A shy, skinny, eighteen-year-old truck driver walked into a tiny recording studio and asked to make a record for his mother’s birthday. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked if he was a singer. He looked down and mumbled that he was. She asked who he sounded like and he glanced up, grinned, and said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” And he was right. The world was about to change.
The ramshackle recording studio was in Memphis, Tennessee and that mattered. It mattered because place matters. Place has always been a catalyst of change. Memphis had become the continent’s largest inland port a hundred years before because it lay at the intersection of the mighty Mississippi that flowed from Minnesota, past Memphis, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Illinois Central Railway that tied the city to Chicago and New Orleans. Its serving as a vortex for people chasing a buck and a dream was rendered even more significant with the building of Highway 61 from New Orleans through Memphis to Canada. The river, rail, and road both fed and consumed post-WWII prosperity with a vibrancy that could be felt and, even more, heard. A new, angry, joyful, scary music raged as if the place inhaled surrounding sound then exhaled a hurricane.
The cotton fields that had ringed Memphis ensured that generations knew of the music African-American slaves sang to pass their sunup to sundown work days. Their songs were mournful melodies, chants, or call and response rousers that bled spirituality while expressing justifiable despair and inexplicable hope. From slave songs, field hollers, negro spirituals, and country-gospel, came the blues. In 1912, Memphis songwriter W. C. Handy was commissioned to pen a tune for a corrupt Memphis mayor and he called it Memphis Blues. He wrote a number of similar songs and, despite others claiming the title, became the father of the blues.
African American Memphis businessman, Robert Church, Sr., purchased land and supported the building of clubs, bars, and the Church Park and Auditorium along what became Beale Street. It offered every known vice and a few it made up. Beale Street became home to a number of African-American owned businesses and where bands and singers played the blues. It attracted performers from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans and every time they came they taught, learned, and went home to spread the news.
The music industry was as segregated as the city. White record shops would not stock “race” music and white radio stations wouldn’t play it. By 1949, Billboard magazine writer Jerry Wexler had developed an appreciation for the new African American music and decided that instead of “race’ music, he would call it rhythm and blues (R&B). It worked. The new name seemed to make it less offensive to white audiences and some white radio stations began to play it. In popularizing the new sounds, Memphis radio stations joined Beale Street clubs where laws were broken and highway 61 honky tonks and juke joints where it was ignored altogether.
White society could segregate everything but radio proved that the air didn’t care. White and black folks in Memphis could hear the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, with its lively bluegrass, Appalachian folk ballads, and proud and corny country and western based on three chords and the truth. On other stations, they could hear blaring big bands playing quick-tempo jump and swing along with smooth pop epitomized by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But at the same time, Memphis radio station WDIA was among America’s first to risk R&B records and it even hired African American disc jockeys to play them, including young blues singer Rufus Thomas and Riley King, an exceptional blues guitarist who everyone called B.B. Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was the city’s most popular disc jockey. While he was white, his nine to midnight Red, Hot, and Blue show played black and white music to a black and white audience. The air over Memphis was desegregating sensibilities below.
Among the R & B records played were 1948’s Good Rockin’ Tonight by Wynonie Harris and Rockin’ At Midnight by Roy Brown. Everyone understood that rock and rockin’ were thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Sex was absolutely taboo in a society where pregnant teenagers were exiled, sex education was unthinkable, and birth control could not even be purchased by married women. Pile atop that the racist terror of oversexed black men with designs on white women, then the sexed-up “race” music, no matter what it was called, and all the radio stations, clubs, and honky tonks popularizing it, meant that something was both degenerate and dangerous. But it was as unstoppable as the Mississippi.
Among those attracted to the growing Memphis music scene was Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips. Phillips moved to Memphis in June 1945. His Saturday afternoon WREC radio show became as daring as Dewey Phillips (no relation) in mixing black and white records. While working for the radio station at big band shows at the swanky Peabody Hotel, he spoke with white musicians who claimed to play differently when they came to Memphis and having to convert back when they left. He was told of black musicians who played Beale Street bars as well as Highway 61 juke joints and honky tonks who also played and sang differently when in or near Memphis.
Phillips saw that the supply of R&B records was unable to meet demand and recognized an opportunity. He rented an old radiator shop in downtown Memphis at 706 Union Street and had it renovated. In January 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. With primitive equipment, he recorded anyone with the money to rent time. Most left with nothing but their wax souvenir. Those with a unique song or style, though, found themselves signed to a deal that had Phillips license recordings to established companies that manufactured and distributed them. Through Phillips, independent companies along the rail, road and river lines in St. Louis, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Chicago’s Chess Records, began spreading the Memphis sound.
Among those Phillips recorded was B. B. King. King played a version of the blues that wrenched emotion from lyrics and, while still developing his style, defined songs with crisp guitar runs and riffs. Following King into the Memphis studio were bluesmen who honed their talents on Beale Street and whose music bled the amalgam of styles for which the city was becoming known: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Walter Horton, and the man who would become as legendary as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf.
