It was 50 years ago this week that a young truck driver named Elvis Presley joined studio owner Sam Phillips and local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black for a recording session now remembered as one of the key moments in American culture.
Some locate the birth of rock-and-roll earlier, to Phillips' recording of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" at Sun in 1951. But after July 5th, 1954, there could be little doubt: Elvis Presley's feverish country twist on the blues song "That's All Right" may not have begun the birth of rock-and-roll, but it surely completed it.
Memphis celebrates the 50th anniversary of this cultural eruption this week with an all-day event at ground zero: Sun Studio. On Monday, July 5th, ambassadors who span the 50 years of Memphis music -- "That's All Right" guitarist Moore, "Wooly Bully" singer Sam the Sham, soul icon Isaac Hayes, and current king of pop Justin Timberlake -- will gather at the studio at 11 a.m. to press the start button on an event dubbed "Global Moment in Time," in which radio stations around the country will simultaneously play "That's All Right" to commemorate rock-and-roll's anniversary.
This event will be followed by an all-day concert pairing Sun and early rock-and-roll alumni -- Moore, Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana, Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley, and Ace Cannon, among others -- with current Memphis musicians -- David Brookings and the Bluff City Backsliders, among others.
Needless to say, we couldn't resist the opportunity to join the party with our own take on the 50-year stretch of music "That's All Right" helped set in motion. The following stories are not meant to be a comprehensive overview of 50 years of Memphis music. For that you can pick up The Music That Made Memphis: 50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll, a new book published by Bluff City Books (a division of Contemporary Media, the parent company of The Memphis Flyer) in conjunction with the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. Nor is it meant to be a systematic highlight of rock-and-roll's big moments. For that you could turn to recent special issues of Rolling Stone.
Instead, we've tried to approach the topic from more oblique angles -- to take an alternative approach, if you will, spotlighting important parts of the Memphis music story that haven't received their due: the crucial role of gospel, and the Blackwood Brothers Quartet in particular, in the development of rock-and-roll; the Hi Rhythm Section, the brilliant house band that was the third, often unrecognized, link in the Willie Mitchell-Al Green partnership; the power-pop bands, led by the Scruffs, that followed Big Star onto the city's '70s scene; the tiny punk club -- the Antenna -- that bore witness to the rise of alternative music; and a recording studio -- Easley-McCain -- that has made Memphis a mecca to a generation of indie-rockers.
We've also tried to look at the history of Memphis music in a larger context in a series of essays that explores how our music has been affected by national trends: the rise of Elvis as part of a national cultural shift in the '50s; how Memphis' glorious music explosion in the '60s and early '70s stands in contrast to how the era's music is usually remembered; how the city's music scene buckled under the cultural changes of the late '70s; and much more.
Whether or not you think "That's All Right" is the record that started rock-and-roll, there's no doubting its enduring grace and its significance as the record that launched Elvis Presley's career. Fifty years later, we're still feeling the reverberations.
One week before Elvis Presley struck a chord heard 'round the world at Sun Studio, he heard news on the radio so devastating that he spent more than half an hour in Gaston Park crying bitter tears over the tragedy. Two members of the most famous gospel group in history, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, had died in front of hundreds of spectators at a county fair in Clanton, Alabama. The 10-seater Beechcraft airplane the Blackwoods used to fly to their appearances crashed and exploded during a practice take-off and landing. Two group members were on the ground watching in horror with the rest of the crowd as the plane stalled and fell nose down, piloted by R.W. Blackwood and bass singer Bill Lyles.
There is some debate over which gospel group Elvis most favored the Blackwoods or the Statesmen Quartet. What there should be no debate about is that Southern gospel music was the music Elvis most loved and was most influenced by. There were many days in Elvis' life when he heard not one note of rock-and-roll, blues, country, or soul. But there were very few in which he did not hear music by one of the many gospel groups he adored. James Blackwood once told a reporter that the last album Elvis listened to was by the Stamps Quartet. Insiders at Graceland have said the album still sits on the turntable.
Of all the biographers and critics and musicologists who have explored ad nauseam every facet of Elvis' musical life, scandalously few pages have been devoted to his greatest passion, gospel music. Why? There are several reasons. The most apparent is that few of these writers hail from these parts and thus were not exposed to the Blackwoods, the Statesmen, the Happy Goodman Family, the Florida Boys, and the Dixie Echoes, as many Memphians were on every Sunday morning for over two decades. The born-again movement that began in earnest in the 1970s also, in effect, balkanized music tastes. Country gospel music became wholly identified with low-church fundamentalism and polyester suits. Before this social change, however, many gospel fans who would not ordinarily darken the door of a church on a Sunday morning, such as Elvis Presley who, contrary to myth, was not much of a churchgoer would have a sweaty, stompin' good time at the All Nite Sings at Ellis Auditorium.
The Blackwood Brothers were the first gospel group to sell over a million records, the first to sign to a major record label (RCA), and the first to get nationwide television exposure (on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which, incidentally, they won). And they made Memphis their headquarters for over 50 years. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a Memphian under the age of 40 who has ever heard of the Blackwoods, much less could name any of their songs. Yet virtually every one of the musical giants who came out of Sun Records, particularly the white ones, owed musical debts to the Blackwoods, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, who wrote a song for the group.
People who still believe that white gospel music did not cross over to black audiences should note that so many requests were phoned in to Ellis Auditorium at the funeral for the two Blackwoods who died in the plane crash that the balcony was reserved for black mourners. And it was full. The funeral procession that day is believed to be the biggest in Memphis history until the King himself died in 1977.
