Musical Memphis, birth of rock and roll

Sam and Dewey, the Wonder Twins!

Back in the 50’s, Memphis had two guys with the same last name. They weren’t twins, brothers or even cousins, just had the same last name-Philips. One ran a recording studio, the other was a disc jockey at a radio station. But with time, they became household names in their chosen new genre-rock and roll! Cleveland Ohio made a phrase, but Memphis Tennessee made the original music for it. What makes them the wonder twins were their roles in starting the careers of the artists they worked with.

The recording studio, called Memphis Recording Services was run by Sam Philips. Sam had some singers who came into his studio to record their songs. One was a poor, teenage kid who wanted to make a song for his mom. He got that done, paid for his session, and that was that-for the moment. The assistant, Marion Keisker saw something in this guy and told Sam about it. Sam had a record label, Sun Records, and he wanted to get a record made for this kid, because he knew it would sell. The record-presser, R. E. “Buster” Williams had to loan Elvis the money to press the record. He did it on the strength of Sam’s recommendation that this record would sell- and sell it did!

Sam was recording artists in the rhythm and blues genre originally, because he wanted to introduce white folks to it. Along the way, some white recording artists were coming through his door, whether he was there or not, (Carl Perkins was first recorded by the Sun engineer while Sam was on vacation). These guys were good, in fact, better than they thought they were. Sam heard what they had, built them up, and had them making records for him, while Buster pressed the records.

The poor kid from the projects was Elvis Presley, and his first song took off in the charts, with the help of Dewey. Dewey had a radio show called “Red Hot and Blues”, and new recording artists had a first play on air from Dewey. He was the DJ on WHBQ, a radio station in the lobby at the Chisca Hotel in downtown Memphis. Plus, Sam had friends at radio stations all over the South. He’d get a box of records from Buster and ship copies out to all those stations. Rock and roll was new music, and made the girls scream, call up the stations and buy records-Magic! There was Elvis from Memphis, Jerry Lee from Louisiana, Carl Perkins from Jackson TN, and Johnny Cash from Dyess Arkansas. These were the Sun Studio pioneers of the new music form, rock and roll.

Rock and roll was slow getting traction, somewhat. RCA bought Elvis’s record contract for $35,000, a cheap price, but Sam had trouble making his business make money. He’d commit to a new artist, record music, press the records and get them out to the stations. The public didn’t just yank them up as fast as Sam would like. Preachers were railing against the music from the pulpits, and other factors were putting a drag on sales, and eventually-income. Return on investment was slow coming in the early days.

But if Sam had an enduring character trait that worked well for him and his artists it was ability to pick a winner. The artists who he thought would do well, he made sure that they knew that he saw it, even if they didn’t. What artist doesn’t have doubts about his material or ability to convey it in a way that made people want to buy it? Sam made them believe in themselves. One day Sam was in his studio, taking Johnny Cash records and shipping them out to the radio stations he knew owners or DJ’s at, all over the southeast US. Johnny Cash happened to be there, and he saw the cities his songs were going to. He said “I‘m not singing there”, and Same came back “oh yes, you are!”.

That was Sam, a music entrepreneur, if there ever was one. He made Sun a label to aspire to. He took home-grown talent in a very new musical style, built it up, recorded and distributed it, and virtually kick-started rock and roll as a style. And it started in Memphis! Like a line from a Carl Perkins song says “I was there when it happened, don’t ya think I oughta know? I was there when Memphis gave birth to rock and roll!”

Another Memphis mid-wife to the new music was Dewey Philips. Dewey was in the basement of a store, playing the records, to make people aware of the music, and sell records. He was doing such an impressive job of it, someone told Wink Martindale, the manager at WHBQ Radio 560 about him. Wink came and heard him and offered him a job as a DJ at the station, which Dewey accepted.

Back in the day when radio was virtually AM, the stations hired disc jockeys with deep, loud voices, which projected well. AM stands for amplitude modulation, which made volume king. A boomy bass voice could make a signal go further than one with less bass could, it literally extended the range. An FM signal didn’t work that way, so boom and bass didn’t matter, but the boom box voices of Dewey Philips, Jack Parnell, and country legend DJ Les Acree did a lot for an AM signal.

Dewey started a special part of his radio show called “Red Hot, and Blues”, featuring the new voices that were recording over at Sun Studios. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl and Johnny all got there “first air” from Dewey’s show. Nowadays, there is a barbecue restaurant in the northeast called by that name. Dewey’s show is where it came from. I hear the BBQ is good, and the music is even better! WHBQ will always be the first station to air an Elvis or Johnny, Carl or Jerry Lee song, it’s a legendary radio station!

Yes, Sam and Dewey were the wunderkind that gave Memphis a place on the world stage, as a city of note, a place of good music, a city with a remarkable, unforgettable nature. In the years to follow, bands made sure to play here, an homage to its musical heritage.




1 Comment

  1. Loved it! But noticed a few punctuation boo boos and one misspelled word. Very interesting article. Looking forward to reading more 😁


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