Living in Memphis in 1954, Johnny's world is completely segregated -- until he starts sneaking out to Beale Street at night. Beale Street, with its music clubs, is on the wrong side of the tracks, but it's the only place Johnny can hear the blues, which is all he cares about. It's also near Sun Records, where Johnny finds himself working for Sam Phillips -- and witnessing history in the making when an up-and-coming musician named Elvis records his first song. Nobody has heard anything like it.
All at once Johnny is pulled into a storm of controversy around this new kind of music, just as racial tensions are reaching a breaking point. What started out as a part-time job and a way to get behind the scenes of a record label is now spinning out of control. As songs like Elvis's start rising up the charts, Johnny sees the power music has to bring people together -- while secrets from the past threaten to tear his black-and-white life apart.
In this searing, cinematic novel, acclaimed writer Ronald Kidd tells a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of race conflict and the birth of rock and roll.
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It was a good day at Poplar Tunes.
I was a regular there, a fifteen-year-old kid in blue jeans who showed up on summer afternoons and combed the record bins, looking for the latest hits by Hank Thompson and Kitty Wells. Mr. Novarese, the owner, would set aside records he thought I might like. He was behind the counter when I walked in that day.
"Hey, Johnny, I got one for you," he called. "It's the new Eddy Arnold."
Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a few coins and a crumpled-up dollar bill, all the money I had in the world.
"Thanks, Mr. Novarese," I said, "but I'll be looking in the used bins today."
Poplar Tunes was the best record store in Memphis and was an easy bus ride from my house. There were rows of bins, with every kind of music from country to pop. My favorite part was the used section, where you could pick up good records that had just a scratch or two.
As I started across the store, I noticed a familiar face. It was Ruth Ann Morris, who had been in my English class the year before. I had spoken to her once or twice but wasn't sure she even knew my name. I knew hers. Ruth Ann had a smile that made my throat tighten, and she seemed to float a few inches off the ground. She was wearing a plain skirt and blouse, but to me she looked like royalty.
I was working up the nerve to say something, when my foot caught on one of the bins and I went sprawling in the aisle. I looked up and saw Ruth Ann gazing down at me. She smiled, but it wasn't mean. It was cool and beautiful, like always.
"You were in my English class," she said. "Aren't you Johnny Ross?"
I nodded. "You're Ruth Ann Morris."
Scrambling to my feet, I bumped my head on the bin. I lurched back a step. She stood on her tiptoes and reached for the bump on my head. My skin tingled where she touched it.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"Not now," I said. I blushed, and she smiled again.
"What happened?" said a voice behind me. It was Mr. Novarese.
"I bumped my head. It's okay."
"Let me see," he said.
Sighing, I tilted my head so he could look. He crouched down and examined the record bin.
"Seems fine," he said.
Ruth Ann stifled a giggle, then asked him, "Can you help me find a record? It's for my father's birthday."
"Johnny can help you," said Mr. Novarese. "He may have a hard head, but he knows his music."
He went back to the counter, while I helped Ruth Ann check the bins. We looked at country records first, then moved to male vocalists. Her eyes lit up when she saw "Oh! My Papa," a new record by Eddie Fisher.
"That's perfect!" she said.
Mr. Novarese rang up the record and put it in a bag. Ruth Ann started for the door, then hesitated.
"Thank you, Johnny," she said. She smiled. Then she was gone.
I spent more time looking through the bins, but my mind was still on Ruth Ann. I remembered her smile and the way she had touched me. Finally I picked out a couple of records and headed home.
"Hello, Memphis! Bob Neal here, frying eggs on the sidewalk and bringing you the top country hits. That was a new one from Webb Pierce."
I sat on our front steps, drinking an Orange Crush and listening to music. Sometimes on hot days I would bring the radio out onto our porch, trying to get away from the heat inside. A few people in the neighborhood had air-conditioning, but we didn't. Arthur Chapman did. He was my mother's boss. He owned half of downtown Memphis. Mr. Chapman had one of the biggest houses in town, and my mother and I lived in a cottage at the back of his property.
Bob Neal talked about Goody's Headache Powder, then played more music. As I listened, a young man came around the corner of our house. He was a few years older than me, with skin the color of caramel. He glanced around, as if sizing the place up.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
I half expected him to run. Instead, he looked up at me. "You live here?"
"I said, what are you doing?"
"I'm supposed to trim your bushes," he said. "But if you live here, seems like you should do it."
"Where's Will?" I asked. Will was a combination gardener, handyman, and driver for Arthur Chapman.
The young man said, "Will's in the garage, working on the cars."
"Maybe I'll go get him."
"You do that," he said.
I stared at him, and he stared back.
He said, "Who are you?"
He nodded, then disappeared around the corner and came back holding a pair of gardening shears. He held them out to me. "You'll need these."