After the crash and funeral, the Blackwoods regrouped and brought in one of the greatest bass singers to ever overshadow a stage, J.D. Sumner, who later toured with Elvis. Sumner was like no one before or since a revelation as a singer who brought a rhythmic, boogie beat to the staid gospel field. He was a superb songwriter (you've got to hear his vision of heaven as a Hawaiian Eden in "Paradise Island") and a great entertainer who could bring down the house with his deadpan ad-libs. At the other end of the quartet was Bill Shaw, a high tenor as remarkable as any competitor on the Atlantic Records R&B roster. Bear Family Records in Germany last year put out a terrific, if expensive, boxed set of the group's pre-1960 recordings. But the Blackwoods recorded many more treasures after that, up until the departure of Sumner for the Stamps Quartet (which was owned by the Blackwoods' company). One example of the group's vocal acrobatics is their cover of the Dixie Hummingbirds' "The Devil Can't Harm a Praying Man," where they morph their style from black gospel to white and back again, all in homage to the black gospel groups the Blackwoods revered and championed. During the days of segregation in the South, the Blackwoods frequently booked the legendary black gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet on their tours. And white audiences loved them.
If there's one group America needs to rediscover before the historical rust obliterates this music form, it's the Blackwoods and their singular gospel-quartet style. Shortly before his death from a series of strokes in 2002, James Blackwood, the sole surviving original member of the quartet, quietly admitted his hurt when in tribute after tribute to Memphis music the Blackwoods more often than not were not mentioned.
There is one person in Memphis' music past who would never have allowed such a thing to happen. This same person won his only Grammys with million-selling gospel albums that in large measure paid tribute to a group few now bother to remember.Big Bangs
July 5th, 1954: Elvis Presley steps up to a microphone in Memphis, puts a hopped-up country twist on the blues song "That's All Right," and a brand-new music rock-and-roll is born. This is why we're here the source of a city's slogan, a Senate decree, and a year-long promotional campaign and trip down memory lane. But is it true?
Locating the birth of rock-and-roll at this date and this place is a defensible position as long as you conceive history in such a way that one man (or group of men, to acknowledge the key roles of co-conspirators Sam Phillips, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black) could be credited with inventing a cultural movement as widespread and inevitable as rock-and-roll or that such an art form could emanate from one place rather than many places simultaneously.
But if we must choose a single moment, July 5th, 1954, is as good as any and not just because Elvis' undeniable cultural impact dwarfs all other first-generation rock-and-rollers. In musical terms, the stylistic synthesis he presided over was more catholic and more complete than his colleagues', uniting blues and country in what some have dubbed "the great wedding ceremony." But there was also a tangible love of crooner pop and country gospel in the creases of the 19-year-old's remarkable art. And the enduring fineness of Elvis' Sun Studio sessions is thrown into relief through comparison to his sources: His blues were better ("Mystery Train"); his country was better ("Blue Moon of Kentucky"); his standards were better ("Blue Moon").
But equating rock-and-roll completely with Elvis and Sun still does a great disservice to a gradual, nation-spanning movement. Even if you have to pick one artist, one record, one moment, there are others that warrant mention: Fats Domino's million-selling debut single, "The Fat Man," was recorded in 1949. Many others trace the music to Sun, but not to Elvis, invoking instead "Rocket 88," Sam Phillips' recording of Ike Turner's band (with Jackie Brenston taking lead vocals and artist credit) in 1951. Bo Diddley was a regular on Chicago's South Side by that same year, though he wouldn't put his "Bo Diddley beat" on wax until 1955. Big Joe Turner produced a string of massive R&B hits that were essentially rock-and-roll records in the early '50s. Chuck Berry hooked up with pianist Johnnie Johnson in 1952, releasing the single "Maybelline" three years later. Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" actually beat Elvis to record store shelves by several months, and Haley had already put a white, country spin on black rhythm and blues a couple of years earlier with covers of "Rocket 88" and the R&B hit "Rock This Joint." And Little Richard's first recordings date back to 1952.
But maybe the contrarian question to ask isn't Why Elvis? or Why Memphis? but rather Why rock-and-roll? Which also has something to do with how you conceive history: 1954 has been promoted as a musical demarcation point where B.C. became A.D. long enough to be unquestioned and for the phrase "rock-and-roll" to become interchangeable with "popular music." Rolling Stone and other baby-boomer oracles have ingrained this line of thinking into subsequent generations. But why do we pull all pop music 50 years later into the same paradigm? (Or generally ignore what came before?) Is rock-and-roll actually dead, replaced long ago by a thousand micro-genres? Or is everything now rock-and-roll?
In retrospect, the centrality of that mid-'50s moment has as much to do with how the music both reflected and spurred the era's other cultural upheavals as it did with the clearly massive musical shift it signified. It's tied inextricably to so many other things: postwar prosperity, emerging youth culture, racial integration, TV and radio, the introduction of the 45 RPM single, etc.
But there's another reason to ask Why rock-and-roll? And that's because the 1950s didn't just witness one musical big bang, it witnessed two. Rock-and-rollers may have merged blues and country (and, sure, a lot more stuff too) to create a new form. But at the same time, there was another generation of musicians presiding over a wedding ceremony of their own: the fusion of R&B and gospel into soul music.
If this synthesis were given the equal billing it deserves, then Ray Charles and Sam Cooke might be recognized as titans every bit the equal of Elvis. Cooke left the gospel Soul Stirrers to go pop in the mid-'50s, topping the pop and R&B charts simultaneously with "You Send Me" and giving the civil rights movement its ultimate anthem with the gospel-infused "A Change Is Gonna Come." Charles didn't come from a strict gospel background, but his secularization of the form was even more pronounced and confrontational, converting the spiritual "My Jesus Is All the World to Me" into his 1954 hit "I Got a Woman" and the gospel "This Little Light of Mine" into the secular "This Little Girl of Mine."
Both soul and rock-and-roll reflected their times like few other cultural eruptions, marching alongside the civil rights movement into American consciousness. But if the social meaning of rock-and-roll was about integration (or miscegenation), then soul music was the sound of the politicalization of the black churches. Charles converting gospel hymns into secular salvation was the musical equivalent of black church leaders leaving the pulpit and hitting the streets of Selma and Montgomery and hundreds of other damaged communities in need of healing. And the depth and durability of Cooke's and Charles' synthesis would hold up over the decades every bit as well as that of Elvis and Chuck Berry.
Will thousands one day lay flowers at the grave of Brother Ray as they do with Elvis? Probably not, but he'd sure deserve it.
