R&B charts at number one.

youtube: Ten Long Years‬

youtube: Three O’Clock Blues‬

King assembled his band, the B.B. King Review, and hired Onzie Horne as an arranger. A bus called “Big Red” was purchased and the 1950s were spent on the road playing clubs, roadhouses, and barns on the chitlin circuit. King’s reputation eventually propelled him into a better circuit of clubs, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1956, B.B. and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands. He teamed up with the successful producer and arranger Maxwell Davis and scored 20 recordings in the R&B charts.



In 1958, King married Sue Hall in Detroit. The wedding was officiated by Aretha Franklin’s father, Reverend C. L. Franklin. In 1966, that marriage also ended in divorce.

youtube: Whole Lot Of Loving

youtube: Heartbreaker‬

‪‬In 1962, King signed to ABC-Paramount Records and in November of 1964, the guitarist cut his seminal Live at the Regal album at that fabled Chicago theater. Throughout the 1960s, he continued to place recordings in the charts. In 1968, he played at the Newport Folk Festival and began to tap into a younger and whiter audience. King recalls playing Bill Graham’s Fillmore West:

“Now, I had played the Fillmore many times before when it was owned by another person, but this time when I get there, there are long-haired kids. So, I told my road manager, ‘I think they made a mistake this time. So, my road manager went out and he found the promoter — who was Bill Graham, one of the greatest people I think I’ve met — and he came out and said, ‘No, B, it’s the right place. Come on in.’ I’m scared to get off the bus, but I followed him in.

I’m scared to death. So, Bill announces, ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ and everybody got very quiet ‘…I bring you the Chairman of the Board, B.B. King.’ The best intro and the shortest I ever had in my life. And all of a sudden they started to applaud, and they stood up and they applauded… and I cried because I’m starting to think how these people can be so good to me. They made me feel like I was somebody. I had never felt like that. Never. They made me feel like that that night.”

In 1969, B.B. opened for the Rolling Stones at 18 American concerts. That was also the same year that he achieved mainstream success with his hit recording “The Thrill Is Gone”. King won a Grammy Award for his version of the Roy Hawkins song.

youtube: The Thrill Is Gone (original) – Roy Hawkins 1951‬

youtube: The Thrill Is Gone‬

The 1970s continued B.B. King’s rise in popularity. Guitar Player magazine called him the world’s best blues guitarist in 1970. In 1971, with attorney F. Lee Bailey, King founded FAIRR (Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation), an organization dedicated to the improvement of prison conditions. This corresponded with his live recordings at San Quentin State Prison and the acclaimed Live in Cook County Jail.

youtube: Chains ‘n Things‬

youtube: Live At Sing Sing Prison‬‬

In succeeding decades he has collaborated with his old friend, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Eric Clapton, and on U2′s single “When Love Comes to Town”. King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the NARAS’ Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1987. In the 1990s, King was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was granted a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has earned a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and has received many honorary college doctorates— from Yale to Tougaloo (MS) College. In 1995, a 70-year old King was named a recipient of the 18th annual Kennedy Center Honors. In 2004 he was awarded the international Polar Music Prize, given to artists “in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music.”

youtube: When Love Comes To Town‬

youtube: Every Day I Have the Blues‬‬
‪‪

In 1991, B.B. King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis, and several more have opened in other cities. In September 2008, a museum dedicated to King opened in Indianola, Mississippi. Over a period of 52 years, B.B. King has played in excess of 15,000 performances and recorded over fifty albums. It is reported that he has fathered 15 children out of wedlock, all by different mothers. He has lived with Type II diabetes for over twenty years and is a spokesman in the fight against the disease.

B.B. King has become the most internationally renowned blues musician of the past 40 years. According to Edward M. Komara, King “introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed.” King rose out of oppressive, rural Mississippi labor to become a universally recognized and beloved figure around the world. He told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “I felt that this was what I wanted to do, to make a living playing the guitar. My father was born on the plantation, I was born on the plantation. I wanted more for my children. This— the guitar— was my way out.”

image credits: Reuters; Ernest Withers; Hatch Show Print; Michael Ochs Archives; Ernest Withers; opusvida; Rob Loud; Dan Dalton

Nathanial Dowd Gaston Williams (Oct. 19, 1907 – October 27, 1983) was born on Beale Street— a true Memphian! He held degrees from Columbia and Northwestern and was the editor for the New York State Contender and a writer for the Memphis World and the Memphis Tri-State Defender. For 42 years, he taught at Booker T. Washington High School. He also edited the school’s newspaper, taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir, led a Boy Scout troop and co-ordinated the annual Tri-State fair. Nat D. Williams was also emcee, along with Rufus Thomas, of amateur night at the Palace Theater (Memphis’ answer to Harlem’s Apollo Theater). Somehow, he also found time for his wife and two kids.