I didn't move. He shrugged. "Can't say I didn't try."
He turned to the bush. Holding the shears with a left-handed grip, he clipped off a few small branches.
"You're new," I said.
"Score one for the white boy."
"You talk different. Not just your accent."
He shook his head. "People in Memphis, they don't know what real Negroes sound like. We have opinions. We know what we want. We don't smile and shuffle."
He lowered the shears and held out his hand. "I'm Lamont Turner. From Chicago."
I shook his hand. I didn't know what else to do. Then I thought of something. "Turner? Are you any relation to Will?"
"Score two for the white boy. He's my father."
"I didn't know Will had a son."
"Now you do," he said.
"How did you get here?" I asked.
"You know what I mean."
He said, "Will Turner used to be married to my mother. They split after I was born, and we moved to Chicago. That's where I was raised. Early this year my mother was out of work. She has relatives in Memphis, and they got her a job, if you can call it that. A few weeks ago we moved back here."
"What's the job?" I asked.
"She's a maid. I bet you're impressed. Mother's a maid, father's a grunt."
"What about you?"
"I just finished high school," he said. "My father got me this job. Assistant grunt. This is my first day."
"You don't sound too happy about it."
"I'm happy about the money."
Money. It was something I thought about a lot. I guess that's the way it is when you don't have much of it. I thought about it now -- how it would feel in my hand, what I would buy with it.
"Maybe I should get a job," I said.
"You want a job? Man, what's wrong with you? You got the American dream -- no school, no work, just summer stretching out all day long."
"And night," I said. "I like it at night."
He smiled, looking someplace I couldn't see. "You like the nighttime, try the south side of Chicago. People on the streets. Laughing, drinking. Listening to music. I used to drive down there every chance I got."
I said, "You have a car?"
"Thirty-eight Ford. I'll take you for a ride sometime."
I hesitated. He saw it in my face.
"What's wrong, you scared? White boy don't want to be seen with a Nee-gro?"
Someone called, "Hey, Johnny!"
I looked around and saw Trey Chapman, Mr. Chapman's son. He was eighteen, with blond hair, big shoulders, and a bigger grin. Trey had just graduated from a fancy boarding school. Now that he was back home, he liked to drive through town in his Cadillac convertible. Sometimes he would hang around the house, trying to stir things up.
When Trey got closer, he shot me a smile that wasn't a smile. "What are you doing? Hanging out with the help?"
"I guess so," I said.
Trey turned to Lamont. "What are you staring at?"
"You," said Lamont.
Trey stepped toward him, so their noses were almost touching. Lamont didn't budge.
"This ain't Chicago," said Trey. "It's Memphis."
"So?" said Lamont.
Trey said, "You don't understand how it works around here."
"Maybe you could explain."
"This is how it works," said Trey.
He gave Lamont a hard shove. Lamont staggered back and fell to the ground. Dropping the gardening shears, he jumped to his feet, face flushed. He took a step toward Trey.
Trey grinned. "One more step and you're fired. Your father's fired. Your mother, too. Do it, man. Come on, take a step."
Lamont leaned forward, his hands working.
Trey said, "Or you could go for the jackpot. Hit me. Imagine how that would feel. Just one swing. You can do it, I know you can."
Lamont clenched his fists. Sweat dripped from his chin.
"Touch me," said Trey, "and your life's over."
Lamont reached for him. Trey's grin slipped, just for a moment. Then Lamont stopped, and Trey's grin came back.
Lamont said, "Another time, another place. I'll get you."
"You watch it, boy," said Trey.
Lamont gazed at him. Then, straightening his shoulders, he picked up the gardening shears and headed off.
Trey called after him. "Hey!"
Lamont turned around.
"Welcome to Memphis," said Trey.
He watched Lamont leave, then took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, shook one out, and lit it. Squinting through the smoke, he reached down and adjusted the dial on my radio. There was static, then the voice of Patti Page, singing a pop tune.
"You like that music?" I asked.
"Naw," he said. "But leave it on that station. WHBQ, at 560. Tonight at ten o'clock, Dewey Phillips comes on. He's got a show called Red Hot and Blue."
"You mean, like the flag?"
"No, man. Red Hot and Blue. Blue as in the blues. B. B. King. Big Mama Thornton. Rufus Thomas. Don't tell me you've never heard of them."
Trey lowered his voice and looked around. "They're Negroes. They have their own kind of music. It's incredible."
"I thought you didn't like Negroes," I said.
"I love Negroes. Can't you tell? Anyway, I'm not planning to invite one home. I just like their music."
I said, "Is Dewey Phillips a Negro?"
Trey laughed. "A Negro? He's as white as you or me. But not normal white. He's loud white. Jumping white. Crazy white."
Trey took a long pull from his cigarette, then crushed it out on the porch next to me.
