Memphis meltdown

It's the home of the blues. And soul. And rock'n'roll. In fact, what Memphis isn't home to, ain't worth takin' home. As the city's music legends fly in for a major festival, Phil Johnson bowls along Beale Street...
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The Independent Culture

When it comes to cities and their music, it's easy to roll out the civic stereotypes. Liverpool is chirpy, Manchester chippy, and Bristol very slow. In the US, New York is edgy, Chicago hard as nails, New Orleans funky and Los Angeles soft and full of drugs. And Memphis? Well, Memphis music is soulful, isn't it? Hmmm, up to a point. As next month's Barbican festival, It Came From Memphis, should prove beyond doubt, Memphis is the single most important city in the history of popular music, the equivalent of Paris and New York in visual art, Chicago in architecture and Vienna in psychoanalysis. And boy, would Dr Freud have a time of it in Memphis, where the city's long line of "colourful" characters - many connected with the music industry, like the pioneering rock'n'roll DJ Daddy-O-Dewey Phillips - have exhibited plenty of borderline-psychotic symptoms over the years.

When it comes to cities and their music, it's easy to roll out the civic stereotypes. Liverpool is chirpy, Manchester chippy, and Bristol very slow. In the US, New York is edgy, Chicago hard as nails, New Orleans funky and Los Angeles soft and full of drugs. And Memphis? Well, Memphis music is soulful, isn't it? Hmmm, up to a point. As next month's Barbican festival, It Came From Memphis, should prove beyond doubt, Memphis is the single most important city in the history of popular music, the equivalent of Paris and New York in visual art, Chicago in architecture and Vienna in psychoanalysis. And boy, would Dr Freud have a time of it in Memphis, where the city's long line of "colourful" characters - many connected with the music industry, like the pioneering rock'n'roll DJ Daddy-O-Dewey Phillips - have exhibited plenty of borderline-psychotic symptoms over the years.

The city is home to the blues, rock'n'roll, rockabilly, country and the brilliant post-Beatles rock of the band Big Star as well as R&B and Southern soul music; and while Memphis music might be soulful, it is also wild and dangerous, with only a thin razor's edge separating the two strains. Even the most sensitive of soul ballads can have a simmering threat lying just below the surface, just as the novels of the Tennessee-bred Cormac McCarthy mix maudlin sentimentality and sudden violence on the same page. "Memphis music is grittier than Motown, closer to where the blues began," says soul legend and actor Isaac Hayes, who has returned to his native Memphis and opened a restaurant. "It's down-home soul music, born out of blues and gospel."

The festival, It Came From Memphis - a title inspired by the writer Robert Gordon's book of the same name - covers the Mississippi waterfront of Memphis musical styles in a programme of concerts and documentary films, with the main focus reserved for the recording studios that have supported the music of the city and its environs over the last half century, from Sun to Stax and beyond. The range of acts on show is quite astonishing, and unlikely to be repeated in either your lifetime or that of the artists, some of whom are reaching the end of long and hard careers.

So, if you want to see legends such as bad-ass blues and soulmen Ike Turner and Little Milton, original rockabilly cats Billy Lee Riley, Jack Clement and Sonny Burgess, or even soul divas Ann Peebles and Mavis Staples (who don't travel lightly), now is your chance. As even a cursory sampling of the festival will prove, Memphis music speaks volubly of the extraordinary cultural and historical roots that have made the city what it is.

Indeed, if there's one place left on earth where a man might still yearn to wear a pair of long, tapered sideburns and a greasy pompadoured duck's-arse quiff, it has to be Memphis, Tennessee. Bowling along Beale Street in the metaphorical mufti of shades, lurid sports shirt, jet-black Levis and innocent-mammal boots, while one's jawbone works away at a mouthful of gum, tobacco or amphetamine-residue, the days of the great rockabilly cats of the 1950s really can feel like only yesterday.

Back in 1955, a white man probably wouldn't get killed for dressing like a Confederate flag-waving Klan member, either, although he might have to watch his step. It's important to remember that Memphis is a half-white/half-black city, and has been since the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic killed off the recently-arrived Irish and sent the Germans fleeing up-river to St Louis. African-Americans proved more resistant to the infection and survived to become a near-majority, which persists today.

Relations between the races have not always been cordial. There's a history of (mainly white) riots that stretches from post-Civil War reconstruction to the aftermath of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, which occurred at the city's Lorraine Motel on 4 April, 1968 - perhaps the most defining date in Memphis history. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that every facet of culture in Memphis is marked by the interplay of black and white, from barbecues to baseball. And when it comes to music, the interplay is all.

