All I knew about Tennessee prior to arriving in Memphis in the middle of March of this year was that Al Gore lost the state in the 2000 Election, and that Memphis was the home of Elvis and his Graceland. I didn’t know that it was also the home of the multimedia and very worthwhile Civil Rights Museum, and this year on April 4, marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. aged 39. He was struck down by one bullet in his neck at the Lorraine Motel. The actual bedroom that he stayed in is part of the museum, which is situated at the site of the assassination itself. Kind of eerie. But it places you right in the thick of things where history was made. No virtual or augmented reality required. You are there and it is shocking. You reach his bedroom and the scene of the assassination after reading personal accounts of figures like Rosa Parks and many others earlier in the museum, people you may have never heard of who played a role in the civil rights movement.
Luminaries throughout the museum present their position on race and equality. President Lyndon Johnson in March 1965 proclaimed: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is only an American problem …. Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome, the crippling legacy and injustice ….” (Too bad our current president doesn’t see it this way.)
Aside from its political history, Memphis is known for its contribution to American music. Beale Street is home to the BB King Cafe and across the street is the Blues City Cafe, not far from the Lorraine Motel. We had lunch and met a couple from England who had just come from Nashville.
The blues emerged from the Deep South and had its roots in songs of the field workers and the rural black Church. The blues was an expression against shame and humiliation, personal and political, the denial of blacks to fully participate in American democracy. In this sense, the music culture and the political history came together as one in the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., a minister and son of a Baptist pastor, an early figure in the civil rights movement.
Memphis Jones, a local artist, played a spirited set at BB King’s Club and played in front of a jam-packed crowd on a late afternoon/early evening. A $5 cover was the price of admission. I did what I usually do when present at a musical venue: bob my head, cautiously swing side-to-side, people watch and take it all in. Reminiscent of high school, when the Valkyries played in the crepe-paper-decorated high school cafeteria in Wayland. At BB King’s I stood near the amps along with Arlyn, whereas She cut loose with her physical and kinetic energy in full display, to the extent that an anonymous young man half her age swept her off her feet onto the dance floor, dancing side-by-side for a minute or two, until she respectfully told him her husband was with her. He got the message, came off the floor, shook my hand, thanked me for the chance to dance with her, and was gone into the bar crowd. He was harmless, just having a good time. That’s why we were there too: to have fun. I didn’t smell any liquor on him but Arlyn did. His performance prompted me to join her back on the dance floor myself, though I was not as good a dancer as he. I just didn’t want to lose her to another guy. And have fun with her to the best of my abilities.
Sam Phillps (that’s Philips with two l’s) is the one who discovered Elvis, along with BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner and the Million Dollar Quartet. That’s Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny and Carl Perkins. Sun Records and Studio started in 1950 a couple of years before I was born. Sam was a visionary, record producer, engineer, businessman, and marketer who believed that the black man’s music could improve race relations and foster peace. He was always looking for a certain sound and packaged and promoted his musicians to personify his vision and that would sell records, build an audience and make himself a living.
Case in point: originally Johnny Cash, who called himself John Cash upon meeting Sam wanted to be known as JB in the music world. Sam didn’t like that and argued that “Johnny” worked better. JB became Johnny. No one messed with his name. Sam of course was always known as Sam. He was an original, as original as the performers he recorded and made famous. He eventually made a fortune, and set up his two boys in the music business.
I grew up listening to rock ‘n roll, and didn’t turn to rhythm and blues until later in life. As a kid, age six or seven or eight, I fantasized along with my childhood friend Jimmy Powers, of being a disc jockey, having our own radio show, playing the same songs and hanging out with the musicians of the day. Jimmy and I never did anything other than role play in the backyard, and make up a fictitious radio station call letters and slogan (“W-I-K-E that’s for me”). Where this all came from I don’t know except I guess it was further proof that communications and content was of interest to me (and Jimmy) at a young age.
While my brother Skip played organ in a high school rock band, and I played piano, I didn’t become a performer. My father loved listening and dancing to the likes of Duke Ellington, Bobby Short, Johnny Hodges, Lena Horne and many others in free form jazz performances as that’s what jazz is about, unlike the blues. His love of jazz grew on me but I tended to listen to other music.