Among the first of the innumerable roadside billboards which greet visitors arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, is one which proclaims a hearty Welcome to Memphis – Home of the Memphis Sound. The air is heavy, warm; the hickory smoke of a hundred pit barbecue truck stops mingles with the smell of shade trees and asphalt. The brilliant lawns are well-kept beyond the billboard belt; azaleas are in bloom. A gaggle of black school children cuts across a manicured front yard, trailing strains of sweet soul music from a battery of tinny transistor radio speakers. The car radio dial finds the station and tunes into the thudding bass line, the crisp horn riff and Al Green singing, "Here I am/Come and take me . . ."
Follow the children around the corner; the pavement narrows, becomes pitted. The Memphis that introduced Holiday Inns and self-service supermarkets to the world metamorphoses abruptly into the Memphis with the highest per capita murder rate of any American city its size, the weather vane of urban racial tension, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King. On a rough ghetto street, facing a beauty parlor with a screen porch and a row of peeling board houses, a modern, red brick building is going up around the shell of the old Royal Theater. Scaffolding and two-by-fours lay scattered in the mud. Inside, behind a black, unmarked door, Al Green's voice pans clockwise around a circle of monitor speakers. Willie Mitchell sits in the center of the circle, laughing.
Willie's large, Piscean eyes radiate a kind of aquatic intensity; he jacks up the playback volume, drowning the sound of his own chuckles in a sea of strings, horns, voices and rhythm. He is re-mixing, in quad, the Al Green singles and albums he produced last year. The sounds are familiar – "Let's Stay Together" sold 2.8 million copies as a single and Green's total sales for the year exceeded ten million units – but Willie reacts to them as if they were last night's inspiration. He signals punctuations in the music with body English: a jabbing thumb for horn bursts, rocking-chair motion for the push-pull of bass and drums, foot stomping for heavy accents. He pans a kicking drum pattern around his circle of speakers and laughs again. Outside his new, glassed-in booth, in the studio proper, an engineer and two assistants are testing microphone connections.
The morning paper, the Commercial Appeal is spread out on the board, open to a six-column headline: Green, Mitchell Dance to Winning Memphis Beat. The story details the Green Mitchell sweep of the third annual Memphis Music Awards. Hi, the local company of which Mitchell is vice-president, and parent company, London, won in eight of the 13 regular award categories. "The history and importance of the Memphis sound was emphasized," the story notes." 'Memphis is the historical center of American music,' said Knox Phillips, a member of the board of directors of Memphis Music, Inc. 'It is now, and always has been."'
"Always" is a long time, but Willie Mitchell can look back on 20 years of involvement in Memphis music; singer and disk jockey Rufus Thomas can remember 20 more, and bluesman Furry Lewis recalls minstrel and medicine show routines that were already old hat in 1900. Furry's immediate predecessors were singing ballads like "Casey Jones" and "John Henry" before the blues began to filter into Memphis from its mysterious origins in the Mississippi Delta; cotton money and the promise of easier living had been attracting black musicians to Memphis since the Reconstruction period.
By the early 1900s Memphis boasted a thriving black music subculture, centered in the Beale Street area near the Mississippi River. The blacks kept to their part of town, the whites kept to theirs, and the music was kept under wraps until the arrival of W.C. Handy, a trumpet player and bandleader from Alabama. Handy contributed little in the way of originality to Memphis music; the compositions which won him international acclaim were inspired, at least in part, by songs he heard in the city's vaudeville theaters, cabarets and juke joints. He was a pivotal figure primarily because he realized that blues songs were worth more than cabaret wages. They could be written down, copyrighted, published and marketed, and this Handy proceeded to do.
Blues singer Tim Wilkins consolidated the music's media impact when, in 1927, he became the first black performer to broadcast on Memphis radio. He sang his "New Frisco Train" over the air one day and had to keep singing it for more than half an hour; the station's switchboard was flooded with calls. Talent scouts from Eastern and Midwestern record companies began using Memphis as a base for "field" operations; they would fan out through the Delta country in search of "race" artists and then bring their discoveries into town, where they used the facilities of radio stations or set up portable equipment in the basement of the Peabody Hotel. Records by local favorites like Jim Jackson, Furry Lewis, the Memphis Jug Band and Memphis Minnie sold well in black communities throughout the South. But by 1931 the Depression had called a halt to most blues recording. Tim Wilkins got religion, changed his name to Reverend Robert Wilkins, and composed "The Prodigal Son." Many a prodigal bluesman returned to Memphis and settled into construction work or street cleaning. Mayor Crump shut down Beale Street's jukes, and the blues moved out of the cabarets and into the ghetto's living rooms.
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