In 1947, the white owners of WDIA, John Pepper and Dick Ferguson, put their radio station on the air from studios on Union Avenue, with a format of pop, country and western, and light classical music. By 1948, the radio station was on the verge of bankruptcy and faring so poorly that these two men did something desperate and unheard of in a strictly segregated Southern society— they hired the first openly black radio announcer. Nat D. Williams’ Tan-Town Jamboree was first broadcast at 4:00 p.m. on October 25, 1948. Little did the owners know of the untapped power of the underserved and unrecognized African-American community.

In the next year, with only partial black programming, the station raised its rank to number two in the Memphis market. Bomb threats were called in to the station, but the wild success of Williams’ program convinced the owners to make WDIA America’s first black radio station with an all African-American on-air staff programming black music all day long. It became Memphis’ top radio station and the first to gross a million dollars in a year. The station increased its signal from 250 watts to 50,000 watts and broadcast from the bootheel of Missouri to the Mississippi Gulf coast. Representatives from stations in other cities studied WDIA’s success, like WERD in Atlanta, which became the first black owned radio station in October of 1949.


Nat D. Williams brought along his friend, Rufus Thomas, and they, in turn, brought to the station their familiarity with Beale Street and its talent. B.B. King began his career on the station— promoting the cure-all elixir, Pepticon, and recording his first single at the station during off hours. Rosco Gordon, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Johnny Ace made some of their first recordings at the radio station. The station was the first to expose the talents of Little Milton and Junior Parker, gospel groups like the Spirit of Memphis and the Southern Wonders, and future Stax Records stars Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes.

One of the program directors, David Mattis, started the Duke record label and recorded much of the station’s talent. He later sold Duke to Don Robey in Houston. Disc jockeys like A. C. “Moohah” Williams, a biology teacher at Manassas High School, or former blues singer, Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, became familiar voices over the airwaves throughout the community and much of the Mid-South— along with Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert, Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, and Robert “Honeyboy” Thomas. WDIA became an integral part of the Memphis community raising charity funds for needy children with its Goodwill and Starlight Revues.

youtube: ‪Rufus Thomas on WDIA‬

After the decline of Beale Street, WDIA became the single most empowering force for African-Americans in Memphis and beyond. It’s influence on musicians, including a Tupelo, Mississippi-bound Elvis Presley, is incalculable. It was sold by its original owners in 1957, but the radio station later played a large part in the renovation of Beale Street, the Stax museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. Clear Channel Communications bought WDIA in 1996.

youtube: ‪Pink Pussycat Wine‬

Nat D. Williams died of a stroke on October 27, 1983. Dale Patterson wrote that Williams would sign on to his program in this fashion:

“Well, yes-siree, it’s Nat Dee on the Jamboree, coming at thee on seventy-three (on the dial), WDIA. Now, whatchubet.” That was followed by a huge, full-bellied laugh and 90 minutes of the best rhythm-and-blues music around.

image credits: Robert A. Coleman Archives; WDIA; Michael Ochs Archives; WDIA


As one might expect, there is historical argument over the precise point at which rock and roll music was born. There are those who point to the back beat of Big Joe Turner’s “Roll ‘em Pete” in 1938, or a number of other Atlantic Records rhythm and blues releases from the late ’40s and early ’50s. Others highlight what was happening with blues music on Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s. Some cite Ike Turner‘s 1951 recording, “Rocket 88″, and some point to Elvis Presley‘s 1954 recording of “That’s Alright Mama”. Regarding the last two examples, both recordings were cut by Sam Phillips at his Sun Studio in Memphis, TN. Most would agree that the differentiation between jump blues, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly and rock and roll (in its earliest incarnation) was a matter of racial considerations— and appropriation and acceptance by the mass of white society. Sam Phillips stood at the nexus of that issue. He was vital to launching the careers of Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins and numerous other significant artists.

Samuel Cornelius Phillips (January 5, 1923 – July 30, 2003) was raised on a farm outside of Florence, Alabama and attended Alabama Polytechnical Institute in Auburn. He became a radio engineer in the early 1940s for stations in Muscle Shoals and Decatur, AL, Nashville, TN and eventually, in 1945, WREC radio in Memphis. Phillips hosted a radio program called Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance, which was broadcast over the CBS radio network from the Peabody Hotel’s Skyway Room.

In 1950, Sam Phillips borrowed money to open the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue. He and his friend (and soon-to-become-legendary Memphis radio DJ) Dewey Phillips began a short-lived record label called It’s the Phillips – “The Hottest Thing in the Country.” On August 30,1950, three hundred copies of “Boogie in the Park” by Joe Hill Louis were pressed. The Bihari brothers’ independent Modern Records label from Los Angeles, CA had signed B.B. King to a subsidiary and contracted Phillips to record the five singles. Soon Phillips was offering recordings by Joe Hill, jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., Rosco Gordon, Walter Horton, and Bobby “Blue” Bland to the Biharis and Chicago’s Chess brothers.

youtube: ‪Joe Hill Louis‬

youtube: ‪Rocket 88‬

Ike Turner on ‪Rocket 88‬

In 1951, heated wrangling erupted between Phillips, Modern Records and Chess Records over first option for leased masters of “How Many More Years” and “Baby Ride With Me” by Howling Wolf and Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Out of this conflict, in an era when small, independent record labels were beginning to create a large influence, Phillips started his Sun Records label. Sun’s first attempt, “Blues in My Condition” by Jackie Boy and Little Walter, was not considered worthy enough for commercial release, making the first official Sun release “Drivin’ Slow” by Johnny London, a sixteen year old black saxophonist, in March of  1952.