"Just listen tonight," he said. "You'll see."
He shot me a grin, then moved off across the yard.
That night I watched my mother make cornbread and black-eyed peas. She was tall, with wavy brown hair, dark eyes, and a forehead with a permanent set of wrinkles.
She had put an apron on over her business suit. As she moved around the kitchen, I could tell that her mind was still downtown, at work. She brought our food to the kitchen table and asked distractedly, "How was your day?"
I didn't say anything about Ruth Ann or Trey. I did tell her about Poplar Tunes, and I mentioned Will's son.
She looked up at me, her attention suddenly riveted. "Will's son?"
"Lamont. He's from Chicago."
I told her what he was like and how he had come to Memphis. I was surprised to realize that she already seemed to know about him.
She shook her head, worried. "Stay away from that boy."
"From Lamont? Why?"
"Just do as I say."
I dug in to the cornbread. She took a sip of coffee, eyeing me thoughtfully.
"I heard you come in last night," she said. "You were out late again, weren't you?"
For as long as I could remember, my mother had fallen asleep early, tired from work. I'd gotten into the habit of going out while she slept. Most of the time she didn't even know it.
"I don't like you running around at night," she said. "It's dangerous."
"I'm not little anymore. I'm fifteen."
"What do you do out there?" she asked.
"You're going to get in trouble. I don't want to be woken up some night by the police."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I said.
"I mean it, Johnny. Find something else to do. Take up a hobby."
I remembered my conversation with Lamont. "Maybe I should get a job."
"We could use the money."
"That's crazy. You're a boy. It's summer. You're supposed to be having fun. Besides, I've got a perfectly good job."
"He hardly pays you anything," I said. "How long have you been with him? Twenty years? You practically run the place."
"Mr. Chapman's been good to us. He lets us stay in this house."
"And isn't it great," I said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Come on, Mom. What are we doing here? This is the richest neighborhood in town. We don't have money. We don't have a big house. We don't belong. It's a pretend life. The kids at school know it. They laugh at me."
"Don't pay any attention to them."
"Wake up, Mom. You're dreaming. I'm not Trey Chapman. I never will be. At least let me make some money. Even Lamont has money."
She set her jaw and went back to eating. Shaking my head, I got up from the table and took my dishes to the sink, then went into my room and closed the door.
When I came out later she had fallen asleep on the sofa. I covered her with a quilt and went back to my room. Sitting on the bed, I turned on the radio and adjusted the dial to 560. A voice came flying out.
"Deegaw! Dewey Phillips comin' at you, just flat fixin' to bring you the hottest thing in the country, Red Hot and Blue, on WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee. Wake up out there, just get ready. We're gonna play the first record for Denice, for Percy, for J. V., for Bernice, for Beulah, for Effie, for Oliver. We're gonna flat "Dig that Boogie" by Piano Red. Aw, just set on it, Red. If you can't set on it, lay on it."
Somebody started pounding on a piano and singing, "Let's dig that boogie, let's dig that boogie."
Dewey Phillips talked over the music, laughing, singing along. The music ended, and he kept on going.
"The next portion of Red Hot and Blue comes to you courtesy of Lansky Brothers Clothing, down on Beale Street. They got easy credit. Just pay for it while you're wearin' it out. Go on and get you a wheelbarrow full of horseshoes and run 'em right through the front door. Just kick it down and tell 'em Dewey Phillips sent you. Yes sir, Lansky's. Down on Beale Street, where there's music every night. We got Piano Red at the Club House, Little Laura Dukes at the Midway, Rosco Gordon at Pee Wee's Saloon. Hey, Rosco, you there? Come on in, baby. No more doggin'. You tell 'em."
As he talked, a laid-back shuffling tune started, with a saxophone and a singer whose voice was soft and hoarse: "No more doggin', foolin' around with you."
The music played. Dewey Phillips talked. There was more music and more talking. Through it all I sat on my bed, not moving.
There was something about that voice, that music. I'd never heard anything like it. Half the time I couldn't understand the words, but it didn't matter. It was pure feeling. It was life, spilling out of the speaker and into my house. There were people out there, like the ones who worked in mansions up and down the street, like Will, like Lamont.
It was a place. It was a world -- in the air, in my mind. And it had a name. Beale Street. Beale Street, where there's music every night.
I had always heard about Beale Street. I'd been there a few times on my way to someplace else. It was downtown for Negroes. They had their own stores, restaurants, theaters. It was right next to the white downtown, but it could have been miles away. We had our world and they had theirs, close by, related, parallel but never touching. There was black. There was white. But there was never gray. That's just the way it was in Memphis.
I thought about Beale Street, about the music and the people. I wondered what it was like after dark.
Copyright © 2008 by Ronald Kidd
Table of Contents
PART 1 BLACK
PART 2 WHITE
PART 3 GRAY