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.
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.
Dewey was the first DJ to break Elvis into the radio market. Already a friend and former associate with Sun Records‘ Sam 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.
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.
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