In 1952, the Memphis-based Duke label had a number one hit with Johnny Ace‘s “My Song”, and also signed Bobby “Blue” Bland. Under this pressure of competition with other labels for local talent, Sun scored its first hit in 1953. WDIA disc jockey, Rufus Thomas’ “Bear Cat” was an answer to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, and he scored a follow up hit that year with “Tiger Man”. The same year saw successful Sun releases from Billy “The Kid” Emerson, Little Junior Parker and Little Milton Campbell— but more so for a group of inmates from the Nashville State Penitentiary called The Prisonaires and their recording “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”.

youtube: ‪‪Rufus Thomas‬

youtube: ‪Prisonaires‬‬

The year 1953 was also notable for Sun because a young truck driver named Elvis Presley stopped in on his lunch hour to record two songs for his mother’s birthday. Sun’s more-than-a-secretary, Marion Keisker, recorded Elvis in Sam Phillip’s absence and continually lobbied on the young singer’s behalf. A year later, Sam auditioned Elvis and paired him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. On July 5, 1954, after unsuccessful attempts at a Bing Crosby tune and a country number, Elvis, Scotty and Bill began goofing around on a blues tune during a break. Sam Phillips heard them speed up, Mississippi bluesman, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup‘s “That’s Alright Mama” and knew he had something unusual.

youtube: ‪Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup‬‬‬

Phillips loaded copies of the record into his car and hit the road promoting it throughout the region, and managed to book Elvis on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride radio shows. Elvis’ music became hits on country radio stations first, because there was no other format for this music that channeled the energy of the blues with a beat, and straddled racial and musical boundaries. The five singles that Presley made for Sun literally fused blues numbers on one side of the platter with country on the other. Rockabilly music was born. By late in the year 1955, Elvis was an uncontrollable regional sensation poised to break into the consciousness of the American experience.

Sam Phillips, knowing he could not hold onto the phenomenon once Elvis’ contract with Sun expired, sold the contract to RCA Victor for $40,000 in November of 1955. Elvis’ success at Sun drew other artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, and Harold Jenkins (a.k.a. Conway Twitty). Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”), Junior Parker, and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with some success, as well.


Sam Phillips and Sun saw the promise and disappointment inherent in the music business when the success of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” was hindered by his automobile accident. Or when Sun’s Jack Clement discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, but the success of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” fell prey to the scandal of Lewis’ marriage to his 13 year old cousin. Bill Justis had the first rock and roll instrumental hit in 1957 with “Raunchy” and it scored number 2 on the Billboard charts. Johnny Cash was a consistent revenue for Sun until leaving for the Columbia label in 1958.

‪‪youtube: Carl Perkins‬

youtube: ‪‪Jerry Lee Lewis‬‬‬‬

In the summer of 1958 Sun moved to 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis. Judd Phillips, Sam’s brother, had worked promotion for Roy Acuff and Jimmy Durante and brought his expertise to Sun. Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitarist, was made studio manager and chief cutting engineer, as the company took on more staff. Sun opened a studio in Nashville on 17th Street in 1961 and hired, famed engineer, Billy Sherill, who cut hits on Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, but the studio quickly ran into problems. The 1960s saw Sun’s influence fade and Sam Phillips fielded many offers to buy Sun and its catalog. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic offered a distribution deal similar to the one struck with Stax, but Phillips deferred.

In 1969, Sam Phillips sold Sun to Nashville record executive Shelby Singleton, known for his work with Ray Stevens and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”. The company remains vital today… marketing its hit recordings, boxed sets and collectible memorabilia. Sam Phillips successfully invested his earnings and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and won a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements.  He died of respiratory failure in Memphis on July 30, 2003—  a day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark.

‪‪youtube: Raunchy‬

‪‪youtube: Sam Phillips‬

“Back in the early ’50s I was looking to create something different. From the beginning, I was very much interested in exploring some paths that had not been trodden and looking for the hidden possibilities. What I tried to do with each artist was to find his natural honesty in terms of what he liked to do, regardless of what category of music it might fall into. The artists who I worked with all had a certain basic honesty in their music, and after assuring and working with them, and gaining their confidence and their trust in me, I think they then really knew that they had somebody who was working with them in the common interest of seeing what they had.”- Sam Phillips to interviewer Richard Buskin

image credits: John Boija; Michael Ochs Archives; Sun; ibid.; ibid.; GAB Archive/Redferns; Bai Bayev; Salon

Furry Lewis (March 6, 1893 – September 14, 1981) was born Walter E. Lewis to Greenwood, Mississippi sharecroppers, Victoria and Walter, Sr. His father left before he was born, and his mother moved him and his two sisters to Memphis near the turn of the century. She did wash, cooking and cleaning to provide for them. Young Walter attended school through the fifth grade, where he picked up the nickname “Furry”, before taking work as a delivery boy to help provide for the family.

youtube: Judge Harsh Blues

Furry made himself a cigar box guitar with screen door wires for strings and began playing on Beale Street corners for spare change. He recounted that W.C. Handy noticed the youngster and bought him his first real guitar. A neighborhood man, named Blind Joe, taught him to play “Casey Jones” and “John Henry”— old songs about legendary figures from American tall tales— songs that would become Furry’s staples.

