Big star

Robert Gordon's new book reveals Memphis is once and forever music's Shangri-La

But the unspoken complaint behind much of this frustration is that Memphis has never become a cosmopolitan "New South" city like Atlanta, the kind of region-neutral metropolis where no one has an accent except for Atlanta resident Elton John and his British tennis buddies. Mem-phis' collective ego is so fragile that the National Football League's decision in 1993 not to award the city an expansion franchise sent much of the city into a lengthy funk.

In It Came from Memphis, Gordon rails against this type of thinking. Memphis may be a sleepy river city, but it is also the hub of the Mississippi Delta, a region that remains this country's essential source for blues, gospel, bluegrass, and R&B. It is hard to imagine any other region producing anyone like Dewey Phillips, the groundbreaking voice of WHBQ-AM's "Red, Hot and Blue" show. Though Phillips has been extensively chronicled in both Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins' Sun Records tome Good Rockin' Tonight and Peter Guralnick's recent Elvis bio Last Train to Memphis, among others, Gordon not only finds fresh material on this potentially tired subject, but in Phillips he finds a figure who symbolizes all the contradictions of the Memphis experience.

Phillips talked like a backwoods hillbilly (referring to the radio station's "magazine" floor studio when he meant mezzanine) and acted like a crazed anarchist. No rule of broadcasting influenced Dewey. If he felt like playing a song 20 times in a row, he'd do it. If he felt like yakking about Falstaff beer over half a song, he'd do that, too. If he hated a record, he'd scratch the needle across the grooves and proclaim, "Well, that ain't gonna get it." And, most importantly, he didn't hesitate to mix blues, country, gospel, and pop records at a time when segregation ruled the South.

Phillips' uncompromising acceptance of any music--black or white--that moved him opened the door for the brilliant hybrids of Stax and Sun Records, and anticipated the early '60s rediscovery of the Delta blues greats. He also created a mindset that, however indirectly, still influences Memphis' best young bands. Dewey had no patience for the high-falutin', the pseudo-intellectual, or the pretentious. His intuitive grasp of music led him to whatever gave him a visceral jolt. Even the smartest of Memphis' current crop of bands give off none of that collegiate intellectual odor Dewey would have despised. As Jim Dickinson says of Phillips, "The mindset I learned, listening to that music, is what has enabled me to make a living in the music business."

Gordon's book possesses an intimacy rare among music books. In much the same way that his obvious model, Peter Guralnick, recently rescued Elvis from the crass bumpkin image contrived by "biographer" Albert Goldman, Gordon liberates Memphis from the shadow of Presley to reveal a wellspring of creativity that continues to flow. In fact, Memphis' Easley Recording may currently be the hottest studio in the country: in the last year alone, such bands as Pavement, Come, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Guided by Voices (all of whom are on Matador, oddly enough) and, most recently, the Breeders have recorded albums at Easley. Next month, Sonic Youth will begin recording there.

Which begs the question: what continues to draw so many people to this old town? Perhaps Gordon says it best in the first chapter of his wonderful book when he observes, "If aerial photographs could reveal energy the way infrared photographs reveal heat, Memphis would be surrounded by vectors pointing toward it: This is the place."

Gilbert Garcia is a former music editor of the Dallas Observer. He currently lives in Memphis, where he leads his very own rock and roll band.

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