It Came From Memphis

It Came From Memphis

by Robert Gordon

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Robert Gordon begins where most chroniclers of the music world end and spins a magical fairy tale peopled with Delta bluesmen, a peanut vendor, a matinee cowboy, a professional wrestler, and a manic deejay. It Came From Memphis doesn't focus on Elvis, Al Green, or the Sun/Stax studios. Instead it creeps into the shadows cast by those institutions,

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Robert Gordon begins where most chroniclers of the music world end and spins a magical fairy tale peopled with Delta bluesmen, a peanut vendor, a matinee cowboy, a professional wrestler, and a manic deejay. It Came From Memphis doesn't focus on Elvis, Al Green, or the Sun/Stax studios. Instead it creeps into the shadows cast by those institutions, concentrating on artists like Jim Dickinson and Alex Chilton, and bands like the MarKeys and Big Star. Gordon limns, with respect and the fascination born of true devotion, the story of white teenagers caught in the middle of an extraordinary confluence of music, entrepreneurship, to usher in an exciting new musical form. The result is a rock 'n' roll and Memphis — its alma mater.

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Chapter One: The Dream of a Common Language

The Rolling Stone introduced me not to the blues, but to the bluesmen. The players. On a sweltering Fourth of July, 1975, the summer before I entered ninth grade, they delayed their Memphis performance by placing a wooden stool at stage center and then bringing out a fragile black gentleman with a guitar. The crowd Of 50,000 was hot and impatient, but Furry Lewis came up playing medicine shows in the 1920S and he knew more than a little about entertaining. Though solo blues wasn't what a lot of weary rednecks wanted to hear, I'm sure I was not the only new fan he won.

The next time I saw Furry, the crowd numbered less than fifty. At the end of tenth grade, an upperclassman brought him to school during lunch. He sat on a porch near a parking lot and played for a small gathering. A hat was passed. I asked how the performance had been arranged and was given Furry Lewis's phone number. So within two years of being one in 50,000 to see him at a Rolling Stones concert, I did exactly what Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had done — I phoned Furry Lewis. He invited this unknown voice to visit him, accepting my offer to bring whiskey. His brand was Ten High.

Within a year, the phone list on the linen closet door of my parent's house included the names of guitarists, piano players, Sonny "Harmonica" Blake, Saxman Brad's business card, and various schoolmates who liked to kick a soccer ball. These phone numbers were not trophies, though having them made me feel cool. I was a gangly suburban teenager, middle-class, the braces finally removed from my teeth. My neighborhood was like a thousand others across the country. The blues musicians were giving me a geographical and historical grounding in Memphis. Their lives were the product of this particular place.

At the end of eleventh grade, some friends and I pitched in to bring the piano player Mose Vinson for a lunchtime performance. When Mose rests his hand on a table, his fingers look like rows of a furrowed field. I've since learned he was the janitor for Sam Phillips at Sun Records during the pre-Elvis days, and several of his previously unreleased recordings appeared on the Sun Blues Box. In 1977, Vinson was a regular at a bar called Birth of the Blues. So were we, getting drunk on Billy Beer and leading parades around the club with salt shakers as castanets. Furry also played there, and the owner booked a handful of other local giants. I think the club was open less than a year.

On the morning when Mose was to perform at school, he arrived late and drunk. Our friend who'd picked him up found him half-lit and had to coax him into the car with more beer. The quick refurbishment during the ride had produced a head rush in the elderly man: He entered the auditorium staggering and slobbering. I think the end-of-lunch bell rang as his hands reached for the first notes. He could not form words. When he tried to speak or sing, he emitted deep-throated moans and grunts. Drool accumulated around his fingers on the keys. 1 remember the reaction of a squat senior from a rich family, a kid who could make a difference: He cackled loudly.

I still hate that kid. Perhaps because in his action I saw a part of me, that sense of detachment. In Mose Vinson's talent, I was finding meaning in this particular place on Earth, a meaning that also encompassed this student, the son of a cotton baron. The very cotton bolls which formed Mose Vinson's piano style paid this ingrate's private school tuition. The lack of respect in his life's breath exposed the disparities upon which Memphis is founded. This kid would inherit his father's civic influence and power, and the city would remain divided as his family sees it, not between rich and poor, but between whites and "niggers."