By his teens, Furry Lewis was not only performing on street corners, but also in saloons and for house parties. He left Memphis to join the Dr. Willie Lewis Medicine Show as a comedian hawking oils and medicines. During these travels he was exposed to the guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and fellow Mississippi blues guitarist and compatriot, Jim Jackson.

In 1916, Furry Lewis lost a leg in an accident while hopping a freight train in Illinois. He spent a month in a railroad hospital in Carbondale, and was later fitted with an artificial limb. He returned to performing on Memphis street corners, Beale Street saloons, and in jug bands— along with Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson. He also took work hauling freight from riverboats, yard work and deliveries. In 1923, he became a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Furry held this job, sweeping up around Beale Street, until his retirement in 1966.

In 1927 and ’29 he cut some recordings for the Vocalion label at the Memphis Auditorium, along with a number of his contemporaries. The 23 sides for this label were the most prolific for a single Memphis performer at the time. They documented Furry’s slide guitar technique and humorous songs. The tune “I Will Turn Your Money Green” contained the classic line, “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”.

youtube: Furry’s Blues

Furry continued to play around Beale Street through the Depression and succeeding decades in his flashy style, often playing guitar behind his head. Samuel Charters, noted blues researcher and author of The Country Blues, rediscovered Furry Lewis in 1959. This began a period of popularity spawning performances at folk and blues festivals and recordings for the Prestige and Folkways labels during the 1960s, and opening shows for rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, through the 1970s. He was featured in Stanley Booth‘s book, Rhythm Oil, and the Burt Reynold’s movie, W.W. And The Dixie Kings. This led to many talk show appearances where he would retell funny and poignant stories about his life— and, of course, play “Furry’s Blues”. The State of Tennessee made him an Honorary Colonel in 1973, the first of such among African-Americans.

By the end of the ’70s, he was losing his eyesight to cataracts. Furry Lewis contracted pneumonia and died in 1981 at the age of 88. He was among the most beloved of all Memphis musicians. His grave has two headstones, one larger— purchased by his fans. It reads, “Bluesman”.

youtube: Sid Selvidge on Furry

youtube: When I Lay My Burden Down

image credits: Dan Dalton; Jim Marshall; Alain Frappier

Contained within the triangle between Memphis, Dyersburg and Jackson, TN, is the rural area where John Adam Estes (January 25, 1904  – June 5, 1977) was born to a sharecropping family. (Sharecropping was a prevalent system of subsistence-level tenant farming for poor people in the South after the Civil War.) At age six, he lost sight in one eye to a rock thrown by a playmate. His guitar-playing father moved the family from Ripley to Brownsville in 1915. It was there that young Sleepy John Estes made crude guitars out of cigar boxes and began performing for local and family functions. Brownsville also yielded musical compatriots— mandolinist James “Yank” Rachell, “Hambone” Willie Newbern and harmonica-playing Hammie Nixon— with whom Estes would perform for more than fifty years.

youtube: Drop Down Mama

Estes worked in cotton fields, as a leader for a railroad maintenance crew, and played blues music at house parties, picnics and on the streets. Garnering his nickname from a tendency to doze off, he would occasionally hop a freight train and live the hobo life with his musical friends. A Beale Street jug band was formed in the 1920s with James Rachell and Jab Jones called the Three J’s Jug Band, and Sleepy John became a contemporary of Furry Lewis, Son House and Gus Cannon. It was in Memphis that he was first recorded by the Victor Record Company. He subsequently recorded for Decca, Bluebird, Champion, and Sun Records.

When work in Memphis dried up in the 1930s, Estes and Hammie Nixon traveled north to Paducah, KY and eventually to Chicago— playing lumber camps, on the streets and at parties. In Chicago, they associated with Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. Decca brought Estes to New York in the late ’30s where he was paired with the younger guitarist, Robert Nighthawk. He also recorded some jug band sides in the old Memphis style as The Delta Boys and traveled with Dr. Grimm’s Traveling Menagerie medicine show.

Sleepy John Estes returned to sharecropping in Brownsville in the 1940s and gradually became totally blind by the ’50s. He was rediscovered in the 1960s by the blues revivalists, although some doubted his identity due to Big Bill Broonzy mistakenly informing his biographer that Estes had died. He returned to performing with Hammie Nixon and toured Europe in 1964 with the American Folk Blues Festival, finding greater appreciation there than in his homeland.

