Sweating It Out
What's hot (and what's not) in the Bluff City.
Hot Shots: Lil Rounds and Alexis Grace
For some musicians, the road to pop stardom is a long and haphazard odyssey of smoky bars, crackly demos, band flare-ups, stinky tour buses, sophomore slumps, oppressive record contracts, and incredible persistence.
And for others, there's American Idol.
That's not saying that the singers who do well in the enormously popular Fox vocal competition are undeserving of instant fame. But it does tell you that more Americans are at home watching their TVs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights than are hanging out in clubs. They are watching and, in a way that always infuriates those with gilded musical tastes, democratically electing the voices that will be heard on the radio, the songs that get stuck in your head at night, and the faces that will appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Without American Idol, we might never have heard of Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, or Carrie Underwood, talented as they are.
The Memphis women on the cover of this magazine have tasted the show's celebrity-making power. Nine months ago, both spent most of their time at home taking care of children. One sang in a church choir in South Memphis. Another strummed the guitar for her daughter. Both thought they had decent voices; but how do suburban moms get to be recording artists? An ad in the paper? Their secret dreams drove them to audition for the program, each trekking to different cities for a tryout and each impressing the show's producers. Over the last few months, the Memphis dolls sang their way into the coveted top 13.
Lil Rounds (yes, that's her real name) ended her run in seventh place. From her first appearance on the program, the 24-year-old mother of three drew comparisons to R&B stars like Mary J. Blige and Keyshia Cole. A self-styled performer, she didn't like being cast in a stock role.
"I kept getting conflicting messages about what I should be," she says. "Half of the judges would say, 'Stay true to yourself.' The other half would tell me to be somebody else. I never wanted to label myself."
No labels meant a roller coaster ride for Rounds. She covered a surprising range of tunes, from Bette Midler's "The Rose" to Celine Dion's "I Surrender." The judges slammed her song choices as not fitting her voice or her personality. Viewers admired her gusto, spirit, and talent.
Alexis Grace Middleton, 21, finished in 11th place. In person, she's a veritable Tinker Bell, fair and tiny. But her voice sounds bigger. She doesn't mind comparisons. "I'm your little belter who loves soul music," she says. "A little Joss Stone with some Aretha Franklin thrown in."
The judges loved debating her look. Should she "dirty it up?" Should she play the innocent? Middleton tried both, covering Michael Jackson's "Dirty Diana" one night and Dolly Parton's "Jolene" another. The latter cost her a top-10 spot.
They may not have won, but they returned to Memphis as newly minted celebrities. Culture shock is setting in. Rounds would still rather eat at her favorite restaurants, Red Lobster or IHOP, than Chez Philippe. At Target, fans tearfully approach Middleton for her autograph.
Both expect to pursue the dream. This summer, Rounds is part of the American Idol top 10 tour, coming to FedExForum on July 26th. She can count on one hand the number of big cities she's visited in her life. By the end of the summer, she'll have sung in 50.
Middleton makes regular guest appearances on Q107.5 FM in the mornings, commenting on Idol. She's putting a band together with the help of her father, bass player Randy Middleton, and hopes to start lining up gigs and writing her own songs.
As to the value of instant stardom, consider that Memphis couldn't ask for two better musical ambassadors. Both say that growing up in a city known for its rock, rhythm, and soul gives them confidence as much as cachet.
"Having Memphis behind your name is a great thing," Rounds says. "No matter where you go, you say you're from Memphis and people know something about you. Oh, that's the city of Elvis! Or that's the city of Beale Street! There's a lot of history pushing you to do your very best."
