Posts Tagged ‘Nat D. Williams’

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

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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