- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
In the years following the Second World War, Memphis’s reputation for vice of all sorts continued to flourish. Citing crime and racial tensions, more and more affluent whites had started to migrate to the burgeoning suburbs just east of the city, and the entire downtown area began a gradual decline. Reform-minded municipal authorities launched a major cleanup of Beale Street in the late forties, closing most of the saloons, pawnshops, and poolrooms throughout the area. With the crackdown the Beale Street music scene lost much of its “anything goes” vitality, and the vigorous historic black community clustered there seemed to lose its sense of coherence.
But while Beale Street and the entire downtown area went into a protracted slide in the early fifties, Memphis music veered off on a dramatic new course. Beale Street went on the air. In October 1948 WDIA produced a forty-five-minute program hosted by a local black history teacher, Nat D. Williams. The show, which had been an experiment on a station devoted mostly to hillbilly and pop, proved wildly successful with the black community all over West Tennessee, Arkansas, and the northern Delta, and in 1949 the station radically changed its format. WDIA, “50,000 watts of goodwill,” became the first all-black radio station in the country, with African-American deejays and programming that specifically targeted a black audience. WDIA’s torrent of gospel, blues, and the sounds of rhythm and blues (R&B) put it on its way to becoming the most powerful station in Memphis.
As its competitors quickly discovered, its listeners were hardly confined to the black community. Sensing a white teenage audience to be tapped, another local station, WHBQ, introduced Dewey Phillips, a young white deejay with an eclectic interest in black music. Phillips took over the show “Red, Hot and Blue” in 1949. On any given program a listener might hear Arthur (“Big Boy”) Crudup, LaVern Baker, Big Mama Thornton, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, or the local gospel group the Blackwood Brothers. Several years before Alan Freed, who popularized the term rock ’n’ roll , would do the same with his radio show in Cleveland, Ohio, Dewey Phillips was bringing black music into white homes in Memphis.
There is no Dewey Phillips on the air in Memphis today, but the Memphis radio tradition lives on in WEVL, with its rockabilly and blues offerings, especially the funky “Rock House” show and “Cap’n Pete’s Blues Cruise,” which airs at 9:00 P.M. on Fridays. The WDIA studio on Union Avenue, just up the street from the Peabody Hotel, is also still in operation, broadcasting a steady stream of talk and music, and you can stop in for a quick tour. On Saturday mornings Rufus Thomas, the senior statesman of the local music scene, still broadcasts a weekly show, and the station’s all-blues programming on Saturdays remains an unpretentious tribute to the city’s blues tradition. Listening to the radio as you drive around the city or take a day trip down to the Delta, you cruise on a buoyant cushion of Memphis music, whose distinctive sound seems to literally fill the air.
Among those who listened regularly to “Red, Hot and Blue” in its early days was a young disc jockey who had arrived in Memphis in 1945. Sam Phillips was no relation to Dewey, but he shared the same colorblind musical tastes, especially an almost visionary enthusiasm for the black blues and rough country music he had heard growing up in Florence, Alabama. In Memphis he took a job as a sound engineer and announcer at WREC and picked up the rudiments of recording.
Then, in 1949, Phillips embarked on a modest local venture that within five years would do nothing less than revolutionize musical culture throughout the world. Scraping together all his available cash, he leased a former radiator shop at 706 Union Avenue and converted the seedy storefront building into a tiny recording studio. In January 1950 he opened the Memphis Recording Service, taping weddings, funerals, political speeches, anything at all. But his real ambition was to record the music he heard all around him in Memphis.
In 1949 Sam Phillips launched a modest local venture that would revolutionize music throughout the world.
In the early fifties the major record labels had headquarters in New York and Los Angeles and concentrated on pop music, which dominated about 60 percent of the market. While blues—“race music,” as record executives called it—and hillbilly received scant attention from the majors, small regional independents—indies, in the musical vernacular—had moved in to tap these less commercial genres. By the early fifties a number of minor labels—RPM/Modern in Los Angeles, Chess in Chicago, and Atlantic in New York—were cultivating local contacts to recruit artists all across the South, but especially in the music-rich Delta. At some point in 1950 Sam Phillips hit on the idea of recording local talent himself and then selling or leasing the masters to RPM or Chess.