MUSIC OF MEMPHIS from MEMPHIS DOWNTOWNER magazine July, 2007

Note: This article came out before the musical Memphis premiered.  

Elvis’ hit “Suspicious Minds” plays on my headset as I enter a room where a life-size display of striking garbage men are overseen by National Guardsmen with bayonets on the end of their rifles. Not a bad soundtrack. The Rock and Soul Museum at the FedEx Forum shows how the nostalgia of pop music coincides with the objective history of Memphis.

The museum gave me an idea for a tourist attraction. A show “Memphis: The Musical” that combines the history and flair of this city with its music. It is surprising it has not already been done. El Paso, Texas has “Viva! El Paso.” Why not Memphis?

Here is the opening. Beale Street 1909 was a wild place. The previous December Wild Bill Latura entered a bar and shot seven people, killing five. Tennessee began alcohol prohibition that year creating a bootlegging industry. And supporters of mayoral candidate Edward Crump, a man who was to clean up the city, hired W. C. Handy to write a campaign song for him. He described how it was received in a recording at the Rock and Soul Museum. “When we played that song at Main and Madison we stopped traffic. Stenographers were dancing with their bosses and men ran up asking ‘what’s the name of that song?”

Ok. Admittedly it is hard to imagine Memphians of 2007 empting out Walgreen’s and WellWorxSporting Club to dance to the “Willie Herenton Rag” or the “Carol Chumney Stomp.” But those were different times and this would look great in a musical.

He wrote the music he had heard his whole life. “No one invented the blues,” Handy says on the recording. However this is regarded as the first blues song written and was later released as “The Memphis Blues.” It has more of a jazz sound to it rather than the slide guitar and harmonica “Woke up this morning” delta blues that soon followed. Handy died in 1958, but since 1980 he has lived in “The Handy’s” – an award given out to Blues Musicians in Memphis, of course.

The farms were becoming mechanized in the 1930‘s and 40‘s. Combines were replacing cotton pickers. For survival many left for the city and Memphis was a logical spot to find work. And with them came the music of country and blues. Blues stars of today have their mystique almost like the Western hero – a bit of a loner, living simply often with a bottle of whiskey and cheap cigars nearby. He is a man of few words but very intelligent and an ear for music that influences musicians of today. One of the most known in Memphis was Fury Lewis who lived in small home on Decatur Street. And it was not just bluesmen. Memphis Minnie lived here too, which of course is not hard to guess.

The next scene in our musical brings us into to 1948. WDIA- the countries first all black radio station- began boosting the career of BB King and Rufus Thomas. Then came Sam Phillips fascinated by black music of the era and area. He and his recording studio recorded Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas and in March, 1951 Ike Turner recorded what is often called the first rock n’ roll record, “Rocket 88.” July 5, 1954 Elvis Presley came to the studios and cut his first record. Next year Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins recorded at the studio.

Just imagine. We had Sam Phillips’ recording studio searching for the unrecorded. We had the surrounding country brining in blues and country music. We had radio stations like WDIA and WHBQ that were not afraid to enter into new musical frontiers and Elvis moving to the city. Unbeknownst to each other, he and BB King lived almost across the street for several years. And Memphis was arguably the sight for the first blues AND the first rock songs. This is called “synergy.” Meteorologists call it the perfect storm.

Memphis did bring the talent and talent grew. Maybe it was something in the water once they got here. W. C. Handy was from Alabama. Elvis Presley, BB King and Rufus Thomas were from Mississippi. Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips were from Arkansas. Jerry Lee Lewis was from Louisiana. Carl Perkins was from Jackson, Tennessee and Roy Orbison was from West Texas.

It was also Memphis during changing times. The post World War II culture began to have more disposable income including teenagers who now could finance their own music. It was also due perhaps to the War that people who fought and died for the country no longer were content to be second class citizens and segregation started dying.

Here comes the next scene set in 1957 with the creation of Satelite records, later to become Stax. Bands were integrated from the beginning, not due to any government mandate or a statement to shake up the culture but due to practicality. Different talented musicians of different races came together fifty years ago here in a city which was far from racial nirvana. Stax brought the world Sam and Dave, Isacc Hays, the Mar-Kays, the Bar-Kays, Albert King and Otis Redding. And after all of that it is probably time for an intermission.