The evil behind that word lives and breathes in Memphis. The city was built on that word. Rock and roll is a response to that word. Rock and roll rejected the idea of enforced segregation, mixing cultures as it mixed musical genres. On the streets today, the populations mix, but it's a surface politeness, a charming civic trait. Oppression is not unique to Memphis, though it is neatly encapsulated here. It's the sort of environment where great art develops in obscurity. The ideas are strong because, like weeds growing in a concrete sidewalk, they must force themselves through.

Concrete sidewalks have proliferated in these times of urban sprawl. Walking out the front door to a landscape that could be anywhere has taken a new meaning since the microchip met the fiber-optic cable: Walking out the front door is no longer necessary. Today, particulars everywhere are made generalities. There is as much Cajun cooking in a Long Island fast-food joint as there is Americana at Euro-Disney. "Authenticity" is mass-produced.

This age of access, however, has not erased history and cannot completely remove an area's innate characteristics. Natural light in California is conducive to filmmaking, hot peppers grow next to fish ponds in southern Louisiana, cattle and cowboys come from the Midwest because the prairies are there. If aerial photographs could reveal energy the way infrared photographs reveal heat, Memphis would be surrounded by vectors pointing toward it: This is the place.

Memphis was founded on a Mississippi River bluff, safe from the flooding which defines the Delta south of it. Before clothing the world in cotton, the region's fertility fed Native Americans. Sun Studio, the site where black and white cultures merged as rock and roll, stands on what was a river trail heavily traveled by the Chickasaw Indians. Sun's current proprietor has the receipts from T-shirt sales to prove that people will always pass by his door.

Memphis is the capital of the large rural region that surrounds it. You can drive two hundred miles in any direction before hitting another city of size. There are small towns, and smaller ones. The Ozark Mountains are to the west, the distant Appalachian range cascades eastward from across the state, flattening into farmland before finally spilling into Memphis and the river-, the Mississippi Delta sprawls south in the shape of a chicken leg, and the conversion of crops to cash has always taken place in Memphis. As a natural crossroads, the city has been influenced by many cultures, but its insulation has deterred European sophistication.

Since its founding in 1819, Memphis has been a place for innovation. Among its contributions are such ubiquitous concepts as the supermarket (Piggly Wiggly, 1916), drive-in restaurants (Fortune's, 1906), motel chains (Holiday Inn, 1952), and efficient overnight package delivery (Federal Express, 1972). Recording music is another part of Memphis's entrepreneurial spirit. The audio recording process was successful here even before the equipment was locally available. Field recordings were made of fife and drum music, work songs, field hollers, and other African expressions that mutated in the Delta. Once facilities in Memphis were available and flourishing, the artists traveled instead of the equipment. Sam Phillips gambled his cozy job recording radio transcriptions of big bands for a shot with an independent label and a new kind of music. He recognized the business of music, and his maverick attitude pointed the industry in a new direction. Oldies radio, alternative rock, and the other stops on today's dial remain a response to or reworking of the ideas he assembled under the aegis of Sun Records.

In Memphis, the studios generated human cultural collisions, not just the inanimate interactions between the listener and circular vinyl spinning at seventy-eight rotations per minute. The initial area recordings were the fiber optics of their time, enabling people to experience another culture without leaving home to do it. Though Delta blues could be imitated by anybody anywhere who heard a recording, Delta bluesmen could be imitated only by those with whom they interacted. They defined regionality, the product of a distinct place.

The blues is a sophisticated music. The Delta musicians created art that was fully realized, that when assessed needs no handicap or critical crutch. As Western scholarship has explored broader horizons, reckoning with the subjectivity and imperialistic attitudes that distorted previous investigations, it has recognized the complexity of expressions once thought "primitive," recognized the traditions and heritage that produced the blues. Unlike other immigrants, when Africans came to these shores they were not permitted to preserve their culture in the new land. Africans underwent a forced transformation. Slaveowners imposed the breakup of families, the mixing of tribes, the acceptance of Christianity. What was produced was something new. Rather than a sterile hybrid, a vibrant, vital culture emerged. Memphis has enslaved this culture; Memphis has nurtured it.