A Clarksdale, Tennessee disc jockey heard that Phillips was recording black singers. Ike Turner gathered his band and headed north. At first hearing, Phillips knew he had something special. Saxophonist Jackie Brenston sang the lead on a Turner composition called Rocket 88. The lyrics reveled in double entendre in equating a fast car to faster sex. The drums were relentless and the sax inventive. An amp had fallen off the car’s roof on the trip to Memphis and the resulting damage distorted the guitar, making it growl menacingly.
The 8-bar blues with the driving back beat sat perfectly at the core of the Venn diagram linking the pop, R&B, country, and the blues that Memphis musicians inhabited and traveling bands imitated. Phillips licensed the record to Chess Records and within weeks it was number one on the nation’s R&B charts with many pop stations and even country stations daring to play it. Rocket 88 was the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.
The success of Rocket 88 and other licensed recordings encouraged Phillips to launch his own record company. He called it Sun Records. Starting in February 1952, Sun enjoyed moderate success but Phillips grew increasingly frustrated by the persistent, racist resistance to R&B and blues records. He said to Marion Keisker, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” A little while later, on Saturday, June 26, 1954, the shy, skinny Memphis truck driver walked through his door to make his mama’s record. His name was Elvis Presley.
Phillips did not hear Elvis that day or a few months later when he returned to pay another four dollars to record again. When Phillips was again complaining about not being able to find the right singer to blend black and white, Keisker suggested the kid with the sideburns. Elvis was called and he ran to the studio, arriving panting for breath while Keisker was still on the line. Phillips had a couple of talented session players, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, work with the kid. But that rehearsal and then a recording session revealed nothing particularly impressive. They were on a break when Presley spontaneously launched into an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup R&B song called That’s Alright Mama. Black and Moore jumped in, all three laughing at the loose-limbed, ragged sound they were making. But Phillips heard what he’d been searching for.
That’s Alright Mama was quickly pressed and a copy taken to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. A couple of spins brought phones calls to hear it again and again. The record was played on Memphis radio stations and its local then regional success put Presley on the road. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers, a black shop on Beale Street. His on-stage gyrations were variations of the black performers he had seen in Beale Street clubs. He sang, and then soon would record, more black, R&B songs. But with equal conviction, he wore his hair and sideburns in a defiant, white-trash truck driver style and also sang white ballads, gospel, pop, and the country numbers he loved. He was, in short, the embodiment of Memphis, the meeting place, with its new music absorbing influences from the lines that connected it to the world, synthesizing them, and sending them back with the challenge to question the barriers of class, race, age, and gender, and concepts of right and wrong, and fun and indecent.
Presley’s growing success afforded even more allure to Memphis. Carl Perkins grew up in grinding, rural Tennessee poverty. He took his guitar and dream to Memphis where he consummated the marriage of country and rock ‘n’ roll in a new variant called rockabilly. His second Sun Records release, Blue Suede Shoes, became a national hit for him and then Elvis. Hoping to become a gospel singer, Johnny Cash, moved from Arkansas to Memphis where Sam Phillips encouraged him to sing his own compositions including his second Sun release, Folsom Prison Blues. It contains music’s nastiest line: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Roy Orbison was enjoying little success in his native Texas but knew of the musical mecca that Memphis had become. He impressed Sam Philips with his three-octave range, was signed to Sun, and soon Ooby Dooby was a national hit. Jerry Lee Lewis attacked more than played a piano. He was drawn to Memphis from Louisiana and after a stint as a Sun Records session player, recorded Crazy Arms and then the blatantly sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.
Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Presley, Sun Records, December 1956. (Photo: The Commercial Appeal)
By 1956-’57, the new music that Memphis had been central to creating was topping national charts, being heard on TV, and filling juke boxes, theatres, and arenas. Parents were yelling upstairs to turn that noise down. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a central element in the transformation of first America and then the western world from old to new. It provided an impetus and soundtrack for the move from the white, patriarchal, sexually repressed world of segregated people and ideas to what would become the more liberal, modern era. Rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of the baby boom, the gigantic demographic whose power was its numbers and a determination to be heard its creed. Rock ‘n’ roll was the notification that the generation that had survived the Depression and war and now yearned for things to be calm, controlled, and predictable, was losing its existential battle for cultural supremacy. It was the bridge from the composed assurance of Eisenhower to the audacious vibrancy of Kennedy.
Memphis was the place of change and the change could not be contained. Up Highway 61, in Hibbing Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman heard the news and would soon change his name to Dylan and immortalize the highway in song. Across the Atlantic, sailors smuggled American records into Liverpool and Manchester where kids named John, Paul, Mick, and Keith studied them and then helped England lead rock ‘n’ roll’s second wave and, with it, inaugurate a new phase in the generational revolution. Place would matter again in causing change. And the change began in Memphis.
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