— Mary Helen Randall
Hot $5 Spot
with successes like Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, Craig Brewer has made not only a name for himself, but helped put Memphis on the movie-making map. We eagerly awaited his next project, hearing rumors and speculation about a deal with MTV. Sometimes, rumors turn out to be true. This May, Brewer's newest project, $5 Cover, hit the MTV website, showcasing local talents in a series of "webisodes." Each of the short clips features local artists — Amy LaVere, Muck Sticky, Al Kapone, Jack O and the Tennessee Tearjerkers — just to name a few, as they navigate their way though the Memphis club-and-bar scene. The music is killer, and the drama, well, hey, it's entertainment, folks. "Yeah, some of it's a little over-the-top," Brewer laughs. "It's like the O.C. or The Hills, but for grown ups." Only Brewer could take $5 and stretch it all the way to Hollywood. If folks aren't noticing how hot the Memphis music scene is by now, well, there's just no hope for 'em. — MHR
Sure, a trip to A-Tan can leave you with a burning mouth, what with dishes like Szechuan beef and Kung Pau chicken loaded with dark red chilies just waiting to work their magic. But when it comes time to really heat things up, nothing gets the place fired up like the Chinese restaurant's "Flaming Volcano." Served in a giant ceramic bowl with a raised "crater" in the center, the drink (meant to be shared) comes by its name honestly. Filled with brandy, almond flavored syrup, and light rum, it's enough to get the party started. But the real fun begins when the 151 rum is poured into the center, and lit. Yes. On fire. Note to future volcano imbibers: Blow out the fire before attempting to drink. If you finish this monster, give the keys to someone else. — MHR
It's pitiful to watch, dudes shuffling along, trying their best to strut, their britches sliding south, puddling around their feet. Some of them grope and give the pants an upward yank. But too late: We've seen the dingy briefs; we've seen The Great Divide. Most of us accept it as a sad fact of "fashion." Some lawmakers, though, aim to save us from such sights in the interest of "decency and hygiene." At this writing, the "Saggy Pants Bill" — or as one legislative wit called it, the "crack bill" — has passed in the Tennessee House and is now in the Senate. If passed, those who "knowingly wear pants below the waistline in a public place, in a manner that exposes the person's underwear or bare buttocks" will be slapped with a citation, a fine, and community service. We have mixed feelings about this. We're sick of seeing folks expose their sorry backsides. But can we really charge people for being stupid? Next we'll try to nail 'em for being ugly. That could land us all in jail. — Marilyn Sadler
The city of Good Abode sits at the top of several not-so-good lists. But consider this: Memphis was ranked No. 19 on the top 20 list of American cities that are popular children's names. That's right, Mamas are letting their babies grow up to be Memphis. Eat your heart out, Houston. We leapt right past you. And sorry, Nashville. You didn't make the cut. As for the No. 1 spot, all the kids with Madison for a moniker could start their own country. — MS
How young is Josh Pastner, the new head coach of our Memphis Tiger basketball team? He's younger than Star Wars. Pastner was born during the Carter administration, for crying out loud. Larry Finch's last Tiger bucket was four years old when Pastner was born on September 26, 1977.
Ask the rookie coach, though, and he'd tell you he was born for this gig. "I remember when I was in 5th grade," said Pastner at his introductory press conference last April, "watching the Celtics and Lakers play. I went to my dad and said, if I can't play in the NBA — and I blame my parents for my athletic ability — the next best thing is coaching."
Pastner inherits a program that went 137-14 over the last four years under his predecessor, John Calipari. With Coach Cal off for a glory gig at Kentucky, Pastner is faced with replenishing a roster that not only lost stars Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier to graduation, but suddenly missed out on two of the hottest recruits in the country (Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins). All of which makes extending the program's dominance over Conference USA — 61 straight wins, four straight championships — a challenge unlike many his former boss saw.
But nothing says "hot" like a challenge. Youth, energy, enthusiasm, optimism. Bring the heat, Josh. — Frank Murtaugh
What did you expect? A dry Memphis in May? That's sweet. Are you new to the area? Locals and visitors who attend the month long celebration of music, barbecue, and all things Memphis (and Chile this year) know to pack a poncho and mud boots or prepare to suffer the muddy consequences. Look, once you're soaked, you can't get any wetter, so get over it, go out, hear the music, gobble the pork, and, accept the fact that after this many years, we probably wouldn't even know what to DO should the sun shine through the festival. — MHR
Psychics and horoscopes. Ring tones and screen savers. A lengthy list of "sexting" messages to a friendly little service called ChatHerUP. That's how one city school employee ran up a $1,077 phone bill courtesy of Dumb and Dumber Taxpayers. Other charges were considerably tamer but still of a personal nature: One employee called her mama 60 times. Another chatted at length with a boyfriend in Baja. When this misuse of 1,255 cell phones, pagers and Blackberrys was brought to school officials' attention, they looked at the tab — about $625,000 in 2007-08 school year — and shrugged. True, they said the phones would be collected and redistributed as "legitimately" needed and tougher controls put in place. But bottom line? "You're nickel-and-diming me," said deputy superintendent Irving Hamer. "We've got bigger issues. This is chump change." Yeah, and we're the chumps coughin' it up. — MS
