Flashback

Former writers and editors reflect on the magazine they helped shape.



BOB TOWERY

Publisher/Editor, 1976-1981

Call me shortsighted. I have always had a propensity for taking only a peremptory look before leaping. As a 27-year-old entrepreneur with literary pretensions, few practical skills, and little business experience, launching a city magazine seemed no more than a short hop off a low stoop. And armed, as I was, with just enough capital and credit provided me by ailing parents anxious to be relieved of the rigors of a small publishing company and an unsophisticated lending team at a certain local bank, whose name is no more than a memory, I took that leap into the abyss armed more for an outing than an expedition.

I embarked on the enterprise of launching Memphis in confederacy with a likeminded writer named Ken DeCell with all the insouciant innocence with which Ishmael boarded the Pequod.

During the ensuing 10 years we landed more design awards and more journalism awards than any other city or regional magazine in the country. It was an epic journey from which I returned floating, as it were, on a raft made of little more than was necessary to hammer together a coffin for my first business venture.

The personality of the publication grew from the start with a will and determination that overshadowed the single or even combined capabilities of its creators.

But it was the audience, rather than the serendipity of finding so much natural talent together at the same time in an unlikely place, that inspired our young staff to rise to the occasion of fulfilling those demands. We felt it like so much wind on our faces or dark water swirling around our feet. The magazine, we believed, stirred the community.

Today, with public discourse sewn together with such intricate stitches through its maze of competing resources, it takes a positive act of will for me to recall the climate that promoted the terrors and raptures of that, seemingly, distant time when Memphis magazine first sounded its unique voice. But I remain convinced that a certain fundamental has not changed: the fundamental that information can be mere babble without an intelligent editor, or rather editorial team, a team whose intuition, erudition, and, yes, sense of style you, as an individual reader, both understand and appreciate.

Who ya' gonna' turn to?

God help that you should Google a subject and attempt to reduce the 43,678,234 hits into a succinct assessment. Bloggers and their constituencies will not forgive me for saying that 90 percent of the examples of that low art to which I have been exposed are without even the pretense of any journalistic standard, let alone simple grammatical skills. Local television news will not forgive me for saying that their hyperbole and hyper-dramatic tone have rendered them irrelevant. National television reporting is a sea of contradictory headlines with no sense of proportion. Magazines, generally, have splintered into special-interest promotional dialogues between their advertisers and their clients. And the decline in both depth and quality of reporting of most of our daily newspapers under the tide of red-ink washing over them from the onslaught of competition in this hyper-but-ill-informed society is without parallel amongst the declines of all the rest.

It is for all these reasons that I enjoyed a small celebration as I read the December 2005 issue of Memphis magazine. It, under new editorial leadership, represents a return to a style that pleases me. Not to say that it's better than those of the immediate past, I'm as unlikely to make such a judgment as any grandfather might be, but prudent grandfathers can, without showing favoritism, still have their favorites. I welcome the beginning of this decade of Memphis magazine with renewed hope of its delivering the kind of insouciant wisdom that we attempted, if rarely achieved, 30 years ago.

Bob Towery sold his publishing company in 2001. He currently serves on the boards of Contemporary Media (Memphis' parent company), Challenger Corporation, Viser Construction, and the Memphis College of Art.

KEN DECELL

Editor, 1976-1978

I haven't had such fun in years -- in about 30 years, in fact. Poring over dusty copies of the first years of Memphis magazine brings back many memories -- some of them surprisingly fresh, most of them welcome.

There, on the cover of the very first issue -- we called it City of Memphis to distinguish it from previous, short-lived publications -- is illustrator Calvin Foster's ethereal rendering of Boss Crump. The story inside, a posthumous "interview" with Crump by the pseudonymous Charles Dell -- a collaboration in which the heavy lifting was done by veteran Memphis writer Charles Gillespie -- brought the mind of the most formidable political figure in the city's history to bear on its problems and prospects in 1976. Three decades later, it remains enlightening, provocative -- and a hoot. My favorite quote from the spirit of Mister Crump: "I have been in hot water. The merit of being constantly in hot water is that it keeps one's hands clean."

"In the months to come," I wrote, "we'll be celebrating the city, chastising it, and cheering it on when we can. We'll pick a few nits and tilt at a windmill or two. Most of all we'll be doing what Memphis is doing and suggesting a few things that it's not. It should be a lot of fun.

"We hope you will join us."

It was indeed fun -- among other things. And enough of you joined us, thank goodness, that the magazine is here 30 years later.