Co-opt, preempt, recycle. I first heard that description of popular culture from a Memphis musician named Jim Dickinson. Like a sponge, pop culture can absorb anything, defying the context of whatever it takes and making it part of the here and now. That's fine and dandy for the pop scene, but it's not necessarily good for what's being absorbed. As pop music, rock and roll has coopted blues, gospel, and country, preempted the original artists, and recycled their techniques and ideas. We all have a story of learning that our favorite song by the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, or Michael Bolton did not originate with these artists-, likewise, we know that Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup Ianguished in poverty while Elvis Presley got rich singing his songs. The "original artists" are crassly exploited. Diluted imitators reap fame and fortune, while the preempted musicians receive neither, nor even acknowledgment. The popularizers are not legally obligated to pay homage to their predecessors, only royalties, and often they avoid paying even those. (Chris Strachwiz, of the Arhoolie label, once suggested implementing a Miranda act for musicians, reading bluesmen their rights before they sign a contract.) Even right-minded, moral "disciples" who have tried to remunerate their predecessors have found their way thwarted by thieves calling themselves publishers who wield shady contracts that allow them to divert money. The pop industry, of which the music industry is only a part, is founded on concepts of exploitation and greed. Recycling ideas can be both a tribute and a sham.

Pop culture is novelty-hungry, and the cultural divides between the races are a quick source for new trends. When the rock and roll sound was pioneered by black artists like Ike Turner and Roy Brown, both black and white audiences perceived it as a part of rhythm and blues; there was no novelty in blacks revving up R&B. White imitations of it, however, were freakish. Whites were unable to exactly mimic black music, and their failure created another hybrid. People of all colors gawked. This interaction is really what's being discussed when people ask the question, Can whites play the blues? That phrasing misses the point. What's meant is, What do we call it when whites try to play the blues? As a definition for rock and roll, I suggest: Rock and roll was white rednecks trying to play black music. Their country music background hampered them and they couldn't do it. That's why we don't call what they made rhythm and blues.

In the 1950s, with Elvis as an icon, white audiences were ready for new artists like Little Richard and established artists like Ike Turner, whom they'd previously missed. Though rock and roll now sells everything from hamburgers to presidential candidates, white society did not readily embrace such interracial, intercultural concepts. Segregation was still the law of the land in the 1950s, and anyone who respected black culture was given the same treatment as blacks: secondrate. Only when white eyes witnessed blacks laying down their lives for their country in World War II did some begin perceiving blacks as their allies. That slight opening of the door coincided with a push from the other side. Black witnesses to their brothers' deaths — deaths for a country that enforced apartheid — moved their community to rebel en masse: the Civil Rights movement and desegregation. Despite the passage of laws and the enforcement of various race-mixing programs, this conflict is still being resolved today. Welfare, substandard housing and education, prejudice from the bank's loan desk — the violence that is a response to this covert domination is a testament to the chasm that still runs beneath our society.

This same lack of understanding between the races is responsible for the innovation of rock and roll. Most of the machinery for recording and manufacturing was owned by the whites, and when they got in the studio with blacks, a bridge had to be established. An example of the cultural collision is cited by the aforementioned Jim Dickinson. "There's a box set of Little Richard out-takes that's out on CD, with Earl Palmer on the drums. Brilliant drummer, one of the most influential in early rock music. You hear the first take of, I think, 'Lucille,' and they run it down several times till they get the master. Lee Allen, the sax player, plays the same solo from the first cut to the last. But Earl Palmer starts out playing a shuffle! He's not playing the eighth note thing that became Little Richard's signature. He's shuffling. You also hear these insets of white voices on the talkback, and one of 'em is Cosmo Matassa, the engineer, and the other one must be the producer Art Rupe. And Rupe is saying the most insensitive, typically white things. But those had to be said in order to make the shuffle into what we now know as rock and roll. The racial collision, it has to be there."

The forces of cultural collision struck thrice in the Memphis area, first with the Delta blues, then with Sun, then Stax. These sounds touched the soul of society; unlike passing fads, these sounds have remained with us. By definition, most of popular culture is disposable, but Memphis music has refused to disappear. In electrified civilization, even when stripped of the particular racial and social context in which it was born, what happened in Memphis remains the soundtrack to cultural liberation.

Jim Dickinson has another saying that goes something like this: The best songs don't get recorded, the best recordings don't get released, and the best releases don't get played. It's the antithesis to corporate music mentality, and it also explains why Memphis is so full of treasures. Though no city has had more of a lasting impact on modern culture, Memphis has never been a company town. The forces have all been independent, renegade. Dickinson's maxim defends obscurity by attacking popular culture's drive toward mediocrity. Reaching the most people through the lowest common denominator denigrates individuality, destroys artistry. There is no reason that every song has to be a hit, but there's every reason for the song to be.