Of course, tourist-trap Beale Street in the downtown area isn't what it was, but they've been saying that since WC Handy, "the father of the blues", left in 1917. As with the French Quarter of New Orleans, its musical near-neighbour down the Mississippi river in the Gulf of Mexico (and in these parts it's hard to avoid sounding like a song lyric), what strikes you most is not how homogenised George W Bush-era Memphis has become, but how proudly different it remains.

Memphis seems like a very congenial kind of place as you turn into the entrance to Elvis Presley's Memphis - a theme restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of the King - to sit awhile and taste the unexpectedly delicious pleasures of a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. But in the past, congenial would not have been the adjective of choice, at least not for Beale Street. "Elemental" might be closer to the mark. For decades at the beginning of the 20th century, Memphis was the murder capital of the USA, despite its relatively small population (still only 600,000 or so today).

Drugs had a part to play, too. While rockabillies and country stars took little white pep pills to keep them awake on the road, in the early years of the century it seems everyone else was on cocaine. In 1900, the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, estimated (surely inaccurately) that 80 per cent of the black population, as well as "a considerable number of whites", used the drug. It would be bought legally in five- and 10-cent boxes from the drugstore, and in patent medicines sold at travelling shows. It was also imported from South America by plantation owners anxious to keep their workers' noses to the grindstone. In 1930, the Memphis Jug Band recorded "Cocaine Habit", which namechecked Beale Street's Lehman's Drugstore: "I went to Mr Lehman's in a lope/ Sign on the window says 'no more dope'."

And drugs or not, Beale Street really was wild; as the first primarily African-American entertainment centre in the USA (pre-dating New York's Harlem by a number of years) Saturday night could last all week long. Labourers from the lumber and turpentine camps of the Mississippi delta came to spend their wages in the bars and brothels, where the resident blues piano players and bands would work in shifts around the clock.

In 1909, the Palace Theatre on Beale, the city's black vaudeville theatre, helped organise TOBA, the Theatre Owners' Booking Association (later called Tough On Black Asses by performers disappointed by its low fees), as a national chain of African-American venues specialising in minstrel shows and bands led by WC Handy and others. In the same year, Tennessee passed its Prohibition law, but Memphis's machine politician, Boss Crump, ensured that no one on Beale needed to go without a drink, creating the same kind of corrupt conditions for a thriving night-life that helped to establish early jazz in New Orleans, and swing in Kansas City.

But Beale wasn't just for black people. In the Twenties, the Palace Theatre began its regular "Midnight Rambles", whereby shows were held especially for white patrons at 11.30pm every Thursday night. Following the Vaudeville blues craze of the time, Memphis's white society would come to see such performers as Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Alberta Hunter, the city's own queen of the blues. It was following a Beale Street engagement in 1937 that Bessie Smith was killed in a car crash on Highway 61 en route to Clarksdale in the Delta.

While Memphis was marked by (and resisted) enforced racial segregation until the 1960s, the unusually high degree of cultural miscegenation helped to determine the city's characteristic musical styles. Even country music developed many of its traits through the influence of African-Americans, both in the raw musical material of fiddle "breakdowns" played originally by slaves, and specific instances of collaboration: the famous Carter Family from Virginia employed a black Tennessee musician, Lesley Riddle, to help them arrange folk melodies. Ralph Peer of Victor Records described his first impression of future country star Jimmie Rodgers, "the Singing Brakeman" from Meridian, Mississippi, as "a bus boy in a roadside cafe, singing nigger blues".

Similarly, the Grand Ole Opry radio show in Nashville developed, according to one historian of Memphis music, Larry Nager, from the black Vaudveille acts that its founder, George Dewey Hay, saw at Beale's Palace Theatre when he worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal in the early 1920s. Hay wrote a "humorous" column called "Howdy, Judge", culled from court reports and specialising in minstrel-style dialogue and "coon" stereotypes. Beginning in 1925, the Opry shows featured black minstrel musicians such as DeFord Bailey (later dropped, Hay said, for not changing with the times) and a "folksy" style of humorous presentation that drew on black urban, as much as white rural, culture. The Opry's featured bands were also encouraged to change out of their business suits and don colourful "hillbilly" clothing of the sort familiar from the Palace's minstrel bands.

The rockabilly cats who would synthesise R&B and country into the hybrid rock'n'roll form kicked off their own era in Memphis against a background of new popularity for Beale Street's new country-blues heroes: Howlin' Wolf, Roscoe Gordon, BB King (a DJ at the still-operational black radio station WDIA) and Ike Turner - who became a kind of double-agent, working as a talent scout for both Sam Phillips' Sun Records and the Modern label of Los Angeles.