Black Rock," the first cut on the Hi Rhythm Section's lone album, On the Loose, says it all: "Moving like you want to/From the top/Moving like you want to/Don't stop," the group sings in unison over space-age-sounding synth riffs, a chugging drumbeat, and a funky guitar lick. Finally given a voice, the Hi Records session players known for the melodic instrumental tracks behind Al Green's hits stretch out on the epic number, occupying a metaphysical space that's closer to Funkadelic than, say, Booker T. & the MGs, their Stax competition who worked down the road from Royal, Hi Records' South Memphis recording studio.
By the time On the Loose was recorded in the mid-'70s, the Hi Rhythm Section were old pros in the recording studio. Brothers Charles, Leroy, and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges played organ, bass, and guitar, respectively, while Howard Grimes provided the backbeat and Archie Turner played piano on hundreds of Hi sessions, including album sides for Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and O.V. Wright.
They were a band of prodigies: The Hodges brothers, who hailed from rural Shelby County, cut their teeth as teenagers in the Germantown Blue Dots, a blues band led by their father, before Charles and Leroy formed a more modern-sounding R&B group called the Impalas. Grimes, a product of North Memphis, had been drumming since he was a small child, while Archie Turner, the stepson of Hi producer "Poppa" Willie Mitchell, had also been exposed to music at an early age.
Teenie Hodges, who began playing with the Germantown Blue Dots in 1957 when he was just 12-years-old, remembers the beginnings of the group well. "My oldest brother, Leroy, and his best friend, Tommy Lee, had started the Impalas with Archie Turner," he recalls. "I started going to the Impalas' practices, which were held at Willie's house, in '61. One thing led to another, and Poppa Willie started teaching me about music. When I was 18, I moved in with him, and I stayed until I got married."
Mitchell already a formidable bandleader and producer at this point handpicked the Hodges brothers for his own band, which played at the Manhattan Club in town and at Danny's across the river in West Memphis. Back then, drummer Al Jackson Jr. anchored the group's sound, famous for instrumentals like "20-75" and "Percolatin'." Then, in '66, the Willie Mitchell Group quit playing on the road. "Pops wanted to make a living in the studio, and we all agreed with that, so we became sessions musicians," Teenie Hodges explains. But by then, Jackson was also working as the drummer for the MGs, the Stax house band, churning out hits for Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Sam & Dave, and he quit moonlighting with Mitchell's group in 1968.
Enter Howard Grimes. A rhythm fanatic since he was 6 years old, when he learned the "Mama Daddy Roll" after seeing Gene Krupka play on television, Grimes was steadily gigging at the Hi Hat Club and had his first studio session under his belt all before he turned 13. "My first session was the first session at Stax, in the old Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue," Grimes notes. "It was called Satellite back then. I cut 'Cause I Love You' with Rufus and Carla Thomas."
By '68, Teenie Hodges, hunting for Jackson's replacement, was searching area clubs six nights a week. He found Grimes, who was backing a white band called Flash & the Board of Directors at the Thunderbird Lounge. "He was absolutely wonderful," Teenie remembers. "He and Al played a lot alike, and he was the first drummer at Stax anyway." But Grimes turned down the job and went on the road with Flash instead.
"It was all right until I ran into a little trouble in Montgomery, Alabama," Grimes says today. "Someone said, 'This nigger ain't gonna play in here!' and I started thinking, Wow, maybe I'm out here at the wrong time. Well, I went into that club, and I saw a beautiful set of drums with the American flag painted on 'em, way up high on a riser. I decided to play, but they threw popcorn sacks at me and poured Cokes on me during the first song. I went on to Florida, and then I decided to quit. I called Teenie up, and the job with Poppa Willie was still open. I flew home to Memphis and came over to Hi for a rehearsal a few days later."
Under Mitchell's direction, the Hi Rhythm Section was a force to be reckoned with: By 1975, 16 gold and platinum awards for Al Green's albums alone were hanging in the offices at Royal. Teenie Hodges was penning dozens of tunes, including Green's smash hits "Love and Happiness" ("I wrote all the lyrics on one Saturday morning in 15 minutes," he says) and "Take Me to the River." "I learned about writing songs from Isaac Hayes and David Porter [at Stax]," Teenie says, "but living with Pops, I learned how to make music. I learned how to arrange."
Mitchell's teaching lessons were somewhat unconventional. "I love women," Grimes explains, "so Pops said, 'Howard, when you play your drums, think about your woman. Think about the tenderness you have when you touch her. Make love to your drums the way you make love to your woman.' It sounded crazy to me, but it started soaking in. He was counting the time and I was thinking about my woman, and I said, 'Oh, is that what it's about?' It tripped me out! But once I caught the hang of it, I took command of the feeling and I knew exactly where he was musically."
In the late '70s, Green found religion and quit popular music, and Hi's hits dried up. The label was sold in 1978, and, although Mitchell hung onto Royal, sessions for the Hi Rhythm Section was few and far between.
"When I first started with Pops, I prayed that God would let people hear my songs and like 'em," says Teenie Hodges. "I didn't pray for the money part until now." Back then, he explains ruefully, "I just got paid for the sessions. I hardly signed any contracts, and I didn't get any publishing rights until 'Take Me to the River.'" He sighs, then adds that after years of paperwork, he's managed to get some royalties reinstated. Yet, to date, his biggest payday hasn't come from a single Al Green session but from a novelty toy, a singing plastic fish called the Bigmouth Billy Bass, which belts out "Take Me to the River" on command.
The Hi Rhythm Section may not have made much money, but, as Grimes explains, they achieved something greater. "Man, let me tell you something," he says. "I was a very lonely young man when I was playing drums. When I met Teenie, I saw how he and Leroy and Charles were so close. The friendship and love they had. I wanted that kind of love from my brothers, but I never got it. The Hodges gave me that. We bonded, and it's still there," he says happily. "I've had more fun and joy with them than I've had with my own family."Album Era, Singles Town
Though 1954-1963 was the period when rock-and-roll was "born," the second wave of 1964-1973 is when the form established its lasting power. For subsequent generations, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard are historical figures, but Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones are still heavy-rotation.
