Seasonal High Notes
Characters referenced, Stax recalled, and the South defined.
(page 1 of 3)
It was Christmastime in England and Memphian Dan Conaway’s first time in England — first time, in fact, he’d been overseas. Back in the 1960s, it was prime time too for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and Conaway’s older brothers were living in greater London.
He didn’t know it then, but this was the last Christmas that the Conaway brothers would share with their parents and the last Christmas that Dan Conaway — who went on to become an advertising professional and communications specialist — would be single. But wouldn’t you know? In a small English town, inside a pub off the tourist track, Conaway found himself standing next to someone he hadn’t seen since third grade at what was called the Memphis State Training School.
Small world? Sometimes, as recalled by Conaway in one of his weekly columns for The Daily News. Those columns, which also appeared in The Memphis News, have now been collected in I’m a Memphian. (The Nautilus Publishing Company), and the author is exactly that — a Memphian born and bred. The period in the title puts the finishing touch on it, and the subtitle goes from there: “Character References for a City Filled With It and Often Absolutely Full of It.” “It” being characters. Some you’ve heard of — Rufus Thomas, Clarence Saunders, and Richard Halliburton; some, most likely, you’ve never heard of and shouldn’t forget in a city Conaway describes as “et up with unique.”
Consider Onie Johns, founder of Caritas Village in the Binghampton neighborhood. Her chicken vegetable soup is, according to Conaway, a “revelation.” And also according to Conaway, “we need an extra helping of what she’s serving at the corner of Harvard and Merton.” He means not only that soup but also the good work at Caritas Village: bridging the city’s racial and economic divides.
And remember too — Conaway does — restaurant owner Sam Bomarito (of Pete & Sam’s); Joan White (an early female member of the all-boys club known as Memphis advertising, in addition to playing “Miss Holly” opposite “Mr. Bingle” on local television at Christmastime); and Howard Robertson. He’s the African-American letter carrier who moonlighted as a waiter at the upscale restaurant Justine’s, and that’s where Robertson verbally challenged some nasty remarks made by businessman Bill Loeb, thus earning Robertson Loeb’s lasting friendship.
But Conaway’s book isn’t only about individuals. It’s about the city’s sights and sounds when he was growing: a night at Club Paradise in South Memphis (Conaway, 15 at the time, and two high school buddies looking like “three slices of very white bread”); the bells of a Merrymobile ice-cream truck; the statue guarding the corner of East Parkway and Central in the city park dedicated to the Spanish-American War.
And the book isn’t only about the past. Think of the company in Hickory Hill that today manufactures solar panels, the crowds that cheer on the Grizzlies, and Theatre Memphis, whose productions, for Conaway, call for a standing ovation. Think too of the city’s future. Just don’t do it by convening an “action committee,” an oxymoronic term in Conaway’s eyes (and book) and a surefire way to accomplish nothing.
“Where are the leaders that made Memphis the original that it is?” the author wonders. “Where is the courage that took on naysayers and changed the world from right here? Where is the ingenuity that took on problems and found solutions never contemplated before?
“Where is the Memphis that asked you to not just listen to the music but to write it?
“… I’m not on the committee,” Conaway writes of group-think decision making. And preceding that declaration, there’s another: “I’m a Memphian.”