Give 'Em SOUL, RICHARD!
Race, Radio, and Rhythm and Blues in Chicago
By Richard E. Stamz Patrick A. Roberts
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees
All right reserved.
Chapter One Memphis
As with Alan Lomax's great book The Land Where the Blues Began, Richard's story begins in Memphis, Tennessee, where Richard was born in April 1906. The circumstances of his birth, however, are as muddy as the Mississippi, the river on which he claims to have been born. Richard's family says his birth did not happen the way he describes it below, and they celebrate it on April 10 rather than April 1, the (rather suspicious) date Richard gave me. Yet, Richard repeated the story to me so consistently over the years, and with such conviction, that I do not doubt he sincerely believed its veracity. If not true, the story may have originated as part of the mythology Richard built up around his disc jockey persona, a way to play up his southern roots. Self-mythologizing and hyperbole were standard practices in the blues, after all.
On the other hand, it is not inconceivable that the story of Richard's birth carries within it some truth. In the Shelby County, Tennessee registry of births, "Richard Stams" is listed, but unlike all of the other births listed on the page, the actual day of Richard's birth is not recorded. There are other intriguing discrepancies between Richard's memory and the official record as well. The death certificate for Kitty Carter, Richard's grandmother, notes that she died on October 24, 1927, at the age of eighty. The noted cause of death is pneumonia caused by influenza. "No," said Richard when I informed him of this official fact. "Christmas Eve she fell down the stairs and broke her legs. She got pneumonia because she was bedridden and died. She was at least eighty-eight." I believe Richard was mistaken as to her age. If she were eighty in October of 1927, her birth date would have been 1847. This would have made her seventeen—according to Richard the age at which she was freed from slavery—in 1864. Death certificates can be wrong, of course, and the "official" truth inaccurate. For example, the certificate for Richard's grandmother lists the informant as "Williams Starns," a misspelling of his father's first and last name.
These discrepancies aside, certain facts about Richard's early life are clear. He had, by and large, a middle-class upbringing. His family attended the all-black Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the same attended by Robert Church, the light-skinned, Republican patriarch of Memphis' African American community in the early 1900s. Richard's sister played the organ, and his oldest brother became an Episcopalian priest. Richard's middle-class status is also confirmed through the family's association with W. C. Handy. Richard's father and Handy were members of the same fraternal organization, the Knights of Pythias.
Richard and his brothers and sister all attended LeMoyne, now called LeMoyne-Owen College, an all-black private school. The history of LeMoyne reaches back to the Civil War. It began as one of the many schools founded by the American Missionary Association, and in 1871 it became known as a normal school for teacher training. When Richard began attending, the school was located on Orleans Avenue. It moved to Walker Avenue in 1914. It became a junior college in 1924 and a four-year college in 1930. The teachers at LeMoyne were mostly women and all were white. The school was regarded with suspicion by many Memphis whites. In this chapter, Richard describes a number of run-ins with a white policeman who accused him of attending school only to leer at the white female teachers. But the truth was Richard and his classmates were hungry for an education. They knew the value of the opportunity a private school like LeMoyne offered them. Richard was a fast learner, and he excelled as an athlete in a variety of sports, including tennis. But one of the more lasting lessons learned by Richard at LeMoyne had to do with white people; he learned that these white teachers from the North were, if not paternalistic, committed to his education and to the advancement of African Americans. They represented for Richard the view that not all whites were to be mistrusted and that the world was different outside of the South, where racism made its presence known in a multitude of brutal ways.
Sitting as it does on the seam that buttons up the middle of the country, Memphis is defined by three things: music, the Mississippi, and race. It would have been hard to grow up in Memphis in the early part of the twentieth century and not be affected by these three forces. In this first chapter, Richard's recollections revolve freely around them. Whether he was taking the streetcar up Florida Street past Dr. J. B. Martin's South Memphis Drug Company, where the talk inside undoubtedly revolved around the Memphis Red Sox, or walking down to Robert Henry's Pink Rose Ballroom for a dance, Richard paid attention to Memphis and its characters. As a child, he absorbed the music that was taking place all around him—the marches, ragtime, primitive blues, classic blues, and early jazz. Richard's growth into adulthood paralleled the evolution of these musical forms.
And, of course, his memory roams Beale Street. References to Beale Street pepper any history of the blues, but go there today and be prepared to be disappointed. Places like the Monarch saloon, where Alan Lomax found Jelly Roll Morton sitting at the bar, are gone. "Beale Street ain't Beale Street no more," lamented blues singer Gatemouth Moore. In Richard's day, Beale Street was a place of prostitutes and cafés, barbershops and back alley crap games. But it was also a community, a symbol of black cohesion. It is significant that the perpetrators of one notorious lynching, described by Richard in this opening chapter, dumped the charred body of their victim on Beale Street in the middle of the day.
This chapter also describes the formative years of Richard's lifelong obsession with the gimmick, an obsession that would help carry him into entertainment and radio. In Richard the compulsion to hustle settled in early, and small-time opportunities rolled through Memphis like the river. If he was sharp, a boy could do a pretty good business hustling nickels, dimes, and even quarters. Richard's remembrances of Memphis focus extensively on this aspect of his childhood.
Wade in the Water
The story of my birth is a hell of a story. My father, William Stams, was an engineer for the Mississippi Valley Authority, which in those days was a rare thing. He was a pure American Indian. He never looked black, and he was never hired as black. My mother was the dark-skinned side of the family. Both my parents come out of Mississippi. My father built levees on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans. That was his job. He had about five to six barges and he carried anywhere from forty to seventy employees, including the big cranes that scooped the mud and the sand out of the river to build levee mounds. He had the equipment used to maintain the levees under his charge. Most of the people that worked on the barges were black because they did heavy-duty work. I tell this story about my birth. One day my mother, Sara, set out from Memphis on a river barge to find my daddy, who was working with a crew on the Arkansas side, in order to collect his pay. Before she could reach him, she gave birth to me on the barge in the middle of the river. Five or six days later she got back to Memphis. I tell people I was born within the boundaries of the United States but not within the boundaries of any particular state. It was actually in the Mississippi River.
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