With the Beatles ushering in the classic-rock era with a frenzy that arguably surpassed Elvis, the period also marked a transition from the single to the album as the primary way in which pop music was disseminated. This change in emphasis from one format to another also changed the way artists chose to express themselves. Simple song-cycles and singles-plus-filler gave way to a more ambitious conception of what an album could be in the form of works such as Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Forty years later, it's the Beatles version of rock-and-roll, not the Elvis version, that holds sway. You can see this in last year's much-ballyhooed Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums ever. The magazine's list allegedly covers 50 years of rock-and-roll and then some (in the form of compilations of pre-rock artists such as Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson), but a ridiculous 57 of the list's Top 100 albums date from 1964-1973 and 26 of the top 100 come from the classic-rock big five of Beatles/Stones/Dylan/Hendrix/Led Zeppelin.
Is this a result of the magnificence of the era or Rolling Stone's generational myopia or both? Regardless, Rolling Stone still has the mainstream cachet to make the list meaningful, and to make its results a reliable indicator of what the culture at large deems important. And the lack of Memphis music from the era at the top of the list is instructional. Only three Memphis records from '64-'73 made the top 100: Dusty in Memphis, only quasi-local since the British singer didn't actually record her vocals here; Otis Redding's Otis Blue, which is singles-plus-filler, albeit in the same exalted manner as Thriller; and Al Green's Greatest Hits, a singles compilation originally released in 1975, though the bulk of the music comes from '64-'73.
The lesson here isn't that Memphis music from the era hasn't held up far, far to the contrary. It's probably the greatest period ever for the city or any city in terms of sheer volume of great music. Rather, the point is that Memphis music manifested itself in a way that doesn't conform to the classic-rock biases Rolling Stone reflects. In an album era, Memphis was a singles town.
The city produced plenty of great studio albums in those years: To Otis Blue you could add a string of brilliant Al Green long-players (culminating with 1973's perfect Call Me, which placed an outrageous 289 on the Rolling Stone list), Big Star's #1 Record, and Elvis' Memphis-recorded comeback records From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis. But Memphis music of the era is still best remembered as a string of amazing singles: "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," "The Letter," "The Dark End of the Street," "Wooly Bully," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "Let's Stay Together," "Soul Man," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Suspicious Minds," and on and on and on. And though major artists such as Redding, Green, and Elvis led the way, the city's bounty was as often the result of one-offs or "minor" artists the Hombres, Eddie Floyd, etc. as of the kind of career artists Rolling Stone champions.
In retrospect, this history marks the city as both traditional its greatest music an outgrowth of pre-Beatles sounds and artistic strategies and progressive: Memphis music from this period resists and exposes the biases that the era's classic rock established (biases that would later be dubbed "rockist"): biases against collaborative creation, interpretive singers, and "ephemerality," among other things, that rock snobs still use to dismiss anything from hip-hop to mainstream country.
The greatest argument against these biases, and in favor of the kind of music that thrived in Memphis, might be Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, especially since Marsh's own mix of traditional and progressive is as complex as Memphis'. Writing about the classic-rock bias that values composition over performance, especially vocal performance, in shaping a work of musical art, Marsh contends: "One consequence has been a critical underestimation (to be charitable) of performers who don't write in favor of those who do, regardless of the relative merits of their actual records: Does anybody really think that the gallons of ink expended on Lou Reed and the ounces used for Sam & Dave accurately reflect the proportional quality of their work?" And Marsh goes on to claim that "Making music is most often the product of intense collaboration as anti-romantic as it may be to say so, the poetic individual creating in solitude has virtually no place in rock-and-roll."
The classic-rock era was rife with lone-genius types, many of them even members of bands Hendrix, Dylan, Lennon, Morrison. But Memphis music of this era supports the notion of collaboration: the wide array of talent house band, singer, producer, songwriters that went into even the seemingly simplest of great Stax hits; the Willie Mitchell/Al Green partnership at Hi and the way that dynamic duo was also dependent on a great house band and distinctive back-up singers; Chips Moman and Dan Penn helping shape the sound of Alex Chilton's Box Tops; Moman and his group of great session musicians pushing Elvis to heights he hadn't reached in a decade. All of these explosions of great music were the product of interaction and reached their apex one single at a time. Unsurprisingly, you'll find a lot more Memphis on Marsh's list than on Rolling Stone's.
Everybody knows that now-worshiped Big Star was unheralded and often yawned at during their first incarnation (1971-1975) in their hometown. What isn't so well-known is that other brave souls in Memphis also tempted obscurity by playing much the same kind of catchy melodic pop during or immediately after Alex Chilton got sick of playing "September Gurls" on a Fender Stratocaster and after poor Chris Bell wrapped his sports car around a telephone pole. Some of the names you might not have heard of before: the Scruffs, Tommy Hoehn, the Randy Band, and Van Duren. All of the above dared to write, perform, and record original material that sounded nothing like the lifeless dreck on local radio airwaves and the boogie-band slop favored by Memphis club owners in the mid- to late 1970s.
And all of them ended up more or less as they began: in undeserved obscurity. Chilton and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens got their second chance, but most of the names mentioned above probably won't get one. A shame, really, because they were not only trailblazing pioneers in the bar-band wars of the 1970s, they were good bands that courted local and national audiences but never got either, for the most part. Whole catalogs of catchy original pop tunes have gone largely unheard and unheralded.
Formed in 1974 by singer/guitarist Stephen Burns, the Scruffs, like the original version of Big Star, consisted of two guitars/bass/drums with a heavy dash of mid-'60s British Invasion. If Big Star was mainly a Midtown group, then the Scruffs were pure East Memphis, with brothers Dave and Ricky Branyan (lead guitar and bass, respectively) and drummer Zeph Paulson all coming from the same suburban haunts.
In 1976, Chilton told me about this band he liked called the Scruffs that did cool English pop-styled material. I introduced myself to Burns and ended up being their "manager" for a very brief period. But Henry Loeb Jr. (yep, the former mayor's son) stepped into that role in a more determined manner when he released the band's first album, "Wanna Meet the Scruffs?," on his fledgling Power Play label in 1977.