We were young and in love -- with each other, with life, with Memphis, with magazine journalism. My wife, Florri, and I were natives of the Mississippi Delta who had gone north to college and discovered that we could -- happily -- come home again. Publisher Bob Towery and his wife, Patty, were native Memphians with whom we became fast and lifelong friends.

Our aim was to apply to Memphis the kind of intelligent inquiry, sense of adventure, style, and journalistic flair that were hallmarks of the magazines we most admired -- New York, Esquire, Harper's, The Atlantic, Washington Monthly, and Rolling Stone.

And that's what we set out to do. In our second issue -- a report on the state of the arts here -- we introduced readers to Memphis' own William Eggleston, soon to become an icon in the world of art photography. Nino Shipp compiled miniprofiles of 53 other visual, performing, and literary artists of note -- not counting musicians. And John Fergus Ryan regaled readers with a piece of "semi-nonfiction" entitled "The William Faulkner I Knew." The issue also featured a guide to the first annual Memphis in May celebration, a monthlong extravaganza that began reviving the city's sense of itself as a vibrant, fun, culturally rich, and exciting place.

Other early highlights included a photo of Patty Towery (Bob's wife and our managing editor) sporting a red, white, and blue Afro wig on the cover of the July issue, which took a lighthearted -- nay, hilarious -- look at the nation's bicentennial compulsion to doll everything up, from tuxedos to coffins, in the colors of Old Glory.

We did the things city magazines do -- reviewed the area's nightspots, profiled everyone from wrestling king Jerry Lawler to rock-and-roller Larry Raspberry, and told readers how to get the most out of the city. All was not lighthearted. In July 1977 we presented Joan Beifuss' gripping account of "The Day Martin Luther King Was Killed," scenes from which were masterfully illustrated by John Robinette.

The next month, Elvis died -- just days shy of the magazine's deadline. I still remember frantically cobbling together an overview of Presley's life to intersperse with Jackson Baker's spellbinding narrative of the King's final 24 hours. The issue sold out.

By the magazine's second anniversary we felt established enough to drop City of from the logo and let the magazine just be Memphis. It's great to know it still is.

Ken Decell is a senior editor of Washingtonian magazine.

ED WEATHERS

Managing Editor/Manuscripts Editor/Contributor, 1977-1992

I suppose I might as well start with the all-time highlight of my 15 years at Memphis magazine: the day I received an envelope full of hate mail from a fourth-grade class in Laramie, Wyoming.

A few months earlier, I had written in a "Backporch" column that because Wyoming was a nearly uninhabited, square-looking state with nothing in particular to recommend it, the federal government should just build a big fence around it and turn it into a giant prison -- a kind of latter-day penal colony. (Yes, I thought this was funny. Don't ask why.) A few weeks later, sitting at my Memphis magazine desk, I found myself staring at a thick envelope, return address Laramie. This was before the days of anthrax scares, so I opened it. "We all hate you here," chirped the first letter. "What you said was stupid." The next was even more touching: "You should come to Wyoming," it said. "You might have some fun for once in your short, disgusting life."

This experience taught me two lessons 1) Memphis magazine reaches far wider than I had ever imagined, and 2) fourth-graders in Wyoming write better than I do.

In fact, my years at Memphis magazine introduced me to many wonderful writers, most of them grown-ups, and that, I think, is the real highlight of my time there. I believe I can claim to have "discovered" such talents as Ken Neill, Tom Martin, Erik Calonius, Judy Ringel, Tim Sampson, Debbie Gilbert, John Friedlander, and Marilyn Sadler, among others. (Did I discover David Dawson or Michael Finger? I don't remember. I hope so.) And as a writer myself, I was fortunate enough to have been nurtured by the fine editing of the magazine's first editor, Ken DeCell, and the indulgences of its founder, Bob Towery, a man of many talents, including a beautifully refined understanding of Memphis readers' sensibilities. But the biggest perk of those early days? I got to sit next to Patty Towery, our beautiful, deadpan-funny managing editor.

Oh, we had our lively times in the beginning. The art department's X-acto-knife wars, led by art director Fred Woodward in the basement of our first offices in Whitehaven, were a brief period of tension, for example. (I like to think they prepared Fred for his later success as art director of Rolling Stone and GQ.) And when Elvis died well after the deadline for our September 1977 issue, it took every ounce of our resolve to gear up all over again to put out a new issue for that month. (The extraordinary writing and reporting of Jackson Baker, in his pre-political days, helped save us then.) In a panic one year for lack of a cover story, we invented the cover title "How Cool Is a Wet T-Shirt?" and wrote the entire story in limerick form. I have no idea what the point of that was. In any case, our readers became accustomed to getting their slightly idiosyncratic issues, oh, a week or three late, but they always remained generous in the number and sincerity of their compliments.