Estes had a mournful, plaintive quality to his singing that was complimented by Nixon’s harmonica. The subject matter of his songs was always rooted in his personal experience or people he knew: a mechanic, a local lawyer, rural farming, urban factory workers or hopping a freight. His music often contained informed and personal social commentary and criticism of the plight of African-Americans during the Depression. Sleepy John Estes died of a stroke in Brownsville, TN on June 5, 1977. His gravestone reads: “Ain’t goin’ to worry Poor John’s mind anymore”.

youtube: ‪Special Agent Blues‬

image credits: Tom Copi; U.S. National Park Service; American Folk Blues Festival 1964

Medicine shows were directly related to minstrel shows and vaudeville, and they provided many early Memphis musicians with employment. In the 1800s, minstrel shows were wildly popular with both races, but they fed the white stereotypes of blacks and became even more mean-spirited as the Civil War approached. The racism of the minstrel shows makes them difficult to stomach today, but the variety acts (called the “olio”), comedy, dance, and music gave many Americans their first exposure to African-American music and culture.

After the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves performed with minstrel shows, medicine shows, and circuses, with the newly gained freedom to travel and to make a living playing music. William Henry Lane was a dancer and among the earliest black minstrels to gain notoriety. A performance in Memphis by the Georgia Minstrels in 1896, drew the largest indoor paid audience known to the city— 4000 blacks and 1000 whites— according to the African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman. Many of the features of minstrelsy carried over into the medicine shows.

youtube: ‪‪minstrel shows

Quackery and entertainment hit the road as medicine shows peddled patent medicines and elixirs of dubious efficacy. Musical performers drew crowds in small rural settings and larger Southern and Midwestern towns. An old actor who had turned to “doctoring” would hawk syrups that were mostly alcohol— or pass off a nickel box of axle grease as a cure for rheumatism. The performers would soften the crowd up for the “doctor”, whose pitch was expected to be just as entertaining. Audiences were often receptive to the chicanery because it was the only entertainment of that caliber they got to experience.

youtube: cakewalk

The Memphis medicine show performers were in the Mississippi delta every summer and many hokum blues numbers were popularized this way. W. C. Handy was the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie got their start with minstrel shows. Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee and Rufus Thomas worked for a variety troupe, originally founded in 1900 by an African American, Pat Chappelle, called The Rabbit’s Foot Company. Many old time country acts like Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Fiddling John Carson, and Uncle Dave Macon also entertained blacks and whites alike in traveling medicine shows.

In the early 1900s, medicine shows transitioned into vaudeville and Memphis-oriented performers found work in a more permanent circuit of theaters. An Italian-American businessman on Beale Street, F. A. Barrasso, and his brothers founded the Theatre Owners Booking Association, which specialized in a touring circuit of theaters for black performers throughout the U.S. It began with 31 theaters and had more than 100 at its peak in the 1920s. The reputation that TOBA was a difficult organization to work for caused performers to joke that the acronym stood for “Tough On Black Asses.” This circuit helped disseminate Memphis blues music to theater audiences throughout the nation.

image credits: buckaroo; Country Music Hall of Fame; misanthropoetry; Library of Congress

Frank Stokes (January 1, 1888 – September 12, 1955) was born two miles north of the Mississippi line, in what is now a suburb of Memphis named Whitehaven, but he was raised by his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi after the death of his parents. He learned to play guitar at a young age, surrounded by a number of Mississippi guitarists, including Dan Sane, who would be his musical partner in the Beale Street Sheiks. Stokes also worked as a blacksmith at age 12 and later in his life. He and Sane would travel to Memphis on the weekends to play on the corners of Beale Street.

youtube: I Got Mine

He joined a traveling medicine show that toured the South during World War I. It is conjectured that this is where he encountered the “Yodeling Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first recorded country and western musicians. Rodgers learned to perform some of the bluesman’s songs and Stokes would later compose “The Yodeling Fiddling Blues”, perhaps in tribute.

In the 1920s, Frank Stokes went back to blacksmithing and playing music in Memphis on the weekends. After joining a jug band, Kelly’s Jug Busters, he teamed up again with childhood friend, Dan Sane, as The Beale Street Sheiks (in contrast to Sam Chatmon’s Mississippi Sheiks). In 1927, they began recording for Paramount Records and cut a total 38 sides for the label and Victor Records. Some musicologists point to the Sheiks as the genesis of the Memphis blues style, influencing a number of blues guitar duos. They performed a mixture of older, pre-blues tunes, rags and breakdowns, as well as the Delta style.

youtube: ‪‪How Long

Stokes occasionally worked with Furry Lewis, Bukka White and teamed up with fiddle player, Will Batts for a few recordings. During the 1930s and ’40s, he played tent shows, juke joints and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus. He settled for a time in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Frank Stokes died of a stroke in Memphis on September 12, 1955. He is remembered as a seasoned entertainer, trained in the traveling tent shows, versed in older songs from the 19th century, as well as 20th century blues, and the father of the Memphis blues guitar style.