The Scruffs struggled to secure club gigs locally in 1976-'77, since club owners at the time insisted that bands play nothing but familiar covers. Playing original tunes that sounded even vaguely mid-'60s rock-ish could get a group ejected from a stage quicker than you could shout "Freebird." Unable to play on a regular basis in Memphis, the band decided to move to Manhattan in early 1978 to take a chance on the CBGB/Max's Kansas City club scene, where bands that played original songs were not only tolerated but preferred. Unfortunately, by then the New York scene was a bit jaded and very competitive, and the Scruffs got lost in the shuffle. It's a shame the Scruffs had to leave their hometown just to be ignored.
Memphians might be more familiar with Van Duren, bassist/singer with the band Good Question, which enlivened prosaic cover material playing at bars throughout the Mid-South in the '80s and '90s. "Bar band" was never a dirty label when Duren was involved. He uplifted the proceedings with his always impeccable vocals. Duren even tried out for the last version of Big Star as a second guitarist in 1974. He didn't get the job, but he did end up playing with Chris Bell in a short-lived incarnation known as the Baker Street Regulars and also with Jody Stephens in Holland. Both bands played a number of gigs locally in 1975 before folding. He did some solo recording in the late '70s with notorious carpetbagger/producer Jon Tiven in Connecticut. (Duren's long out-of-print Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism albums have recently been reissued on CD by Rounder's Lucky Seven Records.) The Rolling Stones' original manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, even stayed with Duren at his Midtown apartment in 1975 while he was in town trying to hustle up some song-publishing deals with Stephens and other local songwriters.
Tommy Hoehn was part of the Scruffs scene (if the Scruffs can be said to have had a scene) along with bassist Rick Clark. Hoehn, Clark, and Burns did some recording at Shoe Productions' bunker-like studio on Hollywood street in the mid-'70s, before Hoehn opted for a solo recording career, starting with a release on Loeb's Power Play label in 1977. He hopped over to London Records in 1978. Ray Manzarek of the Doors even flew Hoehn to Los Angeles for an audition during this same period. Like Duren, Hoehn has a gorgeous voice that should have been heard on the radio, but he had a hard time just getting a local club booking. The liner notes for his 1997 Of Moons and Fools album tell a quintessential Memphis tale of neglect and wasted talent.
And then there was the Randy Band, which formed in 1977 with singer/songwriter Tommy Hull and bassist Randy Chertow as the two constant members. They played the Antenna when it was known as the Well and left behind a collection of original tunes that still begs to be recorded. Ex-Scruffs bass player Ricky Branyan played second guitar with the Randy Band during its best incarnation and, when it came time for a lead guitar break, he and Hull played the same chords in unison. They just strummed harder, so to speak. Teenage girls seemed to love the Randy Band, and there were always quite a few underagers at their shows. Unfortunately, no Randy Band recordings have ever been released, but those who heard them often argue that Hull had the best set of unreleased pop songs in Memphis.
It's a shame about the lost tunes; they were/are great. That's probably a fitting epitaph for the whole overlooked and now mostly forgotten Memphis pop-rock scene.All Falls Down
The years between 1974 and 1983 were a transitional period for popular music, both in Memphis and on a larger scale. It wasn't a period without high points for the city's scene, of course: Big Star's second album, the pristine pop gem Radio City, was released in 1974, boasting the classic "September Gurls." And Al Green left his partnership with Willie Mitchell to produce one of his finest albums, 1977's The Belle Album.
But it's still hard to argue against the notion that this was when the magical, decades-long boom of Memphis music unraveled. What is very much still in question is why it happened. A local-centric view would point to many internal factors: Big Star's lack of promotional push and eventual implosion despite stellar reviews. Stax going bankrupt and shutting its doors in 1976. Elvis Presley's death in 1977. Al Green abandoning pop for the pulpit as the decade closed. But a broader view would point to a culture-wide shift that was destined to deliver a body blow to Memphis music no matter what the city's stars had done. In retrospect, it seems clear that Memphis' loss of musical prestige in the late '70s was the result of external shifts entirely beyond the city's control: the emergence of disco, punk, and hip-hop.
The extent of the changes wrought by these new genres may still not be as universally understood as the emergence of rock-and-roll and soul a generation earlier, but the impact on the pop landscape has been every bit as sweeping. First came disco (and subsequent DJ-driven forms), which moved the energy in R&B-based dance music away from the rural and organic to the urban and synthetic. Then there was punk, which buried the blues roots of guitar-based rock-and-roll under a noise aesthetic that critic Robert Christgau mused at the time was something akin to white be-bop. And then there was hip-hop, the most postmodern of all, a distinctly urban and, until relatively recently, Northern form that downplayed the importance of live performance, turning one person with two turntables into an entire band.
These mutations birthed an entire generation of pop music that is urban and global rather than rural and regional, indirectly blues-based rather than directly blues-based. That Memphis ceased being a musical center exactly as this shift was taking root is far from a coincidence.
If one digs deep enough, you can find Memphis roots in all of these forms: Isaac Hayes' elegant soundscapes presaged disco. Punk was a reaction to the decadence and complacency of post-hippie rock that was inspired by the restless aggression of rockabilly and the subcultural oddness of a nascent alternative scene, of which Memphis' Big Star was a key member. And hip-hop can be traced to Jamaican roots, where musicians were primarily inspired by American soul music, including Stax sounds such as Otis Redding's vocals and Al Jackson Jr.'s beats.
Though these changes rocketed the energy in pop music past Memphis' blues base, the city wasn't without its own claim on the new forms -- for better or worse. Memphis actually produced one of the biggest disco hits in 1976 with "Disco Duck," credited to Rick Dees (a disc jockey at local station WMPS) & His Cast of Idiots and born from the ashes of Stax -- to the extent that it was recorded at Stax founder Estelle Axton's Fre-Tone studio. The song, which sold three million copies and helped vault Dees into Casey Kasem territory as a national radio figure, was a massive, memorable novelty hit and mad-genius bit of opportunism, but it was perhaps as much a mockery of the form (a disco hit for the "disco sucks" crowd) as an example of it. "Disco Duck" is frequently cited as the worst disco record ever made.
