Posts Tagged ‘WDIA’

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 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

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 “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
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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

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 1890′s, 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