Birth of a Tradition
The president of the first Memphis in May looks back on a remarkable year.
Under the leadership of Lyman Aldrich, several Memphis in May signature events became reality; they continue to draw legions of fans.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
When Lyman Aldrich moved to Memphis in the mid-1960s, he went to work calling on grocery stores, selling toilet paper from the back of a station wagon. That changed when the Ole Miss graduate entered the training program at what is now First Tennessee Bank. The Natchez native worked there nine years, leaving as a vice president to start his own real estate investment company in 1976. Aldrich also helped shape the future of downtown, in large part through his early leadership of what became the Memphis in May International Festival.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Memphis in May” was at first little more than a calendar of events — including Cotton Carnival and the St. Jude Shower of Stars — which had taken place for years. Those were hard times for the city, the business community, and the Chamber of Commerce, all of which were still struggling in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. But a few businesspeople persevered, and one of them was Aldrich. Eager to get involved in civic and business affairs, he started volunteering for the Chamber and at the age of 27 became perhaps the youngest appointee to the organization’s board of directors. In 1974, a Chamber committee was formed to expand Memphis in May. Aldrich’s term as president of that group came in 1977 — the year the first real international festival took place.
“I wanted to bring together young men and women, black and white, to work shoulder to shoulder and create something that would help save the city,” he says today. “I understood we had no money. But we were young and had thousands of ideas.”
To Aldrich, the festival was all about job creation. “The Chamber was going broke; they weren’t creating any jobs, so we had to try something,” he says. “I wanted to emphasize the international aspect of the festival. By choosing a country to honor, you make friends with it, and when it came time to invest in the U.S., maybe that country would invest in Memphis.”
With advice from local economic experts, Aldrich and his colleagues chose Japan as the first honoree, “because they had a balance of trade problems and would need to start investing in the U.S.,” he explains. Japan was also the home of Nissan, which had recently opened a Datsun Fork Lift Division plant in Memphis. Aldrich wasted no time meeting its officials. “I told them, ‘We want to honor your country, let people know about Japan, and have you serve on our board.” And he stressed to them, “We don’t want to make any mistakes. We want you to be proud.”
The Datsun officials embraced the idea, never missed a meeting, and sponsored a Japanese kite-flying exhibit at the airport. They also gave Aldrich days of nerve-wracking excitement when Datsun invited the ambassador of Japan and his wife to the city. “I was thrilled, yet scared to death,” he remembers. “I don’t know if such a dignitary had ever visited Memphis before.”
Meanwhile Aldrich and his fellow volunteers — businesspeople, lawyers, and educators — worked to come up with some Memphis-centered festival events, as well as money to fund them. He credits Rodney Baber, the late Tiff Bingham, Harold Shaw, Judge George Brown, Mose Yvonne Hooks, and some 200 other “bright young people,” says Aldrich, “for helping to create this thing you see now. That first year they came up with the Beale Street Music Festival and the Sunset Symphony. And all of it with private money.”
Music Fest was hardly an easy sell. Aldrich recalls that the Chamber “gray heads” feared riots on Beale Street and tried to stop the plans. “Remember, nothing was there in 1977. The Peabody was closed. The Orpheum was closed. But I looked at these 12 suits and one skirt and told them we were determined as young folks to reintroduce people to downtown. I told them, ‘I’m chairman and we’ve got the money to do it.’” He praises Irvin Salky, a local lawyer and the first event’s sponsor, whose father had a shop on Beale. “Irvin knew a lot of these old musicians and saw an opportunity to bring them back. I believed we could not only bring locals here but people from all over the world.”
Not every gray head opposed the young people’s plans, notes Aldrich. “We were down on the riverfront and [philanthropist] Abe Plough drove up with his chauffeur and says, “I really like what you’re doing for Memphis. Here’s a check for $5,000.” Other corporate gifts came from First National Bank, which sponsored a Japanese business conference. FedEx, then a fledgling company, contributed $4,000 toward the Jazz Festival on Court Square, which was turned into a Japanese summer garden. Museums and schools sponsored Japanese programs.
Planning for these events often took place after work hours, when the committee would gather at Bombay Bicycle Club in Overton Square. As Aldrich fondly recalls, “We’d have drinks, and laugh. and ideas would just fly.” One blockbuster idea came a year later when Rodney Baber visited a chili-cooking contest in Texas. “He called me and said, ‘What about a barbecue-cooking contest downtown?’ It was like a a light came on,” says Aldrich. “What’s more Memphis than barbecue?’” That was launched in 1978, “with 18 people cooking on a vacant lot near the Orpheum. Now we’re the barbecue capital of the world.”
An undeniable success, Memphis in May International Festival drew thousands of people downtown that spring of 1977 -— and the Japanese ambassador and his wife spent three days soaking up Southern hospitality. But most gratifying to Aldrich was the reaction from Datsun’s head official, Koichi Iwata. “Shortly after the festival, I went to see him. He said, ‘We’re so pleased, we’re going to do all we can to get business for Memphis and for Tennessee.’”
And he was true to his word. A couple of years later, Aldrich got a call that Governor Lamar Alexander would be making an announcement at the Holiday Inn- Rivermont in downtown Memphis and wanted Aldrich to be there. The governor announced that the Japanese-based Sharp Electronics would open its first manufacturing plant in the U.S. in Memphis, would hire about 3,000 employees, and thanked Memphis in May for its role in introducing Japan to the city. “That made me feel fabulous,” says Aldrich. “It proved the economic model that Memphis in May could be.”
Landing the Sharp plant here prompted Alexander to travel with then-Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris to Japan to court more businesses. “Today,” says Aldrich, “we have 100 Japanese-based firms in Tennessee.”
Believing the festival needed a steady influx of fresh blood, Aldrich served only one year as president but stayed on the board for four years. He accompanied other festival presidents to the honored countries of Canada, Germany, and Egypt, knocking on doors, forging business relations, setting up contracts, and inviting leaders to business conferences in Memphis.
Now running his own financial consulting firm in Collierville, Aldrich talks about “two pretty amazing things” that came out of that first festival, citing National Geographic Traveler’s naming Memphis earlier this year as one of the top-20 must-see places in the world. Among the reasons for that honor were the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Those two events, which now attract fans from across the globe, “came from our little committee of black and white, men and women,” recalls Aldrich. “We didn’t all know each other at first, but we knew we had to do something for the city. So we worked together with mutual respect and never had a problem. We proved what we could accomplish. And we sure had fun.”
Adding an extra shine to his memories is a brass note on Beale Street, awarded recently to Aldrich for his unique contributions by the Memphis Music Foundation. Says Aldrich: “It’s really special to be recognized that way.”