SECTION SEVEN

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COLUMN NINETY, MAY 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

RETROPOP SCENE:
OTIS REDDING, STILL
A MEMPHIS IMMORTAL


OTIS REDDING
(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 into Pop.

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 scores.

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 movie house.

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 the earth.

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 titles.

"Everybody's always 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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