COLUMN NINETY, MAY 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
OTIS REDDING, STILL
A MEMPHIS IMMORTAL
(Photo by Jim Marshall)
They've put a bulldozer
to Crown's Saloon and ripped down Peewee's Bar. Urban renewal is when you
take the blues and turn it into soul music. This was maybe some 30 years ago,
but W.C. Handy still presides over Beale Street, a statue on a square of green,
the father of the blues playing to a flock of pigeons and an audience of 11 park
benches.The city that robbed us of Martin Luther King also gave us Booker T. and
the MGs. Who is it that thinks they're going to make the blues respectable by
putting housing projects where whores once walked? Once upon a time, showboats
used to dock among the cotton bales of Memphis. The last time I counted, there
were 21 Holiday Inns there. Memphis is where they took soul music and turned it
What's Pop? Otis Redding
once recorded an album called Dictionary of Soul and then he had to die
to explain it. Change yourself to fit the people's definition of Pop and you
may become a Pop star, but change Pop to fit your own definition and you become
a prophet. Booker T. and the MGs were already a legend in Memphis when Otis
first showed up there---a sixth-grade dropout from Macon, Georgia, a dumb
country boy who happened to be driving the bus for a flashy neighborhood blues
group called the Johnny Jenkins Band. Those were the early days of Stax---in an
old movie house converted to a recording studio with a marquee outside that
might still light up with the words, 'sOULSVILLE, U.S.A." Even showboats
used to have to blow their own horns. Stax was founded by a reformed redneck
fiddler on East McLemore Street right in the middle of Memphis? black ghetto.
Otis is serenading eternity
now, but the Johnny Jenkins Band is still reported to be playing the
neighborhoods. Like I say, this was more than some 30 years go. When the band
rode up to Memphis with Otis driving the bus, it was to make the band's first
record, with the four members of Booker T. and the MGs acting as session men.
The MGs stood for Memphis Groups. As for Otis, they kept sending him out for
cigarettes, lunch and coffee. He was so shy, he hardly opened his mouth enough
for anyone to know what he sounded like. But when the session was over, he asked
if he could try a song. Now Otis is a Pop star and not just because of his
tragic death. He'd attained Pop immortality only a half-year earlier with his
overwhelming performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
He had equaled, if not surpassed, even Ray Charles, the genius of soul, putting words of the flesh to the sacred gospel music of the black church. He had outdistanced James Brown, who mixed
The plane crash that took Otis to the bottom of Lake Monona put him on America's front pages
soul with R&B to create
a new black city rock. He had even toppled Elvis Presley from 11 years as the
world's No. 1 vocalist in the famous Melody Maker poll, for whatever
that was worth.
But it was Otis? death
that turned out to be the cherry atop the whipped cream of hype that broke Otis
through to Pop's mass audience. The plane crash that took him to the bottom of
Wisconsin's Lake Monona on December 10 in 1967 also splashed Otis Redding
across the front pages of white America. The Stax Record Company became big
business. Moviemakers started asking Booker T. and the MGs to write movie
You have to keep
remembering that Elvis Presley came from Memphis before Otis did. If Memphis
wasn't a redneck capital, it couldn't have become a birthplace of the blues.
Sam Phillip's Sun label was rising out of Memphis while Jim Stewart was still
fiddling weekends in a country band, working the rest of the time as a bank
clerk, counting other people's money in amounts he could only dream would
someday belong to him. Among the people who listen to music, they talk about Sun
as if Sam Phillips had created a collector's item instead of a label. Among
the people who make music, they talk about Sun as if it were a great legendary
jam session at which they were all present.
Elvis Presley rose on Sun.
So did Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Those were the days
before rock and roll, when rockabilly was the white man's rhythm and blues,
country music with a black beat, packaged in Memphis for the most part with Sam
Phillip's label on it. I suppose Jim Stewart, the reformed redneck fiddler,
might have been inspired in some small way by Sun.
When Jim hung out his
SOULSVILLE shingle on East McLemore Street, one of the first to show up under
the marquee was Steve Cropper, a lanky 18-year-old then with two years of
experience on the guitar and nothing better to do than work as a stock boy in
the Satellite Record Shop, which Jim's sister opened right next door to the
Steve Cropper is still
Memphis? guitarist-in-residence, though his beard is only a thin disguise for
somebody who looks like a hillbilly trying to figure out how to mark an X next
to Governor Wallace's name. As fabled producer Jerry Wexler one said:
"Memphis is full of
reformed country pickers who found out about the blues and couldn't make it
with Nashville any more."
Jerry Wexler is his own
legend, one of the first record company tycoons to put Memphis on the phonograph
map. But Jerry was talking about the sociology of music, not the business of it.
'the prototypical thing
about Memphis," he said, "I that it's in the South. Southerners who are
liberated can relate to blacks in a way no Northerner can understand."
Steve Cropper had been
working at Stax for a year before Booker T. Jones showed up. Booker was 15 years
old and still in high school.
It was to the marketplace,
to the big city flesh arcades like Beale Street used to be, that the blues had
to migrate from the drawling bottomlands to get the blues? rhythms. Muddy
Waters called it "puttin? time? to his music. You had to hustle in the
city or be dragged offstage by the hook of a cane. The way they still do it on
amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Miles Davis told me he got
two hernias pilling the load of a laggard drummer. Just as every city breathes
to its own rhythm, every Watts, every Hough, every Bedford-Stuyvesant and every
South Side dances to its own style of rhythm and blues. You can tell Chicago by
the way it cups its hands around the microphone and the harmonica. Some people
say the difference between the Detroit Sound and the Memphis Sound is the
difference between chrome and brass. Memphis had the funkiest horns in the
business. But it also had a rhythm section that went to work every morning like
a guy opening a shoe store. Give the right man a rhythm section and he can move
Stax was a family, close as
birds pecking the crumbs that fell from another bird's beak. If they talked in
headlines in a newspaper office, slogans in an advertising agency, police calls
in a precinct house and koans in a Zen monastery, at Stax they talked in song
waiting for everybody else to say something brilliant," Steve Cropper once
said. "Any time somebody drops a line, somebody else picks it up and runs to
the nearest office to write a song."
Steve used to run to the
nearest Holiday Inn. Sometimes he used to write with Otis. Booker T. and the MGs
produced just about all of Stax's records and played on most of Stax's
sessions. Then, Jim Stewart brought in a young prot?g?, a brilliant black
mastermind named Al Bell.
When Memphis celebrated its sesquicentennial, the United States Post Office issued a W. C. Handy commemorative postage stamp. They can't sell any music futures on the Cotton Exchange, but they're beginning to understand the value of music's past. Whatever happened to Jim Stewart? He eventually sold Stax to Al Bell. The Mississippi River isn't very pretty where it bends at Memphis. It runs slow and muddy. I remember how muddy it looked now and again when I hear an Otis Redding record. ##
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