Posts Tagged ‘Rufus Thomas’

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 disc 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.

Sam Phillips, Jim Dickinson, Don Nix, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wayne Jackson 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

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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

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

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

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

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