Memphis' connection to the punk movement is less celebrated but more sincere and more fruitful. Back when the Box Tops were ruling the charts, Alex Chilton would hardly have been pegged as a punk godfather, but that's what he became. Chilton's de facto solo debut, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, and his official solo debut, Like Flies on Sherbert, became alt-rock talismans and models. He also played a key role in shepherding post-punk cult bands such as New York's the Cramps and Memphis' own Tav Falco's Panther Burns. But Memphis' most historic connection to punk came on January 6, 1978, when the city's Taliesyn Ballroom hosted one of only a handful of stateside concerts by the Sex Pistols.
As for hip-hop, the form took its time winding from the Boogie Down Bronx and the concrete parks of Queensbridge to the Dirty South, but when it finally took hold, it would hit the hardest of all.
New York had CBGB's and Los Angeles had the Whisky A Go-Go. We had the Antenna club, a tiny space that anchored the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and Avalon Street in Midtown. The Antenna was one of the first things I heard about when, at age 15, I moved to Memphis from suburban Atlanta. Rumors flew around my high school: "That's where all the freaks go." Or, even better: "They have bands playing awful music." Somehow, someway, I had to get down there.
Try as I might, I can't remember the first show I saw at the Antenna. But I do know that between 1984 and '87 (the year I graduated from high school), I saw hundreds of bands -- hardcore legends such as the Circle Jerks, MDC, and Suicidal Tendencies; straight-edge groups such as Youth of Today, Bold, and Uniform Choice; rising "college circuit" stars such as Hüsker Dü, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Replacements; and local heroes such as Slit Wrist, Sobering Consequences, and Metrowaste.
I stayed in Memphis after high school, and, as I got older, my tastes changed too. I witnessed sweat-wringing, gut-wrenching concerts from the likes of Mudhoney, the Flaming Lips, and Hole. In between, of course, were amazing performances by guitarist Cordell Jackson, eccentric roots-rockabilly enthusiast Tav Falco and his group the Panther Burns, the avant-garde Grifters, and no-holds-barred garage rockers the Oblivians. I saw Courtney Love threaten to beat up her biggest fans, and I just barely missed an errant beer bottle tossed offstage by an unrepentant G.G. Allin.
If the ever-revolving roster of bands taking the stage provided my musical education, then the interior of the Antenna club -- dingy black walls, blaring TV sets, filthy bathrooms, and all -- was my school. I'd loiter outside, either in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot or at the donut shop across the street, waiting for class to begin. Rebel, the Antenna's infamous bouncer, would take attendance, while brothers Steve and Mark McGehee -- the most unlikely purveyors of alternative music imaginable -- provided the weekly lesson plan.
"The McGehee brothers were heroes," says producer/musician Jim Dickinson. "They kept that place open at a loss for years." Dickinson, who remembers the location operating as the Mouse Trap ("a pimp joint") and, more famously, as the Well ("a redneck dive bar by day and a punk-rock joint at night"), feels that the Antenna was a predestined part of the circa-'80s Memphis scene. "Its arrival was inevitable," he notes, "and I saw many historic events there."
Although a mysterious Mr. X originally opened the Antenna club, Steve McGehee took over in 1981, managing the space as a type of clubhouse for his family and friends. Steve booked the bands and his sisters Robin and Donna worked behind the bar, while a handful of first-name-only characters -- Rowena, Anna, Angerhead, and Rebel -- filled in wherever they were needed.
The Antenna's longtime soundman, Davis McCain (now co-owner of Easley-McCain Recording), recalls those early days with fondness. "R.E.M.'s first show [in '81 -- admission was a paltry $2] was exciting. There were about seven people in the crowd, and one older couple was dancing. When I first heard their music and saw Michael Stipe shaking like he didn't have a backbone, I realized this is the future. They were doing stuff we'd never even thought about playing," he says.
As the national music scene evolved, so did the stage at the Antenna. "We had so many bands that became huge," remembers Mark McGehee. "We did shows that I was really proud of -- Helmet, Danzig, and Hole. [Hole's Courtney Love] was tough to deal with that night too," he adds. "The G.G. Allin show is the thing I'm least proud of, and the most press I've ever gotten," he says. "I knew it was gonna be trouble. I ended up calling the police to cover myself."
God only knows why I was at the show that night. It must've been boredom or morbid curiosity. I staked out what looked like a good spot in the back of the club, near the cigarette machine. Then, after a few minutes onstage with his band, the Murder Junkies, Allin defecated, shoved a microphone up his ass, and chased the audience outdoors. He ran, naked, right past me, and I pressed myself into the wall until it was safe to venture outside too. I spent the next hour standing in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot, shrieking, while an angry woman chased Allin in and out of the Antenna with a butcher knife. He survived, only to overdose a few years later, but the Antenna club was nearly shut down.
The next day, Mark McGehee had to meet with the vice squad, who had received a tape of the show. Local promoter Chris Walker, who had booked the show, got off more lightly. "No one said a word to me," he says today.
By the mid-'90s, groups like R.E.M. and Hole were playing arena-sized venues, and Mark McGehee coped by booking two shows a night -- all-ages shows in the early evening and over-21 gigs after 10 p.m. Andy Gienapp, an alumnus of local hardcore bands Komatoast and American Lesion, remembers that period well. "It was like a punk-rock utopia," he says, recalling shows where slam-dancing was actually friendly. "All these kids would fall down, and instead of stepping on 'em, other guys would pick 'em up. These people were nihilists, but they had solidarity," he enthuses.
At the height of the era, Mark McGehee paired American Lesion with California group Green Day -- one of the hardcore bands that took rebelliousness to the top of the radio charts. That, Gienapp feels, was the beginning of the end. "In the post-grunge age, the Antenna club was almost redundant," he explains. "There was this status quo before Green Day and Nirvana [made it big]. Underground suddenly became mainstream, and the entire subculture was taken away from us, laundered, and given to the general public. Punk rock was too threatening, and then not threatening enough, and no one was interested in it anymore."
