‘Memphis’ : A musical history lesson about race relations

Memphis is a city of musical legend, where country, blues and race relations built an explosive mix, something explored in this rousing musical production named for that city that premieres on PBS on Friday, 24 February 2012.

“Memphis” won four Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Orchestrations) and this “Great Performances” includes the original cast: Tony nominees Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, as well as Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart, Michael McGrath and Cass Morgan. See the performances, songs and dance that won over the tough Tony voters.

So what do you know about Memphis? If, like me, you’ve never been there, here’s some background information that will be helpful.

Located in the Southwest corner of Tennessee, the city first belonged to the Native Americans (Chickasaw), but was later “discovered” by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and French explorers.  The city was named for the ancient capital of Egypt in 1819 when John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson founded the city as a transportation center linked to the Mississippi River.

Memphis became a major slave market and sided with the Southern states, seceding from the Union in 1861. Yet after the Battle of Memphis, the Union gained control of the city in 1862.  After the Civil War, yellow fever reduced the population by about 75 percent. Memphis lost its city charter and was rechartered in 1893.

In the 1960s, the sanitation workers strike brought the Civil Rights movement to Memphis. It was in Memphis, on 3 April 1968, that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple and a day later, it was at the Memphis Lorraine Motel that King was assassinated.

Currently, African Americans are 63 percent of the population and non-Latino whites are 30 percent.

Musically, there’s a lot of history there. Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former home, is there. Other musicians who grew up in and around the Memphis area are: Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, W. C. Handy, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones, Al Green and Justin Timberlake.

But the David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book) musical “Memphis,” is about when a daring DJ decided to play “race” music on the local white radio station in the 1950s. The musical which opened on Broadway in 2009 is loosely based on the ill-fated Memphis DJ Dewely Phillips and won a Tony for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.

DiPietro gave us the off-Broadway charmer, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” with composer Jimmy Roberts. David Bryan is better known as the keyboard player for the hair band, Bon Jovi. Bryan and DiPietro are both New Jersey boys.

So what do they know about Memphis and music? These Jersey boys look at the music scene in Memphis through the eyes of a white man. You could have guessed that, right?

Bryan and DiPietro picked one of the first white DJs to play “race” music, Dewey Phillips. Phillips began on WHBQ in 1949 in Memphis and his persona was a drugged up hillbilly. He was the first to play the Elvis Presley’s debut record. How did people know he was a white singer? Segregation helped. You could tell by knowing what high school a singer attended. His style of deejaying went out of style and Phillips ended up working smaller gigs and his drugged up persona wasn’t all pretend. He died at at 42 from heart failure at 1968.

Alan Freed, one of Phillips’ contemporaries, appeared in films such as the 1956 “Rock, Rock, Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock.”  Fans of the Gidget movies might be surprised to know that Freed called himself “The King of the Moondoggers” and his show was “The Moondog House.” The actual Moondog was the New York musician Louis T. Hardin who would later sue Freed for copyright infringement. In 1957, ABC gave Freed a TV show, “The Big Beat” that was canceled despite high ratings because of black man (Frankie Lymon of Lymon and The Teenagers) was seen dancing with a white woman. Freed was also a heavy drinker, dying in 1965 at age 43.

How this becomes the musical “Memphis,” with a party, the lead singer being Felicia (the smoking hot Montego Glover). A local underground black rock and roll bar called Delray’s is having a party when a white man named Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) wanders in. As a stock boy at a department store, Huey gets the opportunity to play records for the store to help sales and although he’s successful, he’s fired because he placed the wrong type of music.

Back at Delray’s he makes his interest in Felicia clear, and tells her he’ll get her on the radio. But Felicia’s brother, Delray was not convinced and well aware of the legal and social problems that would face a mixed race couple in Tennessee.

By trickery, Huey gets on the air and soon has a job. While he’s able to keep his promise to Felicia and they begin a secret relationship. Yet secrets are hard to keep and when they are discovered, Felicia gets beat up and the first act ends with Felicia being taken to the hospital.

Act 2 takes Huey on to a TV show and although Huey and Felicia are still together, Felicia is clear that things can’t continue this way. Her solution: Go to New York. But Huey can’t leave Memphis. While Felicia rises to fame, Huey descends, ending up in a small radio station with exactly one listener.

That’s a bittersweet ending, but closer to the truth.

What’s incredible with this PBS Great Performance is that here’s the original cast including Tony nominees Chad Kimball, and Montego Glover. The music is hot and the dancing even hotter. Kimball’s Huey is annoying, but his hick is like a nondescript mongrel you grow to love because of his persistence and sweet sincerity. Glover is a strong presence who is won over despite her misgivings. Haven’t we all had a romance that was good, but also oh-so wrong?

“Memphis” reminds us how much American modern music owes to African Americans and now we don’t consider blues, rock and roll race music or black music, do we?   Take time to celebrate the brave pioneers who crossed the lines and brought us together musically, ending musical segregation before other types of segregation would end.

“Memphis” airs on PBS on 24 February 2012 at 9 p.m. Check local listings.

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