In 1978, a depressed girl I was dating recommended an album to me, Big Star 3rd. It so happened that Big Star was from Memphis, though I was not familiar with them or their first two albums. 3rd had been recorded in 1974 and languished on a shelf for four years after being roundly rejected by record companies. Everything about it was mysterious. The company that released it was so small that the label on one side of the vinyl listed all of the songs and the label on the other side was a generic design. Yet a major name like Steve Cropper, playing guitar, was printed right there on the back. I recognized a couple of the other musicians, most from Memphis and among them two of my favorites, Lee Baker and Jim Dickinson. The record came with an extensive essay full of references I didn't know. When I played the album, it was unlike any I'd ever heard. One side began with backward-sounding strings and the other with something like cartoon music. Neither opening song sounded like the beginning of an album. Entering Big Star 3rd was like entering a movie after it's begun.

Which, in a way, it was. The band leader was Alex Chilton, who had found fame eleven years earlier at sixteen when he first entered a studio and recorded "The Letter" with the Box Tops. By the time of 3rd's release, his interest had moved to other types of music. 3rd, I came to understand, was a response to his career to date: the commercial success and artistic frustration of the Box Tops, the artistic success and commercial frustration of Big Star. It was a record of introspection. The darkness of the music was immediately gripping, and the elusiveness of the lyrics encouraged repeated listenings. It was almost three years — I was by then unhappy in college — before I discovered the lines, "Get me out of here/I hate it here/Get me out of here." That I cannot readily name the song is indicative of the record's lasting beauty.

Since 1978, Big Star 3rd has been rereleased at least twice. (As per Dickinson's maxim, one of the best songs, "Dream Lover," was not included until the second issue.) The band's other two albums, widely praised, poorly distributed, and long out of print, have also been made newly available. The influence of Alex Chilton and this once-overlooked group has become so widespread that Big Star practically defines a category in modern rock. 3rd's sound may have been a generation removed from cultural collision, but its result reverberated with the bluesmen: obscurity. The bluesmen did not stop making music after the 1920s and 1930s; they were just no longer recorded. Their material did not hinge on the critical acclaim they may have briefly enjoyed. Rather, it was an extension of their being, and if a record man was willing to part with a tendollar bill to hear them do their thing, that was fine. But if not, it didn't stop the music. With their lives and not just their words the blues artists had taught those following them to trust their ideas. The audience's response becomes secondary.

The rediscovery of the Delta blues artists began in the later 1950s, shortly after the introduction of Elvis and rock and roll. The first rock and roll audience was also the first blues renaissance audience, and those listening — the witnesses — bore the dual responsibilities of keeping an old tradition alive and of creating a new genre. By the middle and late sixties, the audience had so expanded and the industry become so secure that, although less than ten years earlier the witnesses couldn't imagine a career in music, by Chilton's generation it was every kid's dream. The difference, in a word, was the Beatles.

For me, the Beatles were a Saturday morning TV cartoon long before I appreciated their social impact. They allowed my generation to take for granted the possibility of a career in rock music, or even rock music journalism. In my rock and roll youth, the music was losing its social meaning and becoming a service industry, becoming, in fact, a cartoon. But in Memphis, I'd felt the bluesmen's power.

In May 1978, when my sense of place was solidifying and I was distressed that such great music as Furry Lewis and Big Star 3rd seemed available only to locals, I was exposed to a Memphis band called Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Rock and roll witnesses A, their music was the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Furry Lewis. Mud Boy and the Neutrons were four white guys who fused the washboard, the electric guitar, and field hollers; where the Stones had come up emulating blues records, Mud Boy emulated bluesmen. I saw them perform as part of a two-day music festival honoring the city's heritage. Gospel music, rock and roll, blues, and country all shared the same stage. Part of the event's pleasure was experiencing the common spirit in such diverse music.

On the main stage, a Delta blues group was winding up their set. Alex Chilton was in the artist's tent and, though not scheduled to play, he'd been inspired. The event was loose enough to allot him some time, and several members of Mud Boy joined him. Their impromptu set, including a menacing run-through of Chilton's hit, "The Letter," introduced punk rock to Memphis at large. Before Mud Boy began, a member of their entourage, Guru Biloxi, came out carrying a spear and ranting, pushing the energy cautiously high. Wound up tight like a heart attack, stomping the stage, Chilton introduced the band — "some very good friends, some very close personal friends of mine," he shouted like a man about to pull the trigger — and Mud Boy kicked into Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie." The four core members were backed by a drummer and a bassist; three dancing girls were part of the act.

