Thursday, September 17, 2009

For the Love of Shirley

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 3:02 PM

I can't tell you the first time I met Miss Shirley Williams, longtime bartender at the Lamplighter Lounge. Chances are, I was still a teenager, and she bounced my ass for not having a legal i.d.

What I can tell you is this: Through my ever-evolving taste in music and men, Miss Shirley has been one of the few constants in my post-high school life.

She was around when I first became a regular at the Lamplighter in the early 1990s (when I was legal) and I'd just discovered the Country Rockers. I'd come in to talk country music with Alex Chilton and CR guitarist Ron Easley, who, with Dan Rose, shot scenes for this incredible video at the Lamp, way back in '92.

Rose wasn't the only filmmaker who loved the Lamp: I was there when Robert Gordon and David Leonard shot the video for Cat Power's "Lived in Bars" at the Lamp. I produced Alan Spearman's $5 Cover Amplified video on Jack Oblivian, partially filmed at the Lamp, and happened to be hanging out when Jay Reatard documentarians Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz filmed "Waiting For Something" — coincidentally the same night Miss Shirley allowed photographer William Eggleston back in for a cheeseburger, after a decade-long ban.

With no advertising budget other than the word-of-mouth reputation of Miss Shirley's legendary cheeseburgers, the Lamplighter has become a destination bar. It hasn't been a total shocker to walk into the Lamplighter and see Jack White in a booth, or Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker sitting at the bar. I've taken the late Jeff Buckley, Dexter Romweber, and Hamish Kilgour of the Clean to meet Miss Shirley when they passed through town. Other times, I've gone solo and listened in to conversations held by Charlie Miller and the pair of guys who would sagely discuss the merit of various Mozart sonatas by the numbers alone. "Twenty-eight," one would say. His partner would nod, then reply, "Yeah, but 34..."

Over the decades, many of Miss Shirley's regulars have passed on to another realm, including Miller, the Mozart aficionados, and Jim, a dapper gentleman who once advised me in pool. There were times I walked in to find that the entire drop-ceiling had been replaced, or hear a new set of 45s on the jukebox, or discover that Olympia was no longer on tap. I cried inside the week they threw away the ancient, giant hornets nest that had hung over a back booth for years, occasionally dropping curls of papery nest material down on unsuspecting drunks. But despite the changes, Miss Shirley (and, of course, Lamplighter proprietress Ann Bradley) have remained the same.

Whatever the season or political climate, Miss Shirley can be counted on to sling the beers — until 3 a.m., when she promptly shuts down the bar and kicks us out, no matter how loudly we protest or how much money we have left to spend.

Now Miss Shirley needs our help.

Faced with health problems in early August, she's been unable to make many of her shifts at the Lamplighter. Although she has some health insurance, she is faced with mounting medical expenses; simultaneously, her income is disappearing along with her connections to her work family.

That’s why some of Miss Shirley's biggest fans have organized “For the Love of Shirley,” a two-night benefit at the Hi-Tone Café slated for tomorrow and Saturday night, featuring many of Memphis’ finest musicians and the Lamplighter’s best customers, who will be performing gratis.

On the bill: Jack O. and the Tennessee Tearjerkers, Impala, Angel Sluts, John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives, Bullet Proof Vests, Snowglobe, Vending Machine, and Jeffery James & the Haul.

The $10 per night cover charge (with additional donations welcomed and appreciated) will go directly to Miss Shirley. Photographer Don Perry will be hosting a “Prom Picture Photo Booth” at the Hi-Tone as an additional fundraiser. The Hi-Tone will also be donating ten percent of all bar sales that evening, so be sure to lift many glasses to our favorite bartender. T-shirts and, yes, "I love Miss Shirley" and "For the Love of Shirley" buttons, designed by the fabulous Chanda Helzer, will be available.

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