I was editor two or three different times at the magazine. Ken Neill called it "tag-team editing," when I would step in to try to fill the big shoes of Ken himself when he became publisher, or Larry Conley, one of the magazine's finest writers and editors, when Larry moved on to big-time newspapers in Detroit and Atlanta. I got to see some magnificent work in the editor's chair: Joan Beifuss' account of the night Martin Luther King was killed, Erik Calonius' "The Voices of Fourth and Vance" photo-essay, Ken Neill's ground-breaking (and newsmaking) account of an adoption-for-profit scandal that still resonated decades later -- and dozens of other fine pieces of writing and reporting.

For my own part, I was privileged to write the "Backporch" column for nine years, following John Fergus Ryan (a comic genius) and John Friedlander, my former office-mate at Memphis State, whose column about his wife going into labor is still my all-time favorite. ("Take it like a man," he told her.) I must have written 50 long articles for the magazine, first as associate editor, then later as a freelancer. The most memorable? Well, I got to profile Cybill Shepherd twice, once before Moonlighting and once after. (The National Enquirer offered me $5,000 to reprint parts of the Moonlighting piece; in a fit of ethics, I turned them down.) I profiled two mayors: Wyeth Chandler and Dick Hackett. I wrote the first big magazine story about the gay community in Memphis. I won a nice award from the American Bar Association for an article I did on the Memphis public defender's office.

But the most memorable article I ever wrote for Memphis magazine? I think it was a piece I did way back in 1977, in my first year with the magazine. At the last minute (what else?) we needed a 2,000-word story to fill the space where another article had failed to materialize. Ken DeCell and I brainstormed for maybe 15 minutes and decided that because it was the October issue, we could write something school-related. Thirty-two hours and six intense schoolroom interviews later, I turned the story in. It was called "How to Read a Report Card, " with a byline by "Allan Edwards," a pseudonym I used when I had several stories in the same issue. I had endured 32 horrible, sleepless hours researching and writing that story, but I was, and still am, mighty proud of it.

Those kids in Laramie are probably parents themselves now. Maybe I should send them a copy of that article, to make amends.

Ed Weathers is an English professor at Virginia Tech University.

TOM MARTIN

Contributing Editor, 1978-1992

The late 1970s was a wonderful time to be a young writer in Memphis. It was during that period that I came of age as a writer, crafting feature articles for Memphis magazine; I know I'm only one of many who can make that same statement. The magazine had progressive owners willing to take risks, amazing editors, and a stable of hungry twentysomethings like me who were willing to tackle any subject. Some jokingly refer to this as the "term paper" period, but I think in that era Memphis magazine was one of the true catalysts for change in the city.

That short span produced some memorable experiences: drinking Crown Royal at midnight while Charlie Rich, whom I was profiling, played some haunting ballads on his big black grand piano; unearthing the behind-the-scenes story of how Geraldo Rivera and ABC News revealed the real cause of Elvis' death; eating shrimp etoufee with centenarian restaurateur "Pappy" Sammons as he regaled me with tales of his fascinating life; observing the harrowing midnight shift at the City of Memphis hospital emergency room, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of the controlled chaos there. It was more than a lesson in writing; it was an education in life.

The work of which I am proudest is an essay on racism I contributed to an edition called "Breaking down the Wall" in October 1983. Mine was one of four personal anecdotes from different Memphis magazine regulars. It focused on a life-defining episode with my father, who had died the previous year. In it, I came to terms with the deep conflict many my age had with their parents' generation as we all grappled with a subject too often ignored.

The essay was cathartic and cleansing. But I was just as proud of the way the staff approached the project. I loved the vigorous debates all of us had in Bob and Patty Towery's living room, where our monthly editorial meetings were sometimes held. We argued about whether or not we could do justice to a subject that was so fundamental to every aspect of the city we covered. Ultimately, we agreed that it was a subject we simply had to address, and address with all the editorial vigor we could muster.

In the end, the edition won the Sigma Delta Chi/Society of Professional Journalists Distinguished Public Service in Magazine Journalism award, an honor previously awarded to The New Yorker and National Geographic. It was pretty high cotton for a regional magazine. Many of us who worked on it went to Kansas City for the recognition banquet. Though I would go on to contribute to the magazine as a dining critic for several more years, that night and that experience would remain the highlight of my tenure at the magazine and one of the highlights of my professional life.