"Dancing" doesn't convey what I saw these women do. I was seventeen and so drunk on cheap white wine that I had to put my hand over one eye to rightly hear what was going on. The music was rumbling the way a house shakes when a heavy truck passes out front. There was a sense to the chaos, a sense not so much based on beat or rhythm, though this music was as full of both as any could be without exploding — but a sense based on emotion. The women were dancing, yeah, they were dancing all right. They were fucking the music. They were slithering up and down that rumble. This was fuck music. Not the wet sensuality of A] Green, not the sultry innuendo of the early blues queens. This was the guttural howl of the bump and grind, the madness of urge, the flaunting of that which we've been taught to repress. The power of the blues — the violence, the energy, the sex — was laid bare.

The plug was pulled on their performance. The band was one song into what was the set of a lifetime when the authorities decided it was too much truth for the public good. Johnny Woods and Prince Gabe had each performed that day on the same stage, and they had told the truth. Grandma Dixie Davis would perform parlor piano later on that same stage, and she would tell the truth. Phineas Newborn Jr. — God rest his weary soul — would speak the gospel; B. B. King, Big Sam, Carla Thomas. But only Mud Boy's truth was censored.

The band revolted. There was a shouting match, a sit-in. The audience responded with raised fists. Oho Mick Jagger, oho Johnny Rotten, the real shit went down that day. Rock and roll busted loose from its chains and wasn't a commodity to place between radio commercials or at the top of charts. Music came back to life that afternoon with all the energy of Elvis Presley's 1954 hips.

Mud Boy, for the most part, revels in their obscurity. They continue to perform occasionally, and in 1993, seven years after their first album, twenty-one years after their inception, they even graced their audience with a second record. Naturally, it's on a small French label and difficult to find in the United States. Personally, that no longer frustrates me. If people need to find this band, they will. Those who have continue to come out of the woodwork when they perform, responding to the tribal shamans who call on our behalf to the spirit voice in the woods.

Memphis music is an approach to life, defined by geography, dignified by the bluesmen. This is the big city surrounded by farmland, where snug businessmen gamble on the labor of fieldhands, widening the gap between them, testing the uneasy alliance. Memphis has always been a place where cultures came together to have a wreck: black and white, rural and urban, poor and rich. The music in Memphis is more than a soundtrack to these confrontations. It is the document of it. To misquote W. C. Handy's "Beale Street Blues," If the Mississippi River could talk, a lot of great folks would have to get up and walk.

One summer day, before I entered the twelfth grade, I spotted a couple of tourists downtown. Bullish on Memphis, I stopped to offer assistance. They were French, in town only for the day, and expressed an interest in Memphis music. They got in my car and, though it was my custom to phone first, we showed up unannounced at Furry Lewis's rundown duplex. Over the past year I'd visited him regularly enough that he and his lady friends recognized me when I appeared. This was 1978. Furry was near eighty. I was seventeen. Furry was black. I was white. The French tourists were wearing short pants.

There were hellos all around as we were welcomed, and, once seated, the question was raised about Furry playing the guitar. Seems like he might could play the tourists a song, uh-huh. Did my friends drink whiskey, he wanted to know. I was translating. I didn't speak French, but their schooling hadn't prepared them for Furry's accent. One tourist asked for water, but then decided he'd drink with us. There was a liquor store around the corner, and a friend of Furry's volunteered to get the bottle for us, how much did we want, a half gallon? It was about four in the afternoon. Furry had his guitar out, tuning. Beautiful. I recently found a cassette recording of all this. Thinking only of myself, and only of the present, a half gallon seemed a bit much. Don't try to take me. When we sent the friend off for our whiskey with just two dollars, enough for a half pint, barely a swallow all the way around, Furry put the guitar down and said, "The rheumatism got me this afternoon, I can't get myself together."

French wasn't the only language I was learning that day.

Copyright © 1995 by Robert Gordon

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Meet the Author

Robert Gordon has written for major music publications in the United States and England, and has contributed to several books. He produced the Al Green CD box set Anthology, and his liner notes were nominatied for a Grammy&@174;. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning blues documentary All Day and All Night, and his music video work has appeared on MTV, BET, and CMT. He is the author of a forthcoming biography of Muddy Waters and director of the companion documentary. He lives in Memphis with his wife and two daughters.

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