Seasonal High Notes
Characters referenced, Stax recalled, and the South defined.
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.”
Where are your charts?” the sound engineer in California asked.
“What charts? We ain’t got no charts, man,” the musician replied.
“You don’t have charts!”
“Just roll the film, man.”
The sound engineer worked for the MGM movie studio. The musician was Isaac Hayes. The film was Shaft. And the recording of its soundtrack was scheduled to take several days, but Hayes and his musicians from Memphis finished way ahead of schedule.
“This is head-arranging at its finest!” Hayes said, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences agreed. In 1972, “The Theme from Shaft” won the Academy Award for best original song.
Again, to quote Conaway: “Where is the Memphis that asked you to not just listen to the music but to write it?”
That Memphis is still at the corner of McLemore and College, site of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy (where music is being made by a new generation), but those buildings, it’s true, have replaced the famed studio’s original building, which functioned first as a movie theater, then as a Pentecostal Holiness Church. But when Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, opened shop there in 1960 — with a recording studio and record store —they never suspected that over the next 15 years, the little studio that could would play a major role in the history of American popular music. The subtitle to Memphian Robert Gordon’s new book says as much: “Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.” Main title (and it says a lot about the role of Stax Records in American civil rights history): Respect Yourself (Bloomsbury).
What has Gordon — author of It Came From Memphis (a history of the city’s garage-rock scene), a biography of Muddy Waters, and books on Elvis Presley, in addition to penning scores of articles, creating more than a half-dozen documentary films, and winning a Grammy Award for his liner notes to a Big Star boxed set — done here that Robert Guralnick in Sweet Soul Music did not? He’s focused squarely on Stax and covered not only its rise and fall (warts and all) but the promise and misfortunes of Memphis during this period. He’s drawn from his own interviews with Stax musicians, singers, and executives — and especially from interviews conducted for his 2007 documentary with collaborators Mark Crosby and Morgan Neville: Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. Guralnick shared interviews he’d conducted in the past. Writer Barney Hoskyns did too. And in his acknowledgments Gordon doesn’t forget Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records, which Gordon calls “exhaustively researched” and “encyclopedic.”
Early in Respect Yourself, Memphis is described as “the town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does.” And so it did when Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, age 17, walked unannounced into the doors at Stax, and next thing they knew, they had a local hit record. The guys in the smoking room at Messick High School? They went on to make up the Mar-Keys and, some of them, the Stax house band, the MG’s. Otis Redding? He was the driver for guitarist Johnny Jenkins, who was at Stax to cut a record. That session wasn’t going well, so the driver got his chance at the mic on a song called “These Arms of Mine.” The rest is music history. Isaac Hayes? He had a day job at a Memphis meatpacking plant. And David Porter, songwriter extraordinaire, used to sack groceries across the street from Stax, which had an open-door policy. Black or white, you say you’ve got talent? Show us what you can do. What the singers, the musicians, the producers, and the Stax owners did was help usher in the soul explosion of the ’60s in a city where racial tensions, never at rest, were about to reach the breaking point.
Then tragedy: Otis Redding and most of the band members in the Bar-Kays killed in a plane crash; Martin Luther King assassinated. Terrible contracts Stax signed with Atlantic Records, then Columbia Records. Transformation of a loosely run company of talented people into a workplace focused on time management and product quotas. And, finally, discovery of a kickback scheme and evidence of embezzlement by a loan officer who handled Stax’s bank accounts. By the mid-1970s, Stax faced bankruptcy. Stax co-owner Al Bell faced a gun when he was escorted out of the building on charges — later cleared — of bank fraud. And Jim Stewart? To raise capital, he put everything he owned up for auction in 1981.
Let’s end here, though, on a high note. Stax certainly did with its last release and last single, in 1975, by the re-formed Bar-Kays: “Holy Ghost” — and, God, what a high note. And what a run of hits by the artists, writers, and producers inside that former movie house on McLemore at College: among them, Booker T. Jones and his MG’s (Al Jackson Jr., Steve Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn), Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, William Bell, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Sam (Moore) & Dave (Prater), Memphis Horns Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, the Staple Singers, the Soul Children, Luther Ingram, the Emotions, producer Chips Moman, a comedy album by Richard Pryor, the triumphant Wattstax concert and film, and … Lena Zavaroni. Who’s she? A 10-year-old from Scotland with a voice like Rosemary Clooney.
Trouble here is, as soon as you mention one Stax great, you’ve failed to mention another. Robert Gordon in Respect Yourself reminds us of them all.
Roy Blount Jr. on how to tell a story.
Julia Reed on how to throw a party. John T. Edge on how to eat. And Jonathan Miles on how to drink.
They’re writers on topics dear to any self-respecting Southerner, and all four — in addition to dozens of others — have contributed to a handsome how-to book from the editors of Garden & Gun magazine, The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life (HarperWave).
Among the “others” in this collection of more than 100 informative but light-hearted instructional essays is contributor Chris Davis, a writer for Memphis magazine and weekly writer for its sister publication, the Memphis Flyer, where you can read him on local theater, local music, and local doings in general. Davis’ triple topics in The Southerner’s Handbook: how to talk about William Faulkner (when you’ve never made it past page six of The Sound and the Fury); how to look and sound like a blues singer (in this the 21st century); and how to fit your feet into a pair of cowboy boots.
Look to The Southerner’s Handbook as a fitting gift this holiday season. The watchword of the season? Take it from Jonathan Miles, an authority on Southern spirits: Cheers!