image credits: Michael Ochs Archives; Yazoo Records; R. Crumb

Memphis Minnie (June 3, 1897 – August 6, 1973) was among the most influential and pioneering blues musicians and guitarists of all time. The longevity of her career has hardly been matched, and her unique style affected much of the blues that followed thereafter. She was, like her idol Ma Rainey, a flamboyant character who traveled to shows in luxury cars and wore bracelets made of silver dollars. She was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, LA, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, across from the old slave docks in New Orleans. Memphis Minnie combined those roots with the blues she encountered in Memphis to point the way for the future of that style… taking rural blues into the electric, band-oriented sound that would be the hallmark in Chicago for decades after. She was among the first to take up the electric guitar.

youtube: ‪‪Bumble Bee

After learning to play guitar as a child, she ran away from her family’s farm in Walls, MS to Memphis at the age of thirteen. She began playing for tips at Church’s Park on Beale Street as Lizzie “Kid” Douglas, but she also went by the names Texas Tessie, Minnie McCoy, and Gospel Minnie. Shortly thereafter, she left town to tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus. After playing in the tent shows, it is thought that she spent time on the Bedford Plantation in Mississippi learning guitar from Willie Brown.

During the late 1920s, Minnie began playing with the Memphis jug bands. In 1929, a Columbia Records scout heard her and Kansas Joe McCoy playing “Bumble Bee” in a Beale Street barbershop. That began a long recording career with labels like: Decca, Vocalion, Bluebird, Okeh, Regal, and Checker. McCoy would be her musical partner for the next six years. She took up with a few accomplished blues guitarist: Casey Bill Weldon, Kansas Joe McCoy (later of the Harlem Hamfats) and Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlers. In the 1930s she moved to Chicago with McCoy; by 1939 she was with Lawlers. While in Chicago, she transformed that musical style by adding bass and drums, anticipating the sound of the 1950s Chicago blues.

In the 1940s she formed a touring vaudeville company. Some of her strongest and lasting recordings were made in that decade.  From the 1950s on, however, public interest in her music declined, and in 1957 she and Lawlers returned to Memphis, after moving around the north, and lived in poverty. After her health began to fail in the mid 1950s, Minnie retired from performing and recording. She suffered several debilitating strokes, but she lived to see her reputation rediscovered with the blues revival of the ’60s. In 1980, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

Her song “When the Levee Breaks” was covered by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, and her “Bumble Bee Blues” was turned into “Honey Bee” by Muddy Waters. Also, check out “Hoodoo Lady”, “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit” and “Can I Do It For You”.

youtube: ‪‪When the Levee Breaks

The end of her life was spent in a nursing home in Memphis, where she died of a stroke in 1973. A headstone paid for by Bonnie Raitt was erected on October 13, 1996. Laverne Baker was one of her nieces in attendance at the ceremony.

Langston Hughes wrote of her in 1943, “She grabs the microphone and yells, ‘Hey now!’ Then she hits a few deep chords at random, leans forward ever so slightly on her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out… a rhythm so contagious that often it makes the crowd holler out loud…. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions… a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.”

youtube: ‪‪Bad Luck Woman

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image credits: JSP Records; Michael Ochs Archives; Frank Driggs Collection

Most larger cities have a party district that aspires to be like Bourbon Street and the French Quarter in New Orleans; Beale Street is Memphis’ version. It’s a street that runs nearly 2 miles long from the Mississippi riverfront. Today it’s a tourist attraction with blues clubs, gift shops and restaurants run by Performa Entertainment, a privately owned real estate development and advisory firm. But this avenue’s history is storied.

youtube: ‪‪Beale Street Blues‬

Memphis became a chartered city in 1827, and by the 1840′s Beale Street was originally host to upscale residences like the extant Hunt-Phelan mansion.

Memphis was occupied by Union troops early during the Civil War, and Beale Street became populated with emancipated African-Americans. When the troops pulled out at the end of the war, the white population retaliated by burning down many residences and churches and slaughtering many blacks. The war was followed by a yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s that decimated the town’s population— to the point that it lost its charter. An enterprising man, named Robert R. Church (1839-1912), bought the area’s properties for pennies on the dollar. When the city rebounded, Church became the South’s first black millionaire.

In the 1890s, Robert Church built the Grand Opera House and Church Park at the corner of 4th and Beale. Blues musicians were attracted to this spot and the area was soon teeming with clubs, restaurants, speakeasies, pawnshops and gambling dens. The local authorities generally turned a blind eye to its illicit activities, and Beale Street sported legendary, lawless characters like Casino Henry, Slop Crowder, Machine Gun Kelly, “Wild Bill“ Latura, “Two Gun” Charlie Pierce and the notorious beat cop, Lee Quianthy. It also sported legendary places like Pee Wee’s Saloon, Battier’s Drug Store, vaudeville shows at the Daisy and the Palace and a red-light district. The Monarch Club, also known as The Castle of Missing Men, conveniently shared the alley with an undertaker.

