Making History 

Memphis archivist Ron Hall strikes again.

Ron Hall

Joe Boone

Ron Hall

"I collect everything," says Ron Hall.

That's true, but Hall does more than collect things. His prodigious abilities as a researcher and archivist are evidenced by his bibliography: Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-1975; The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook, 1960-1975; and Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling, which he co-authored with Sherman Willmott.

Hall's passion for Memphis music and his former career in record distribution combined to make his garage-band books into compelling celebrations of Memphians playing music. Willmott published all three books through his Shangri-La Projects. Hall and Willmott were executive producers on Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'. Hall's collecting bug found him sifting through the old photo files of Memphis' former afternoon daily, The Press-Scimitar.

"You go through their card catalog, and it's like going through an old library," Hall says. "Say you're looking up Ten Years After. They may just have a picture, but there's liable to be a picture of a Burger King on Summer that they built back when. Their filing system at the newspaper was really weird. I would look for a band, and I'd find a picture of Sputnik Monroe or I'd find a picture of Jackie Fargo. I was thinking, 'Gosh this is fun.'"

Hall's forays into music and history got him thinking about his own past and all the shows he saw growing up here.

"I posted something on Facebook last night," Hall says. "I listed my four or five favorite shows that I saw. That's been done. At first I was disappointed. But when I got up, I saw it and said, 'Jeez, that's caught on like wildfire.' This one guy said 'Meat Loaf spit on me accidently.' And I said, 'Did I tell him that?' Because he spit on me too. We were sitting from me to that wall taking pictures, and he actually leaned down and slapped my hand and said, 'Sorry man.' It was one of my favorite shows."

Hall's latest endeavor is Memphis: The Rock 'n Roll Years History Book. The intent is to leverage the memories and mementos of those who saw live music in Memphis from 1955 through 1985. In this town, a lot of people went to see a lot of great music. There is a Kickstarter campaign in place to cover the publishing costs, and there are some holy-grail images out there that Hall is still hunting.

"The number one is a Beatle photograph, which nobody has," Hall says. "I've got a guy who was a student at the time. He took pictures of the press conference. I've seen them. They're good. But everybody has seen press conference photos. Sherman and I were talking about how something like that could have been taken in St. Louis for all you know. It's guys sitting at the table; it could be anywhere. I really like getting shots that show you some of the interiors of these places. I've got a shot at the auditorium. It's a side shot. You can see the balcony in the North Hall. It's Mountain. You can see Leslie West out there. [The photo is] taken from right side balcony. So you can see the crowd and left side balcony. You see all this, and it's really cool. It's one of my favorite shots."

The old blues festivals at the Shell are another subject that needs community input.

"Any photographs that people would have taken at the Shell. There's got to be some stuff out there. It was daylight. Snapshot things would still look pretty good."

The earlier images and advertisements point to another time, when shows were segregated. "So many of these things have 'White performance at 7:45. Colored performance at 10:45,'" Hall says. "So they'd have all the white people come in and see the show, clear the hall, and then — later around 11 o'clock — they'd let the blacks come in for their show."

The number of acts on the bills is almost incomprehensible in hindsight. But they reflect an integration of musical tastes (if not audiences) with roots that predate Elvis. A newspaper ad from 1957 promotes a bill with Fats Domino, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry, the Moonglows, and Charles Brown. All for $2.50.

"My son is 25. His buddies are all into collecting vinyl," Hall says. "The're into soul. I say look at this show Sam Cooke did here. There will be eight of them up and down the line. Frankie Lymon, Little Willie John. They had a house band. Each group would come on, play three or four songs, go off, and somebody would tell a couple of jokes. With in two hours, you could easily see seven or eight acts for two or three dollars."

Hall not only went to many of the shows of the 1970s, he distributed records and promoted shows himself. "From 1970 to '75, I worked for Record Sales, which was a big distributor here," Hall says. "When I started working there, we were still distributing Warner Brothers stuff. They closed down because everything started splitting and going independent. I went to work for Stan Lewis in Shreveport. He was a distributor. I worked eight years for Stan's until they lost Motown. That was our biggie. When we lost Motown, that was it."

Hall promoted a few shows featuring Mitch Ryder, Rush, Ted Nugent, and others, but found the business was stacked in favor of the large promoters. He eventually took a job with the post office, where he still works. Hall relishes the archival work, although he sometimes finds himself refereeing divergent views on who played when and where.

"There was a thing going around about Led Zeppelin playing at Memphis State before they ever played at the Coliseum," Hall says. "That was 1969; they played here in 1970. I said that didn't happen. This guy was saying nobody really knew who they were then. I said people knew who Jimmy Page was. Then Phillips Rawls jumped in. He was the Atlantic promotion man. He really tore into this guy. He said, 'Let me tell you something. I promoted the album when it came out. Everybody knew. There's no way they would have played a drop in gig.' But the thing is, there is a lot of evidence that it may have happened. It could have. There was a four-day gap from St. Louis to Florida. You know, they may have spent the night here. Page may have jammed with somebody in some club here."

Having done so much work, Hall recognizes the value of documenting the present. "You look back at this 20 years from now. You'll see bands that have played at the Hi-Tone go on to something. That's what I've done. I've put them in there."

To contribute to Hall's Kickstarter campaign, search for Memphis: The Rock 'n Roll Years History Book at kickstarter.com.

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