WKNO's newest documentary in their "Memphis Memoirs" series, Overton Square: The Golden Years, premiered last week, and it was just great. I don't say that merely because I am in it, although my inclusion enhances nearly every occasion, but because director Susie Howe captured the joyous spirit that came along with Memphis' continuing celebration surrounding the square's development.
Begun as the pipe dream of four young scions of prominent Memphis families: Jimmy "J-Rob" Robinson, Ben Woodson, Charlie Hull, and Frank "Bubba" Doggrell, along with prominent developer George Saig, Overton Square blossomed into Memphis' combined version of the French Quarter, Greenwich Village, and Ghirardelli Square in a few city blocks. The music, the food, the intoxicants of choice, the crowds, the events, and the fun have become legendary, and as evidenced by this film, those enterprising young men did this town a big favor by throwing a wild, decade-long party from which the participants are still hungover 40 years later.
Since we both worked there, my wife Melody and I enjoyed sharing our experiences with the director. Melody lived just behind the square for a time with a previous spouse and witnessed the mayhem from her front porch nightly. My first employment came as a singer at the Looking Glass, the predecessor to Bombay Bicycle Club. I sat on a high stool in a corner decorated to look like a library with real bookshelves containing large, leather-bound tomes of ancient history, surrounded by customers sitting in overstuffed couches and puffy lounge chairs. I expanded the act to a duo with conga, then an acoustic trio, and finally a band.
After having been away from Memphis for a number of years, I was a workhorse for the square and thrilled with the employment. My champion, more times than not, was Thomas Boggs, who later founded Huey's. I'd known him since his days as drummer for Memphis' legendary garage band, Tommy Burk & the Counts. The Overton Square management put Boggs in charge of the music, since they figured he spoke the musicians' language, which was cash. Boggs moved us across the street to Lafayette's Music Room and was so driven and dedicated in his new management career that I couldn't help but enjoy being an occasional pain in the ass just to get a rise out of him. My affection for him was shared by many others and made obvious at the documentary's premiere when Boggs' image on the screen was greeted by sustained applause.
Lafayette's Music Room was the gem of Midtown. It didn't matter whose name was on the marquee. Your friends were there and you were going to hear something new, even if it was Kiss, who got laughed out of town. The consensus was that these four guys couldn't hide their mediocre musicianship underneath a bunch of silly greasepaint. Kansas ("Dust in the Wind") was so loud they cleared the house in 10 minutes, while Minnie Ripperton was sublime.
A friend once asked me to accompany her to hear an unknown "Korean jazz pianist," who turned out to be Chick Corea and his trio. From August 1972 to August 1975, Lafayette's presented new artists to Memphis, including Billy Joel, Leo Sayer, Pure Prairie League, Leon Russell, and Phoebe Snow. We rocked out to the Alex Taylor Band before we even realized he was James' brother. In the 'KNO film, George Saig said Lafayette's was hemorrhaging money and had to close. It's true that it was small and had to share a nasty kitchen with Friday's, but it was also the searchlight and draw for the entire area. With due respect to Playhouse on the Square, which replaced Lafayette's, the demise of the showcase club was, for me, the end of the square. Playhouse drew one audience per night, but Lafayette's turned the house every hour.
One tale left untold in the documentary was the night in Lafayette's when Mayor Wyeth Chandler got his ass kicked. The story has morphed into outlandish descriptions of parking-lot standoffs and fistfights between the mayor and assorted waiters, but the true tale comes from bartender Joe Daugherty: Chandler, an Overton Square regular, was in attendance with his entourage and was, in a phrase, "shit-faced." A couple at the next table was being harassed by the mayor, and when Chandler groped the young woman, her date cold-cocked him, knocking him to the floor and sending both the mayor's and Lafayette's staff into a frenzy. Into the breach leaped Boggs, who hoisted the stunned mayor to his feet and escorted him out a back entrance and into his limousine. Knowing the police were on the way, Boggs felt that the mayor had it coming and was so fair-minded that he calmed the offended couple and escorted them from the premises to avoid further questions from the police. The mayor showed up for work the next day looking like he'd gone six rounds with Mike Tyson and was immortalized in a Bill Garner editorial cartoon, which pictured him sitting at his desk with a black eye and wearing boxing gloves. The identity of the man who smacked the mayor is still unknown.
Aside from the wonderful memories, our reaction to seeing our contemporaries on film was, "Do we look that old?" But I took Melody's trembling hand in mine, and said, "No, Mother, we're still adorable." Thus assured, we enjoyed watching interviews with everyone from bartenders to bouncers and got to revisit a time when Memphis experienced a minor cultural revolution.
It all began when Jimmy Robinson opened a beer joint called the Perception Lounge, because he wanted to "be cool and own his own bar." Isaac Tigrett credits Robinson as his model for opening his own burger and beer emporium in London: the Hard Rock Cafe.
Did we ever get the chance to say, "Thanks, guys. We had a great time"? Loeb Properties has big plans for the square, and I wish them well. An Overton Square comeback would be a grand boost for the city, although it will never be the same. Which is as it should be. The square should be designed for a younger generation, keeping in mind the tradition of local merchants, live music, and the draw of a showcase music room. Then, if they have half the fun that we did, it's sure to be a success. And if you missed the spirited documentary, I'm sure WKNO will show it again and again and ...
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."