But more than a street of vice and entertainment, in a strictly segregated society that subjected a black man to many discriminatory humiliations, Beale Street was a place where an African-American could walk in the front door of a restaurant, sit in the best seats at the Hippodrome, and walk with an easy stride down the sidewalk, head held high. Beale Street became the cradle for the best music Memphis had to offer the world.

In the 1900s, Beale Street’s fortunes rode on the will of Memphis’ infamous “boss” Mayor E. H. Crump (October 2, 1874 – October 16, 1954), who, at first, turned a blind eye to its activities and also refused to enforce Prohibition (the period from 1919 to 1933 during which Congress banned the sale of alcohol). The 1920s and ’30s were the heyday for blues musicians like Ma Rainey II, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes, but after the Great Depression, Crump had a change of policy and decided to clean up the city. He ran the prostitution and gambling off of Beale. By the end of Crump’s reign, things were changing. Nat D. Williams and Rufus Thomas were hosting talent contests on Beale Street, but the street was deteriorating. In 1949, the city pioneered the first black radio station, WDIA, and in 1954, Elvis and Dewey Phillips were shaking up the status quo. The center of Memphis music was shifting.

By the 1960s, the street was in decay and many properties vacant, and the Urban Renewal program saw most of the epicenter of the blues fall to the wrecking ball and the blade of a bulldozer. The effort to declare it a National Historic Landmark and an act of Congress in 1977 declaring Beale Street the “Home of the Blues”, still only left the facades of some store fronts propped up by steel beams, the Daisy Theater empty and A. Schwab‘s dry goods store left standing.

After Elvis’ death in 1977, when the city saw the amount of tourism Graceland was drawing, it belatedly decided to play on the city’s musical reputation and try to rebuild it. Beale Street, Mud Island, turning Main Street into a brick paved and fountain-laden mall, and erecting a giant mirrored pyramid as a sports center were the first attempts to revitalize the depressed city— a city that had taken for granted its musical treasure. And so goes the story of Memphis music.

Famed WDIA radio announcer Nat D. Williams once wrote,  “Come what may, there will always be a Beale Street, because Beale Street is a spirit— a symbol— a way of life. Beale Street is a hope.”

youtube: ‪‪‪Beale Street Then & Now‬

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image credits: T. N. Serose; Richard Underhill; Adelphi Records; Memphis Travel; Jack Boucher; Memphis/Shelby County Library; Ryan Meyers

During the early to mid-20th century, many African-Americans began to leave the impoverished and oppressive environment of Mississippi to find work in the factories of larger cities to the north. Among their numbers were some of the most seminal blues musicians of all time. Delta blues, Memphis blues and Chicago blues music constitute such an expansive subject that it would need a separate and extensive blog of its own. My intent is to highlight the effect that blues from the Mississippi delta had on the Memphis music scene— and that influence is inestimable. Memphis is the cap on the top of the Mississippi delta region and, because of its proximity, blues musicians streamed through it on their way to somewhere else, migrated there and stayed, or pilgrimaged to Beale Street in some consistent fashion.

youtube: ‪Big Bill Broonzy‬

youtube: ‪Howlin’ Wolf‬

Among the blues musicians who left for Chicago and other points were: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Alberta Hunter, J.B. Lenoir, Magic Slim, Jimmy Reed and his guitarist Eddie Taylor, Big Joe Williams, Otis Rush, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Little Milton, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner, Charlie Musselwhite and Bo Diddley. Some musicians moved from Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas to Chicago— like Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker, Robert Junior Lockwood, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, and Maurice & Verdine White. They created a more electrified, band-oriented version of the blues. Among the Mississippi blues musicians who mostly stayed in the delta and hill country (or kept their rural style) and impacted the Memphis scene were: Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Sam Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Fred McDowell, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner and R. L. Burnside— as well as others.

The blues musicians who were homegrown in Memphis, or migrated and stayed there, or made a larger mark in their careers by recording in the Bluff City, were (among others): Lillie Mae Glover (aka Ma Rainey II), Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), Frank Stokes, Willie Nix, Little Laura Dukes, John “Piano Red ” Williams, Mose Vinson, Rosco Gordon (and his “Rosco’s Rhythm”), Robert Wilkins, Joe Hill Louis, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Bobby “Blue” Bland, perhaps Bukka White and Albert King, and, of course, B. B. King. In the same sense that music developed in New Orleans of a certain fashion due to its geographical location and cultural influences, Memphis was destined to be impacted by Mississippi Delta Blues. It’s musical colors and flavors are the consistent threads that weave the range of Memphis’ musical styles into a cohesive and distinctive fabric.

youtube: Rufus Thomas on the Blues‬‬

David “Honeyboy” Edwards once said, “Something in the blues hits a lot of people because there’s some verse in there, somebody done done it. It’s just, the blues are like a story.”

youtube: ‪Robert Johnson‬‬

youtube: ‪‪‪Frank Stokes‬

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image credits: Graphic Maps; Chester Burnett; Stephen LaVere; Jorgen Angel

Who can explain why certain musical trends catch fire? In the 1920s and ’30s, jug bands became popular, growing out of an older string band tradition. Jug band music is loose and irrepressible, good-time party music— made from any odd assortment of instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, washboard, wash tub bass, harmonica, kazoo and, of course, a whiskey jug. In Memphis, two figures were central in the jug band craze: Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, and Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band. These groups were popular among white, as well as black audiences, often performing at parties, on the corners of famous Beale Street, the Peabody Hotel, and on the back of trucks as advertisements for nearly anything.

Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was born on a plantation in northern Mississippi, the youngest of 10 brothers. He handmade his first banjo from a pan and a raccoon hide, and began entertaining in his teens for levee building camps and sawmills. He settled for a time in Clarksdale, MS where he learned to play some fiddle and guitar from members of W. C. Handy’s orchestra.

After moving to Memphis, Cannon recorded under the name “Banjo Joe” for Paramount Records, but having witnessed the popularity of Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, he formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The Jug Stompers recorded for the Victor label and produced a total of 26 sides.

youtube: Cannon’s Jug Stompers

Will Shade (February 5, 1898 – September 18, 1966), also known as Son Brimmer, was a native Memphian and was among the first to bring the jug band craze to town. He formed the Memphis Jug Band as a loose-knit, rotating group of musicians with endearing names like Tee Wee Blackman, Hambone Lewis, and Jab Jones, often sending out several incarnations of the same group. These bands played a mixture of low-down blues, gospel, ragtime, pop ballads, novelty numbers and anything that would make their audiences dance. Shade’s group was the more recorded, with over 60 sides for Victor between 1927 and 1930.

youtube: Memphis Jug Band

Jug band popularity declined in the 1930s, but these musicians continued making their kind of music and were rediscovered by revivalists in their later decades. Cannon’s song, “Walk Right In”, was made into a pop hit in the 1960s by The Rooftop Singers, and he performed on the revival circuit with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. Because of the popularity of “Walk Right In”, Stax Records released an album of the same name in 1963 with Will Shade joining his old rival, Gus Cannon.

youtube: Walk Right In

Gus Cannon died in October 15, 1979 at the age of 96. Will Shade died of pneumonia on September 18, 1966, and in 2008 a group of Memphis musicians held a fundraiser to purchase a headstone for his grave. The influence of The Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers was to be later felt in the iconic Memphis group, Mud Boy and the Neutrons.

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image credits: R. Crumb; Herald Mosley; U.S. National Park Service; Jim Shearin; George Mitchell

Music has always coursed through the veins of this Southern town on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The ghostly echoes of its music’s prehistory still ring off of the Indian burial mounds there. The work songs of slaves unloading cargo from riverboats— and their blood and sweat— permeate the river landings. History needs a tangible record, however. Documentation. With a tip of the cotton picker’s straw hat (purchased at A. Schwab’s dry goods store) to those who came before, I can think of no other way to begin this blog about the history of Memphis music than to pay tribute to the Father of Memphis Music- W. C. Handy.

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was an educated musician born in Florence, Alabama, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. He claimed to be influenced by the sounds of rural Alabama and by the complex rhythms of his fellow workers’ shovels at a foundry in Florence. He played a number of musical instruments and performed in minstrel shows that toured the U.S. and Cuba before the turn of the 20th century, but he is known to Memphians as a trumpeter due to his famous statue.

Handy became a music faculty member at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes and taught from 1900 to 1902. In his travels through Mississippi, he used his remarkable memory and ability to transcribe music to document the blues he heard there. He wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, of a train station encounter in Tutwiler, Mississippi: “A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” He described music he heard while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi as the “kind of stuff associated with cane rows and levee camps” and deemed it “haunting”.

youtube: Memphis Blues

Performing music was more profitable for Handy than teaching it, so he established his own band in Memphis, Tennessee around 1910. He composed the great “Memphis Blues” originally as a campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate (and soon-to-be notorious “boss”) Edward Crump. It was published in 1912 and brought the first sounds of the 12 bar blues into the homes of America and the rest of the world. The foxtrot dance step was inspired by it, and Handy sold the rights to the song for a mere $100. His popularity continued to increase, however, as he authored the “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”, basing them on popular dances like the one-step and the tango. He was among the first published composers to convey the distinctive idioms of blues music— blue notes, slurs, the three chords and three four bar phrases— which he had heard on the Delta cotton plantations and on the levees of St. Louis.

youtube: St. Louis Blues

W. C. Handy found it difficult for an African-American to get his works published, so he moved to New York City in 1917 where he established his own successful publishing company. He wrote an impressive work entitled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs in 1926, and in 1938 published W. C. Handy’s Collection of Negro Spirituals. An RCA movie was made based on his “St. Louis Blues” and starred Bessie Smith. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the “Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.”

youtube: piano roll

Handy died in New York City of pneumonia on March 28, 1958.

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image credits: Q.T. Luong; Greg Cottrell; Michael Ochs Archives