Meanwhile, other Memphis venues like Six-1-Six and the New Daisy were chipping away at the Antenna's audiences. In the mid-'90s, the Young Avenue Deli opened, while Walker took over Barristers downtown. Memphis police, searching for underage drinkers, made several unwelcome raids at the Antenna club. Mark McGehee received a few parental complaints after a Sebadoh show in May '95, and, after a lackluster crowd attended a Tripping Daisy concert a few weeks later, he decided to close the doors for good.
Soon afterward, local entrepeneur Martin Watson reopened the space as the Void. Less than a year later, the Void disappeared, and Walker relocated Barristers to 1588 Madison for a short time. He attributes his failure to a broken air conditioner that sucked up all his funds. In 1996, the Madison Flame -- a lesbian bar -- opened in the location. The change in clientele worked, and business is still going strong.
"The Antenna club was kind of like my high school," Gienapp says. "When I think about the Antenna, I wonder what happened to this guy or that one."
"There were people," says McCain, "whose whole lives seemed to revolve around the Antenna club."Back In the Saddle
Memphis may have lost its musical footing in the late 1970s, but by the middle of the next decade the city was starting to regroup, with its cultural rebirth happening along two fronts.
The first part of the process was preserving the city's musical heritage. The past might not repeat itself, but there was a growing recognition that Memphis' music history should be remembered and marketed. This decade-long cultural preservation movement began with the Blues Foundation's formation in 1980, which helped confirm the city's role as the world's primary blues city. This was followed by the opening of Graceland in 1982, a public shrine to Elvis and his music. The next year, Beale Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Soon the once-thriving district, which had fallen into disrepair, was transformed into a nightlife center again. In 1985, Sun Studio reopened as both a tourist attraction and active recording studio, with Sun alumni Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison celebrating the event by recording the album Class of '55 there.
The decision to locate the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, rather than Memphis created considerable bitterness, but the city left its mark on that institution with its first class of inductees in 1986: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, and Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. This period of preservation and celebration (which would continue with the creation of the Smithsonian Rock 'n' Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) culminated in 1993, when the city adopted "The Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock-and-Roll" as its slogan.
But as necessary as these acts of preservation were, the city's musical rebirth wouldn't have happened without the embrace of new forms that weren't directly tied to the city's past.
Though the period began with perhaps the biggest and most rewarding pop boom in 20 years -- Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, etc. -- the years from 1984 to 1993 didn't boast changes as cataclysmic as the previous decade's introduction of punk, disco, and hip-hop. But it did witness the evolution of those forms, particularly hip-hop's growth into the era's dominant musical culture and its spread from an East Coast launching pad, first West and then around the country and globe. The era also witnessed the growth of a post-punk scene that fostered its own symbiotic culture of alternative newspapers and 'zines, independent labels, clubs, and record stores. This scene grew significantly through the '80s until, in the early '90s, it split in two: The indie underground boomed into a network of local scenes and bands too vast for anyone to keep track of, while, led by the outrageous success of Nirvana's Nevermind, "alternative" music suddenly, if temporarily, supplanted metal as the mainstream rock of choice (and brought a socially and politically progressive perspective with it.)
Unsurprisingly, these were the avenues that prompted the most fruitful Memphis music of the era as well.
Though it's unlikely to inspire any anniversary celebrations, 1988 was a landmark year in popular music due, in large part, to the release of two towering hip-hop albums: Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. New York's politically confrontational Public Enemy would win the most critical acclaim in its day (and deserve it, since Nation still sounds ahead of its time), but it was Straight Outta Compton that would prove the most influential.
With certain exceptions (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," for instance), hip-hop prior to 1988 was a self-contained world of rhyme for rhyme's sake. Public Enemy and N.W.A. expanded the content of the genre, one with a political bent in which an endorsement of Louis Farrakhan could fit next to a standard rap boast in the middle of a hit single, the other with an acknowledgment of street-level reality that begat "reality" -- honest depictions of underclass strife morphing into not-so-honest street embellishments until no one could tell where the line was crossed.
Straight Outta Compton wasn't the first "gangsta rap" album; Philadelphia's Schoolly D. and L.A. counterpart Ice-T both beat N.W.A. to the punch. But it was the record that launched the genre, and the record that finally broke through the hegemony of East Coast hip-hop. For these reasons, you can draw a straight line from Straight Outta Compton to the current Memphis rap scene, a line that heads through Houston's Geto Boys and then straight through the rest of what would come to be known as the Dirty South.
In the early '80s, Memphis listeners could hear East Coast acts such as Whodini and U.T.F.O. on local radio stations but not artists from their own communities. After N.W.A., that started to change, with Memphis acts such as Al Kapone, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and Eightball & MJG following in their gangsta-rap tracks.
As for the post-punk scene, a burgeoning group of punk-bred bands provided the equally ecstatic underside of 1984's great pop moment in the form of bands such as the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen. Memphis wasn't really a key player yet, though oddities such as Tav Falco's Panther Burns and the Hellcats were keeping the scene alive. But by the '90s, post-punk -- or the more clunky "Amerindie" -- had morphed into indie rock, and Memphis joined up in a big way, as the Grifters became a regional hub that brought others to the city. Typical of the scene, the band was connected directly to local record store Shangri-La, which released the band's One Sock Missing and Crappin' You Negative.
If the emergence of Eightball & MJG and the Grifters as the era's most important local artists meant that the city's new music scenes were reactive rather than proactive, well, it wasn't going to happen any other way. Memphis was still a purveyor of distinctly local sounds (in the form of hill-country blues and fife-and-drum music, specifically), but the city had come through its down years by becoming a player again in movements bigger than Memphis.
Memphis is synonymous with music, sure, but have you ever stopped to compare our history of recording studios with that of other hotbeds? Single studios carry the reputation of Detroit and Philly, and Nashville has always seemed like more of a meat-grinder than a city with a nurtured studio identity. With Sun, Stax, Royal, Phillips Recording Service, American Sound Studios, Ardent, and, most recently, Easley-McCain, Memphis' resume of influential studios can stand alongside New York's or Los Angeles'.