Tom Martin is senior vice president and director of corporate relations of ITT Industries in White Plains, New York.

DAVID B. DAWSON

Associate Editor/Senior Editor, 1976-1983

All that Ken Neill had to do was holler, "Golf," across the office, and we were out the back door and on our way to Galloway before anyone knew we were gone. We had Important Business at Galloway. We had buried a gold signet ring with a Bufflehead Duck engraved on its face in a small glade near the 16th green. We had an obligation to check on it frequently. And, well, what better way to be inconspicuous on a golf course than to slip into a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts and play a few rounds?

The only glitch in this scenario was that I didn't play golf. Looking back, I'm not sure that Ken -- then editor of Memphis and now the magazine's publisher -- did either. No sooner would I play my tee shot out of the turn lane on Walnut Grove than I'd hear Ken way off on a foreign fairway -- [whack!] "Sh*t!" [pause] "SORRY!" -- trying to chop his ball out of a clump of sticker bushes.

For you boys and girls too young to have suffered through the Bufflehead Days of August-November 1982, it worked like this: we buried the ring, and then ran a preposterous narrative about buried treasure in the magazine over four successive issues. The narrative was written under the pen name "Lancelot Bueno," which I suppose I have to own up to, while Ken was the genius who concocted the maniacally clever and difficult clues that were sprinkled throughout the silly narrative. The idea was that the person who deciphered the clues and presented the Bufflehead Ring at the magazine's offices would win both the ring and a fine vacation trip as well.

Yes, the golf was plenty of fun as well. I learned lots: that it's against the rules to play wayward shots out of the flower beds of the houses lining the course -- even if the ball is situated in a good lie. And Ken was able to perfect his Golf Mantra -- [whack!] "Sh*t!" [pause] "SORRY!" -- from fairways adjacent to the ones we were supposed to be on.

The wonderful thing is that the treasure hunt also worked well . . . for the first three months. People studied the clues and gradually figured out that Galloway was the general location. But until the fourth and final installment, there were no signs that anyone was digging anywhere near the 16th green,

That changed in a hurry on the day the November issue was released. That night a whole regiment of crazed treasure hunters laid siege to the 16th green. They gleefully used their equipment -- an array of Klieg lights, compasses, post hole diggers, gasoline powered generators, chain saws, surveying equipment, shovels, picks, ropes, jackhammers, dousing rods, and a small but potent backhoe called a Bobcat -- to trench the area, unearth trees, and bore deep into the hill upon which the green was nestled.

Miraculously, a gentlemanly firefighter named Danny Todd appeared the next day with the fabled Bufflehead Ring on his finger, and his fiancee on his arm. It was a storybook ending. They had been over to Galloway to have a look, and had seen the spectacle. As they did their own orienteering in search of the exact burial spot, one of them had stepped into an indentation in the ground, and had felt something solid underfoot. They dug, and there -- lit from within like the grail itself -- was the canister containing the ring.

And at that very moment, somewhere in golf heaven, a choir of angels mopped their brows and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

David B. Dawson can be found right here in Memphis, photographing clouds or writing extremely short fiction.

TIM SAMPSON

Editor, 1992-1998

It might have been the day I first met William Eggleston, the internationally renowned photographer, at his home on Walnut Grove Road. We were sitting in his living room for the first of several interviews for a cover story I was writing about him. The phone was ringing and in his feverish attempt to find it, he reached underneath the sofa, pulled out an object, said, "Well, this isn't it," and put a loaded pistol in my hand. I loved him right off the bat. Or it might have been the day I finally, finally got an interview with Al Green at his recording studio on Winchester Road, and sat on the plastic-covered sofa across from his big desk, which was flanked by a secretary sitting on each end, walls plastered with gold and platinum records, and he told me about the time a woman threw hot grits on him while he was in the bathtub, and in mid-sentence, starting talking about his lawnmower -- for no apparent reason. Or, heck, it could have been the night Kallen Esperian and I went out for a beer after her incredible performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago -- not to mention chatting by phone with Luciano Pavarotti, who told me he thought she was one of the greatest sopranos in the world.

I have to admit, when editor Mary Helen Tibbs asked me to write an essay about one story or moment that stood out in my mind from the now two decades I've had stories in its pages, I was a bit overwhelmed. To choose just one seemed impossible.

Because I've written a juvenile-at-best humor column in Memphis' sister publication, The Memphis Flyer, for 16 years now, I considered recounting a "serious" story just to remind folks that I actually can write something more substantial. I even won an investigative journalism award from the City and Regional Magazine Association for doing just that.

