The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum Is Open!
by Colin Davies in Memphis, Tennessee
I was fortunate enough to be invited to Memphis for the April 28, 2000 opening of the Rock n Soul Museum. My first stop was Lansky’s (no longer on its original site) where I bought a very smart, very expensive tuxedo (the invitation said “Black Tie”) and then I strolled along Beale Street, which has certainly been smartened up/gentrified since I was last there 10 years ago. After visiting the motel where Martin Luther King was shot and having a drink at the fancy Peabody Hotel (where Elvis attended a Humes High School prom), I headed for the new museum which is located in the Gibson Guitar building a block off Beale.
The evening started with a reception, and I stood around gazing at the well-dressed crowd, seeing who I could recognise. There was a band playing who were either The Bar-Kays or The Mar-Keys or The Memphis Horns — since they played ‘Last Night’ I suppose they must have been The Mar-Keys. Rufus Thomas was standing in a corner so I strolled over and said hello. He later got up with the band and sang a few numbers, including ‘Walking The Dog’, but none of his ’50s stuff.
I recognised Scotty Moore and also spotted Billy Lee Riley. Later someone told me that Sam The Sham had been there, but I don’t think I would’ve recognised him (it would have been much so much easier if everyone had worn name badges!). I went up to someone who I thought was John Fogerty, but he introduced himself to me as Jerry Schilling (one of Elvis’ pals) and I couldn’t actually think of anything to say to him! I saw a man standing by himself at the bar who was wearing a small Sun badge, so I went over and said, “Were you involved with Sun?”. He said, “Yes. I’m Shelby Singleton”! It was that kind of evening.
SAM THE MAN
Then across the room I spotted the man himself. Sam Phillips. So I sidled up and introduced myself. Pete Daniel, the curator of the exhibition and the author of the just published ‘Lost Revolution: The South In The 1950s’ (and the person who had invited me to the opening), had told me earlier that Sam might not be able to attend since he had had a bad reaction to some medicine he was taking. It’s true he didn’t really seem to be saying much, but he was certainly very willing to have his photo taken with anyone who asked. I told him that of all the music he had produced, I sometimes thought I preferred Charlie Rich over all the others. He replied with “He was a wonderful man, both personally and professionally”. He signed an autograph for me and we had our picture taken together.
Then the organisers of the exhibition (it was created by the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History and will stay in Memphis for the next ten years) stood up and made speeches of welcome and thanked the City of Memphis and the local businesses that had given financial support. We were then allowed upstairs to the actual exhibition. It has several rooms with photos and items of interest (including one of Ike Turner’s first pianos) giving the history of Memphis and its music. And, of course, I made directly for the Sun exhibit, which includes a video of interviews with Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc., plus a soundboard and other recording equipment contributed by Sam. I know the whole 8,000-square foot exhibition has been several years in the making (for a while it seemed it might not happen because of a shortage of funding) and I thought it was all very well done. It starts with a reproduction of a sharecropper’s cabin and includes exhibits on the big-band days of Beale Street, WDIA and other radio stations, plus record labels such as Meteor, Stax, and Hi. (To be honest. I’d like to go back again and look at it more carefully — I was too busy ‘star-watching’ to really concentrate on it. There are more than 70 interviews recorded on video, so you could spend a good day there easily.)
THE KILLER ARRIVES
Then I looked over one of the balconies and saw a limousine pulling up, so I headed for the main door to see who it was. And who should walk in but Jerry Lee Lewis! I pushed my way forward and asked him to sign an autograph. “You’ll have to wait a minute, son. I’m just doing up my clothes”, he said as he buttoned up his trousers! The Killer was accompanied by his wife Kerrie and he seemed to me to have gotten shorter since the last time I saw him.
I headed back upstairs and in the room next to the exhibition was the Sun Studio Stage, where The Smoochy Smith Band was playing. (There was another band up on the roof playing what sounded like some kind of hip-hop stuff or something.) Standing in the corridor was Sleepy La Beef (and if Jerry Lee has gotten smaller, Sleepy seems to have gotten even larger!) chatting with his pianist, David Hughes from Sheffield. Back in the exhibition I hung around Sam Phillips (who was with his son Knox) and Jerry Lee, who by now had both Jerry Schilling and George Klein sticking close to them. I plucked up the courage and asked Jerry Lee if he would ever go back into the studio and record an album of just Hank Williams songs. “I doubt it”, he said, adding, “But I will go back into the studio before I die. It’s been 14 years since I last recorded.” “But surely ‘Young Blood’ was just a couple of years ago?”, I said. “No, it was 14 years ago. The Killer says so.” So that was that!
I guess the highlight of the evening was seeing Jerry Lee looking at video footage of himself of ‘The Steve Allen Show’. “That was about 100 years ago!”, he said. Sam Phillips spent a lot of time looking at the exhibits and was willing to shake hands and talk with everyone. Then I headed back to the Sun Studio Stage, shaking hands with Steve Cropper on the way. According to the programme, Billy Lee Riley, Paul Burlison and Malcolm Yelvington were going to make guest appearances, but if they did then they couldn’t have played for long. When I got there, Sleepy was on stage putting on a great show. At one point Jerry Lee was standing at the back of the room watching and drinking a Pepsi. For one moment I though he might get up and tell David Hughes (who is a fabulous pianist) to scoot over, but it was not to be.
At about half-past midnight, as I made my way back to my hotel, Beale Street was still jumping. Early the next morning a friend of mine, John Pearson, who had flown in from California for the opening, and I drove around north Memphis (where Elvis grew up). We cruised along Chelsea Avenue past where the Select O’Hits and American Sound studios used to be, stopping for gas at an Exxon station which is on the site of the old Crown Electric building. I had to head for the airport, but John was staying another day, so he visited the Sun Studio and made contact with Charlie Feathers’ family with whom he had stayed in the ’60s and early ’70s. They invited him to go and see Bubba Feathers and his band, who were playing at the Americana Club, which is situated on the exact same spot as the old Eagle’s Nest Club (where Elvis reputedly played his first paid professional gig).
Meanwhile, I was flying home to Washington, D.C., thinking over the night before. I had met both Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis, got their autographs, and even had conversations with them. So now, even if you are not particularly interested in dragging your way through the crowds at Graceland, there is another reason to visit Memphis. Rock ‘n’ Soul is a great museum and it seems that the City of Memphis (and the Smithsonian) is giving its music the recognition it has so long deserved.