In 1950, Sam Phillips set up his Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, alternating souvenir recordings of weddings and funerals with blues sessions for Chess in Chicago or Modern and RPM in LA. In 1951, Izear "Ike" Turner and his band went to Phillips to cut the raucous automobile-themed rocking blues track "Rocket 88". Released on Chess under the name of the band's saxophonist, Jackie Brenston, who delivered the vocal, the song became an R&B number one.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio officially recognises "Rocket 88" as the first ever rock'n'roll record. "I don't even debate that," Ike Turner told me on the phone from Los Angeles. "Those people who inducted me, they must have had to do their research. If it is, it is. But it's like in America they always got to put a name on something. Rock'n'roll was nothing but fuckin' boogie woogie until a fuckin' white boy played it; when it's a black guy, it's just the blues."

As to how Turner feels about his portrayal by Laurence Fishburne (basically, as a coke-snorting maniac) in the Tina Turner biopic, What's Love Got to Do With It, I couldn't help but ask. "How would you feel about it?" he replied. "I was angry with myself but life goes on, you know? It was a mistake I made, but that is not me. But the real mistake was I signed a contract with the Disney Corporation giving permission for someone to play me in the movie. There was a clause saying they could do it anyway they wanted but I was so wrapped up in drugs that I didn't even read it. I didn't know what I was signing but I couldn't do anything about it. But you know, it's amazing how things can turn round. I tell you, God is good, you know? I went through seven years of hell, man; they assassinated me but people's forgotten all that stuff; they're fascinated with my show and what I'm doing now."

Intriguingly, for the Barbican's It Came From Memphis concert on 18 April, Ike Turner is set to appear on the same Sun Studios bill as the white rockabilly artists Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess and Jack Clement. Riley, who recorded perhaps the rocking-est of all rock'n'roll songs, "Red Hot" for Sun Records in 1957, had a reputation for wildness that rivals Turner's own. When he suspected that Sam Phillips had soft-pedalled his support of "Red Hot" in order to concentrate on the career of Jerry Lee Lewis, Riley poured whiskey all over the Sun recording equipment - a classic, Memphis-style, gratuitous act. The incendiary power of "Red Hot" is recaptured in some of the present wave of Memphis garage bands such as the North Mississippi All Stars, who appear in the opening It Came From Memphis concert on 3 April.

Of all the rockabilly cats who came to record at Sun Records (which Sam Phillips had started in 1952 - first hit: "Bear Cat" by the future Stax star Rufus Thomas the following year), it was Elvis Presley who most authoritatively provided what Sam Phillips was looking for ("If I could find a white singer with the Negro sound and the Negro feel I could make a million dollars"). Presley's first record, "That's All Right (Mama)" released in 1954, became a local hit after Sam Phillips slipped "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips (no relation) an acetate test-pressing that the DJ played on his Red Hot & Blue radio show over and over again.

Elvis's appearance - the patent-leather hair-do and pimp clothes - also corresponded perfectly to that ideal of a miscegenated marriage between black Beale Street style and white country manners that the era of the rockabilly cats had demanded. Such blatant appropriation remained offensive to many: when the young Elvis shared an early tour bill with country harmony duo The Louvin Brothers (his mother Gladys's favourite group), Ira Louvin called him "a white nigger". In the same year that "That's All Right" came out, the Civil Rights legislation that would eventually put an end to segregation was passed. In Memphis this due process would take an awful long time.

It was the racial shock waves following the assassination of Dr King in 1968 that helped to bring to an end the easy interplay of black and white musicians originally associated with the Stax label (and epitomised by the Booker T and the MGs quartet, who appear at a sold-out Barbican concert on 25 April, bringing the It Came From Memphis festival to a close). Stax never really recovered, going bankrupt in 1975. Signing Lena Zavaroni can't have helped.

To some extent, the shock waves are still continuing. "After Stax left, the decay started," says Deanie Parker, President and CEO of Soulsville Inc, the organisation that runs the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music on the site of Stax's old Capitol Theatre building, in the district known as Soulsville. "The creative people moved out, and crime moved in." Spotted with Baptist churches and the kind of hairdressing parlours whose primitive signage gets Shoreditch graphic designers so excited, it's a neighbourhood that will take an awful lot of care and money before gentrification sets in. Half the households live below the poverty line, with over 70 per cent headed by single mothers. It's estimated that 99.56 per cent of Soulsville's population is black, compared to 43.5 per cent in the county as a whole.

The legacy of Dr King's murder is also still felt acutely by many of the white musicians who helped create the "country meets soul" styles associated with Memphis and the studios of Muscle Shoals on the Alabama/Tennessee border. For the songwriter and keyboards player Spooner Oldham, who plays at the Barbican as part of the Muscle Shoals night on 9 April, it was a time he still hasn't fully come to terms with. "I don't know if it was the death of R&B, but yes, things did change," he says thoughtfully. "I don't think the whites changed, and I don't know if the blacks changed. It was more like the air changed."

It Came From Memphis: Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), 3, 9, 10, 18, 22 & 25 April. The double CD 'It Came From Memphis' (Manteca) is out tomorrow

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