The piece was about a United States Navy sailor from Memphis, who had been accused of arson and punished in ways no one should be punished when the naval investigators learned that he was a homosexual (he was later found innocent of all crimes). I spent months doing interviews, researching the Naval Investigative Service, skulking around the edges of the naval base in Virginia Beach, taking backwoods drives with the man's lawyer, and looking over my shoulder the entire time. I probably have an FBI file somewhere to this day. It was very rewarding, and something of which I was fairly proud.

The one story that stands out most in what's left of my feeble mind was a profile on Memphis-born singer Wendy Moten. Moten had had a Top 40 hit with "Come in Out of the Rain," had been on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and was the next up-and-coming star from Memphis, even though her managers and record label were trying to Whitney Houston-ize her and she didn't want that. Yes, she could sound like Houston, even better, but it wasn't her thing.

As I was halfway through writing the article, Moten found out she was going to be doing a series of sold-out concerts in Holland, and, well, I just had to go there to get the best ending possible for the article. The powers that be sent me packing and it was a week like none I've had since. We traveled every day from Amsterdam to Rotterdam in our chauffeured stretch Mercedes. We visited the Van Gogh museum. We attended a huge private party for the main Dutch singer on the bill, with champagne and caviar and such, after which we attended a more intimate club party, where a jazz singer from Paris signed her autograph on my arm. Moten was the picture of decorum and fine manners. I, on the other hand, took the "when in Amsterdam" approach and, well, you get the picture.

But what Moten did to that crowd in Rotterdam was amazing. When she descended the huge staircase down to the stage and sang every night, everyone in the house had tears streaming down their faces, including our big driver in his leather jacket. Everyone loved her everywhere we went. And so did I. At this writing, she is scheduled to perform at the LeMoyne-Owen College Renaissance Gala in a few days. I have my tickets. I can't wait to see her again. And I really can't wait to hear her sing.

Tim Sampson is the communications manager for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Richard Banks

Contributor / Associate Editor / Editor, 1987-2000

One of my first assignments with Memphis magazine was digging up a school playground to make sure the "famed" Bufflehead ring was still where intrepid Memphis publisher Ken Neill and senior editor David Dawson had buried it. It was 1987 and the ring was at the center of an immensely popular treasure hunt -- the second in a series of Bufflehead searches that were detailed in and sponsored by the magazine.

I didn't really dig up the entire playground, just a few square yards of it looking for the bling. Which took the majority of the afternoon, because I'd have to wait for the others in the park to leave before I could start or resume my digging. There I'd be, on all fours, digging like some mad dog, when I'd look up and see someone from across the school yard suspiciously watching me, and in several instances holding their children very close. I had taken a seven iron and a few golf balls to pretend I was practicing my stroke, so I'd plop a ball on the ground and say something like, "Oh, there it is!" and begin to whistle, you know, like the guilty do when they're trying to fake innocence.

Well, in the course of my excavation, I found three pieces of chewed gum, a couple of fast food kid's meal toys, and a quarter. Oh, yeah, and that damn ring. About seven yards from the point at which David and Ken -- did I mention they were intrepid -- told me it would be. (I should point out here that they contested my memory of where they told me the ring was buried, but I should also point out that, as it was before noon when they explained this to me, I was sober. They, on the other hand, buried the ring in the dark of night. And were they sober? Well . . . .)

My jobs before this one had included frying fish and every other edible at a Long John Silver's, being a plumber's and roofer's helper, doing lawn care, and working at a real estate magazine at which I had to proof copy the likes of "Beautiful fixer upper! 2 br, 2 bth, w/ grtrm. Gold shag crpt thrght the hse." Maybe these jobs had lowered my expectations for careers. That's certainly debatable. But I stayed with Ken, David, and the rest of the Memphis crew, because honestly I liked digging -- digging dirt or for the truth, as we journalists like to say. I couldn't have found a more suitable gig. My coworkers were the best, the work was fun and challenging, the readership was actually interested, Memphis -- the city, I mean -- is not only my hometown but one of the most confoundedly fun places on the planet, and the magazine on which I worked had a tradition of excellent service and journalism -- a tradition that's still honored and followed today.

There's not a week that goes by that I don't scratch my head wondering why I left. Not that I don't "dig" what I'm doing today, but because the Memphis magazine years were quite possibly the best of my professional life. And even though it's not yet noon as I finish this, I'll drink a toast to another 30 years. Here's to Memphis, the magazine and the city.

Richard Banks is the editorial director of SPC Custom Publishing, a division of Time, Inc.

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