Over the past 14 years, Easley-McCain Recording has been an anomaly within the common studio paradigm. The grassroots aesthetics that marked its beginnings stretch to the present day. From the '80s DIY sessions that set the gears in motion to the early- to mid-'90s heyday that put Easley-McCain on lips around the music world, the economical, unique little studio, owned 50/50 by Doug Easley and Davis McCain, has always seemed artist-driven, scrupulously avoiding the poison of industry pressure.
"We've always been artist-oriented," McCain says. "We tried to never charge the big boys' prices, maybe because Doug and I had been in bands and had always been involved with independent labels. I think part of the reason that Pavement and Sonic Youth and the like came to Easley is because of the low price. They wanted to come to Memphis anyway. They could get out of their environments, get a nice hotel here, and eat barbecue every day."
The studio's birth was, unsurprisingly, humble. After he got out of high school in the late 1970s, Easley acquired a house in the woods between James Road and the Wolf River bottoms. He set up a studio shortly after. Easley's first four-track cost around $2,800. "I took out a bank loan and bought some equipment from the Stax auction," Easley explains. "We would do some blues stuff -- Mose Vinson, Son Thomas. And Dave Shouse (the Grifters, the Bloodthirsty Lovers) and I actually go back that far. We were forming a band at the time and recording some at that location."
Easley then moved his equipment into a garage behind his home in the U of M area. It was here that he began to record many of the local bands that were playing the Antenna club, shows where McCain (then of the new-wave band Barking Dog) would often do sound. The two had worked on some recordings together when they ran into each other in New York in 1989. Easley expressed a desire to move the operations from behind his house and a partnership was sealed. (Note: Before vacating the backyard studio, the Gories' exalted I Know You Fine, But How You Doin' was completed there, with Alex Chilton at the knobs.)
The two-story Midtown cube that has been Easley-McCain for the past 14 years was constructed in 1967 as the Onyx. After Chips Moman's partner Don Crews acrimoniously split from American Sound Studios and took up residence in the building, it was often known as American East.
"It was state-of-the-art, probably the only studio in Memphis at the time that had been built as a studio -- foot-thick walls and echo chambers," says McCain.
The second floor held offices, which gives us this interesting bit of trivia: An independent record promoter decided to venture downstairs in 1974 and add vocals to "Devil in a Bottle," a Bobby David demo he'd been unsuccessfully peddling. The resulting song gave the world a country-pop force known as T.G. Sheppard. Studio activity continued until the early '80s (it was used as a rehearsal space for the Bar-Kays), then the building was used as storage for several years. Easley and McCain bought it in 1990, complete with water damage and broken windows. "You could basically walk right into it," says Easley.
The first full recording completed at Easley-McCain was the Hilltops' Big Black River. That band's John Stirrat would later join an incarnation of Uncle Tupelo and, with Jeff Tweedy, go on to form Wilco, whose 1995 debut, A.M., was recorded at Easley-McCain. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's breakout, Extra Width, came out of the studio in late 1992. Alex Chilton performed (a rarity in 1992) at the wrap-up party. The popularity of the Grifters helped bring the studio national attention from indie bands. "There was a Grifters record, and when you opened it up, it said, 'All of this was recorded at Easley, and here's their phone number," McCain says. Grifters admirers Pavement trekked here to record Wowee Zowee, followed by Pavement admirers Sonic Youth, who recorded Washing Machine.
"As with all new businesses, early on there were days when we were sitting around scratching our heads, looking at one another," says Easley. But soon the pair was working overtime. "It was ridiculous," McCain says. "I went back and looked at the books. Doug and I were working so much that we'd have to schedule a day off just to wash our clothes." This eventually necessitated the hiring of Stuart Sikes, first as an intern, then as a full-time engineer. "Doug was in Germany, and we had just gotten our new board, so Stuart and I rewired the entire studio. That was his first job," says McCain.
The tone around the studio darkened a bit in 1997. Texas troubadour and cult figure Townes Van Zandt had been recording at Easley-McCain just days before dying unexpectedly in Nashville. Similarly tragic, Jeff Buckley had been laboring over what would become part of Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) at the studio before he drowned in the Mississippi. McCain says simply: "That was a bad time."
The crown jewel of Easley-McCain's client list was added in 2001. Though nobody really knew it at the time, the then-unknown White Stripes were recording an album (White Blood Cells) that would invade living rooms around the world. The album has far surpassed the sales of any other Easley-McCain production. "We really didn't see that one coming, and I don't think the band did either," Easley says.
Business leveled off after that. Sikes moved to Texas in early 2002 and was succeeded by engineer Kevin Cubbins, who played with the Pawtuckets. Cubbins has been rounding up local talent, including many recent sessions involving the Makeshift Music collective. "Kevin's our street team -- out at shows, involved with bands, spreading the word. I guess I was the street team in the '80s," says Easley. Recently, Sikes was brought back to work on a portion of Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and he mixed Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose (which was produced by Jack White) at the studio.
If Easley-McCain isn't quite the indie-rock magnet it was a decade ago, that might be a result of larger changes in the music business. "I think that the shift in the industry is due to computers," says Easley. "That's what I blame, even as I sit in front of one." Much is heard about file sharing, but perhaps as significant is the increasing ease of computer-based home recording.
"I'm still trying to figure out what's going on with the [music] business," Easley says. But after nearly 15 years and with a long list of important and memorable records to its credit, no one's counting Easley-McCain out just yet.Planet of Sound
In 2004, for the first time in 40 years -- since the Beatles usurped Elvis -- Memphis can lay claim to the world's biggest pop star. And if you think Justin Timberlake automatically wilts under such a comparison, give it a shot: The differences that make Timberlake seem unworthy of comparison to Elvis have as much to do with the contrast between their respective eras as with their respective talents.
Timberlake may not be able to match Elvis' pure gifts as a vocalist, but Timberlake is nonetheless a similarly charismatic singer whose musical magnetism has led to career options beyond the recording studio and concert stage. Whether Timberlake's film career can match Elvis' remains to be seen.
Both Timberlake and Elvis worked with the greatest producers of their time to concoct a stylistic synthesis of some the era's most vibrant genres