Sunday, October 17, 2021

What Happened on Highway 61? - Part 5: Memphis, City of Kings and Conquerors

A Blog by A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 4 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Well that's alright mama, that's alright for you
That's alright mama, just anyway yo' do
And, that's alright."

Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup, 1946

Had René Cavelier started his river exploration from the Rocky mountains and not Lake Itasca, the Missouri would now flow all the way to New Orleans. Thus maintaining the convention of naming mighty rivers after the water course flowing longest from source to sea. The Mississippi is it's given name because a Frenchman was ignorant of the western extent of this great watershed.

In spite of this erroneously named waterway, Tom Sawyer would still have had his adventures, Chicago's killing floors would continue their grisly business and iron ore still smelted by black immigrant labor from further downstream. A gauche boy in crisp shirt, dyed black, slicked-back hair, with a patrimonic would commission a recording of him singing his mother's favorite song. Marion Keisker, Sun Studios' factotum would be sufficiently enamored to champion him to her boss. Seeing that behind the perfectly preened persona and coy checking out of his mojo here was a man uniquely talented and intent on realizing his ambition to become a king. A king soon to beguile baby-boomers and make the god-fearing fearful.

So, Memphis is not located on the longest US river as that of it's Egyptian city namesake but that of a pretender and the January wind blew cruel across its watery expanse. We were ensconced a block away from the mighty Mississippi and inclement weather was a small price to pay to be located a stone's throw from Beale. Our apartment was opposite the Chisca hotel from where was the song that changed the world was first broadcast. To our right, a now a derelict hotel where reputedly, the King conducted furtive dalliances with those in thrall to more than his velvet vocal chords.

Beale Street is much narrower, shorter and brasher than that of my youthful imaginings. No less so perhaps, than that experienced by North Americans when they first visit Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square in London. A few hours is all that is needed get the drift of it's shiny froth. Further down this famous thoroughfare, on the way to Sun studios, is the house of WC Handy. A worthwhile diversion, his modest home and contents are in contrast to Graceland 's down-home-mama's-boy-made-good-ostentation.

"Sun" is an obvious port of call, where "the" discovery was made. Often overlooked in this tale of serendipity (something of a theme running through the Memphis story) is that, had it not been for a fruitful, fortuitous meeting two years earlier. Elvis Presley might possibly have continued a career behind the wheel of a Kenwood rig.

When a saxophonist and pianist born and shaped on the musical anvil that was Clarksdale, made an appointment with Sam Phillips, he thought them another Blues act, like many he had recorded before. Destined at best to make a showing in the "Race Record " Charts, as Howling Wolf had done earlier. When the "Delta Cats" swung the self-penned "Rocket 88" in a tempo that became Rock and Roll, Sam Philips the hitmaker was born. Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner's self-penned cross-over hit proved to be pivotal in securing both his business's viability and reputation as Star maker.

Southside, Memphis is home to "Soulsville USA." Once another recording studio that shaped the world. Again it was adventurers with good fortune to be in the moment and more important who grasped the opportunity provided by an abandoned cinema next to the record shop they owned. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon's dream to emulate Sun in recording and promoting home grown talent, proved to be just as successful.

With the nearby Booker T Washington Academy supplying a steady stream of talent and multi-racial house band, Satellite studios became better known by one of it's labels. STAX is now a museum, in which a serious researcher into soul music could spend many more hours than we joyously spent there.

For more photos, please click HERE

Memphis has more museums celebrating its musical legacy than you can wave a baton at and if tried, your arm would soon tire. They vary from pretty good to excellent but it is the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel charting the black struggle that is Memphis ' jewel in the crown. What better opportunity to visit than Martin Luther King day but thwarted by the queues to enter, imbibed the many events and musical performances staged in the South Main District celebrating the great doctor's life. Visiting a day later, seeing the exhibits charting the struggle against oppression, it became ever apparent the importance music plays in articulating inequity in all societies. Elegy sung in a minor key is universal and predates that with African American roots but it is that variant which gave birth to the melodies heard by my generation.

Perhaps, more than any, Memphis became a place where songs of sorrow, longing, ire and irony converged into the dominant popular form that endures universally today. Again, serendipity is central to it's story. When Sam Phillips first realized his tape recorder was running during the "The Blue Moon Boys" sound-check song, even as spools spun, he knew then that magic was in the making and that a country boy from Tupelo with a matinee idol looks, was the magician.

This takes the narrative of my journey to trace the Daddy of modern music almost full circle. To the shrine where for many of my generation, it all began - Graceland. A place which epitomizes a rags to riches story and that of a trillion dollar industry that this house's occupant, was it's Firestarter. A conflagration that gave rise to many imitators and innovators too, as Lennon and McCartney were inspired to be, and countless others also. Western popular music continues to evolve but it's roots, like all it's performers and audience, from wherever they hail, were once African.

Memphis may not be the hub on a great river confluence but it is from here that it's music flowed in all directions. If New Orleans was it's port of entry, then Memphis was where the musical genres met, morphed and were dissipated around the world. FedEx is now the economic drive of this great city and it is fitting that consolidation and dispatch should continue worldwide, albeit now commodities more than just musical. This city would be the starting point for another musical odyssey altogether, one which I have yet to make. It would be to where the music was made electric to be audible above urban din. North to the Great Lakes, West to where longhorns and iron donkeys share space and East to the heart of yet another American musical genre. This is for another time.

So, my story comes to an end sharing my reflections when airborne above MIA, that of in many visits to the US, this had been the first to Southern states. It's where I left my heart and where I hope to return. Although, often troubled and yet to be reconciled with its turbulent past, the ordinary folk that populate this great land, are some of the warmest anyone could hope to encounter. The racial divide that still exists in a country built by those seeking refuge, fleeing injustice or disadvantage or enslavement is an enigma I hope soon to be solved. Perhaps, only an outsider looking in can see that too many still, are prisoners of their own recent history. A history sad enough without the grotesque version thrust forefront by the resentful and fearful, aiming to poison all with their irrationality. The prison bars from behind which they are voluntarily imprisoned, forged in another time, fail to prevent light shining through and just as easily, could be slipped through. As music in it's many forms illustrates - our preference for harmony over dissonance is innately human and in that, are we not all equal?

I hope that my heart rests in the right place, for my love affair with the Southland has yet to end.