The recording business is worthy of mentioning too. Neil Diamond, U-2, ZZ Top and REM – none of them Memphians- recorded here. Led Zepplin’s third album, best known for “Immigrant Song” was mixed at Ardent.

The seventies were a time of change. Beale Street had started fading after the King assassination. Stax records closed in January of 1976 and Elvis died a year and a half later. But it was hardly time to play “Taps” in this musical.

Big Star featuring Alex Chilton developed a cult following. Backbeat Tours guide Memphis Jones paraphrases a quote describing New York’s Velvet Underground which he says also applies to Big Star. “Not many people bought their records but those who did started a band,” he says. Isaac Hays won two Grammy’s for “Theme from Shaft.” Hi Records star Al Green went from soul singer to gospel singer. The soundtrack to the Summer of 1979 was Anita Ward and “Ring My Bell.”

In the 1980’s Memphis band’s Xaveon and Calculated X had that new wave-techno sound that today is timeless as a “Miami Vice” episode. The Antenna club on Madison brought the punk scene here along with the Omni-New Daisy created a sound Elvis and Johnny would not recognize. Beale Street reopened in 1983 bringing people downtown.

It seemed a new appreciation for the Memphis Sound of the 1950’s was taking shape this decade. In June, 1982 Graceland was opened for tours making it on par with the White House as the most-visited home. The eighties were also seeing baby boomers going nostalgia crazy creating an interest in 1950’s music. Movies were discovering Memphis during the decade and “This is Elvis” and “Great Balls of Fire” showcased the lives of two of our most famous musicians. There was even a fictionalized TV series based on the life of Elvis. Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash recorded “The Class of 1955.” at Sun Studios.

More reverence for Memphis began coming in song from out-of-towners – quite an achievement since in 1968 when TIME magazine called the city “Southern backwater” and a “decaying river town.” In March, 1989 Alannah Myles released “Black Velvet” and was followed two years later by Marc Cohen and “Walkin’ in Memphis” where he “Saw the ghost of Elvis/ On Union Avenue/ Followed him up to the gates of Graceland” Of course we Memphians know that would be quite a walk!

That year BB King opened his club on Beale and Second. Again generations were changing. And just as the kids of the 50’s and 60’s loved rock while there parents hated it, their children and grandchildren were falling for rap. In November, 1994 Al Kapone released “Sinista Funk” With its “Parental Advisory” lyrics sticker on the front. At this point in the musical, the folks who came to hear the music of Carla Thomas and The Boxtops would start looking at their watches.

Memphis welcomed the new millennium on Beale Street with BB King who showed he was Y2K compliant. Justin Timberlake is now a star. A new music genre came about- Crunk- which combined the words “crazy” and “drunk” which immediately sounds like trouble. Sort of like combining the words “toddlers” and “electric fence.” Hating the next generation’s music is tradition for most anyone over thirty.

Let us not forget those outside the rock-blues-country genre. One of Memphis’ larger musical events is the Sunset Symphony – the crescendo ending to Memphis in May. Kallen Esperian has been singing opera and early this year played the title role in the opera “Carmen.” Last year guitarist Lily Afshar reached number 7 on the classical charts with her CD “Hemispheres” recorded downtown at Archer Records. Memphis is home base for this world traveler. They probably won’t have time to play themselves in this musical.

The migration to Memphis after Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans brought the influence of one music city to the other. Memphis was home to the Voodoo Music Festival celebrating the music of New Orleans. Three 6 Mafia’s music was featured in the movie “Hustle and Flow” and they won an Oscar for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Last year American Idol filled up Beale Street with its national talent search. Today with out one dominate media culture there probably won’t be “another Elvis” but the talent is out there and waiting or better still working to be discovered.

Ending the musical will be the hard part. Maybe we could have all the aforementioned musicians together on Beale Street waiting for their chance to be on American Idol? Standing in line they all break out into Mott the Hoople’s “All the way to Memphis.” Maybe the reason a musical has never been done is to get the towns culture in music you just have to listen.


Return to www.devingreaney.com