Tired of those tedious lines at the auto inspection center? Don't wanna fool with that hateful ole paperwork required to get your car tags? Just slip a little cash to the people in charge, and voila, you're good to go. Apparently that's what certain politicians, businessfolks, and friends and family members have been doing for at least a couple of years. In April, eight employees of the Shelby County Clerk's office — which issues car tags and car titles — were indicted for taking bribes to git-r-done. Among those implicated in dispensing favors — which include cash, gift cards, and jewelry — is Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware. Three employees allegedly took bribes from Ware so she could bypass regulations. Interesting — since Ware has complained for years that car inspection requirements apply to the city and not county residents. We're not saying she's guilty; the investigation is "ongoing." But if she is, let's root-r-out, and every other public servant who violates the public trust. — MS
Oh, da mayor. He's still "shakin' the haters off." (That, you may recall, was his catchy campaign slogan for 2007.) Among the haters this year are the FBI and the IRS. Mayor Willie Herenton is the focus of a federal grand jury probe into how city contracts are awarded and if he used his influence to benefit financially — specifically when he received a $91,000 private payment while lobbying MATA to redevelop Greyhound. Then there's the possible slush fund he's accumulated from his annual $1,000-a-plate Christmas Galas. Not all donors knew that excess funds went directly to Herenton's pocket. Meanwhile, Memphis has climbed to number two in Forbes magazine's ranking of dangerous cities. The Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, a nationally recognized model, faces a critical staff shortage. Neighborhood blight is spreading like a cancer. And what's Herenton doing? Teasing us with an announcement that he might challenge U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen for his 9th district seat. Please, Willie, finish your term and go into hiding, as you have on crucial issues facing the city. — MS
For more than 20 years now, local race fans have revved their engines at Memphis Motorsports Park. From local lead-footers to NASCAR headliners, drivers have traded paint on various drag strips, dirt tracks, and the three-quarter-mile paved oval to the delight of thousands of fans year-round. Earlier this year, longime owner Dover Motorsports announced the sale of the track to Gulf Coast Entertainment, LLC. The news had local fans curious about the future of the complex just south of Millington.
"In the midst of otherwise tough times for the nation and our sport," says MMP vice president and general manager Jason Rittenberry, "we see this as a remarkable opportunity for our fans, racers, and staff." A partnership of sorts will spring from the sale, as Gulf Coast Entertainment is also behind a multi-use entertainment complex scheduled to open in Mobile, Alabama, in 2011. "Our new direction will have a distinctly Southern flavor," hints Rittenberry.
Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, and Clint Bowyer each left rubber at MMP on their way to stardom on NASCAR's top circuit. With more than 150 events a year still on the calendar, MMP aims to raise the temperature of Mid-South race fans for years to come. — FM
Memphis' love affair with Stanford Financial Group crashed and burned this year when the Securities and Exchange Commission charged its founder, R. Allen Stanford, and two Memphis-based officials with massive fraud. Massive to the tune of $9.2 billion. Fraud of such "shocking magnitude," said an SEC official, "that it spread its tentacles throughout the world." Even as Stanford and pals orchestrated this alleged Ponzi scheme by promising eye-popping interest rates on a CD program, they were making friends in Memphis with their commitment to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Stanford sponsored the St. Jude Championship Golf tournament and underwrote the hospital's international outreach program. That's all history. Today the three Stanford officials face civil charges. One is accused of obstruction of justice. And Stanford, the Texas billionaire who has cried, defied, and denied wrongdoing, says he can't afford an attorney. Meanwhile Memphis CD investors are reeling from staggering losses. And who'll get the first funds that might be recovered? The IRS for $226 million in back taxes. — MS
It's been a tough month for Memphis-area employees. Staff reductions and layoffs abound, but when some of the city's finest writers, TV anchors, and well, a radio guy get axed, people pay attention. In addition to many of the long-time staffers of the Commercial Appeal, the firing of WMC's Donna Davis caused uproar among fans of the perfectly-coiffed and incredibly professional anchor we'd become so familiar with each night on the news. Others lost their gigs too, but it was Davis' departure that had cries of "racism" flying. Nevermind the fact that more white employees were laid off than African-American ones. Talented folks were let go, period — and that's the way to look at it. Last month, we also said goodbye to AM 600's Mike Fleming, who hosted the 4-7 p.m. slot five days a week. We seldom agreed with him, but we'd rather disagree with a local than some syndicated out-of-towner. A word to the wise: Sleep with one eye open, and keep that resume updated. — MHR