Wednesday, July 09, 2014

At the Birth

Dewey Phillips at the WHBQ microphone in the early 1950s.  The legendary Memphis DJ was the first to play an Elvis record on the air (photo courtesy

Sixty years ago this week, a Memphis disc jockey named Dewey Phillips cued up his turntable and took a chance on an unknown singer.  And in an instant, the world changed.

The artist, of course, was a local boy named Elvis Presley.  The song was his version of "That's All Right (Mama)," recorded just three days earlier at Sun Records, located a few blocks from WHBQ's studios in the Chisca Hotel.  Immediately, the station's phone lines were jammed with requests for "Daddy-O Dewey" to play it again.  Phillips was happy to comply; by various accounts, he played the record seven times in a row, and at least 12 times during his show.  Within a week, Sun had 6,000 advance orders for the record and the King of Rock and Roll was on his way.

Seven decades later, the story of Elvis Presley's discovery has become firmly entrenched in the pop culture pantheon.  Even casual fans know that a young Elvis, working as a truck driver in Memphis, walked into the Memphis Recording Service in July 1953, and paid $3.98 to record two songs.  It's a common misperception that Elvis made the recordings on his lunch hour, and they were intended as a birthday gift to his mother.  In fact, her birthday was in April and Presley's first visit to the recording service occurred on a Saturday.

The recording service--and Sun Records--were owned by a former DJ named Sam Phillips (no relation to Dewey) who was looking for "a white man who could sing the blues," or more correctly, someone who could fuse the strains of blues, gospel, country and rockabilly that echoed through the city.  Phillips, who had recorded Ike Turner's "Rocket 88"--considered by many to be one of the first rock-and-roll records--believed a singer with those abilities could make him "a million bucks." 

It was Sam Phillips's assistant, Marion Keisker, who handled Elvis's first recordings and brought him to her boss's attention.  Almost a year passed before Phillips arranged an audition, at the home of local guitarist Scotty Moore, on July 4, 1954.  Nothing came from that session, but Moore and  bassist Bill Black, who also provided accompaniment, agreed with Phillips that a stint in the recording studio might prove useful.  They gathered the following evening at Sun, but that session seemed to be a bust; after multiple, unsatisfactory takes on Bing Crosby's "Harbor Lights," and a country ballad, Phillips called for a break. 

Then, it happened, as recounted in Sam Phillips obituary in The New York Times from 2003:

"Presley picked up a guitar and started fooling around. He began playing an old blues song by Arthur Crudup called ''That's All Right.'' Except Presley wasn't playing the blues. The rhythm was fast and his voice was almost euphoric. There were no drums, so Mr. Black slapped his bass to keep time, while Mr. Moore's guitar leaped in and out of the melody line.

Mr. Phillips asked what they were doing, and the musicians said they didn't know.

''Well, back it up, try to find a place to start, and do it again,'' Mr. Phillips said."

Ultimately, the session yielded two songs, "That's All Right," and Elvis's uptempo version of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," by Bill Monroe.  Having found his new sound, Sam Phillips needed to get it on the air, and the logical venue was WHBQ's Red, Hot and Blue program and Dewey Phillips.

The Memphis DJ was another Memphis original, in the same vein as Elvis and Sam Phillips.  After seeing combat as an Army infantryman in World War II, Dewey Phillips found work as the record department manager at a local five-and-dime.  He comanderred the store's public address system and provided his own patter between records played during the noon hour.  Large crowds began gathering for the daily show, and WHBQ put him on the airwaves in 1949. 

His evening program was an immediate hit, and the station soon had a waiting list for sponsors.  Dewey Phillips had an uncanny knack for knowing what his listeners wanted to hear, and he played it all: blues, gospel, country rockabilly, interspersed with his own unique commentary, including ad-libbed commercials.  Touting Falstaff beer, he said "if you can't drink it, freeze it and eat it." 

It's worth noting that Dewey Phillips was showcasing the musical roots of rock-and-roll two years before Alan Freed supposedly "discovered it" in Cleveland, and he pioneered a free-form music format almost two decades before Tom Donahue tried it in San Francisco.  More importantly, he was one of the first southern DJs to break other racial barriers by featuring music from black artists on his program.  By today's standards that may sound like a minor accomplishment, but in a segregated southern city (like Memphis in the 1940s), it was revolutionary. 

In response to the first airing of "That's All Right (Mama), Phillips managed to track down Elvis and interviewed him over the phone.  Knowing that his listeners were curious if Presley was white or black, Phillips found a clever way to provide the answer, without being offensive.  He simply asked Elvis what high school he attended.  When Presley replied "Humes" the audience knew he was white because that school was reserved for whites in the city's segregated system. 

As Elvis rocketed to fame, the career of Dewey Phillips took off as well.  His radio show remained one of the most popular in Memphis, and he eventually got his own television program on WHBQ-TV.  Phillips also became a confidante of Elvis, accompanying him to Hollywood in 1957, as Presley launched his movie career. 

But Dewey Phillips's star began to fade as Elvis became an international icon.  He had a falling out with Presley (and his new record company, RCA), by playing an advance copy of a new recording before its release date.  WHBQ-TV moved his show from late afternoons to late night (to make room for American Bandstand) and later cancelled the program, after one of Phillip's cohorts groped a cardboard cut-out of Jayne Mansfield on the air.  He was dropped from the radio station in 1958, as WHBQ's corporate owners (RKO General) moved to a Top 40 format.  Phillips chafed at the confines of a limited playlist and RKO had no tolerance for his antics, despite years of high ratings and sold-out sponsorships. 

Over the next decade, Phillips worked at other stations in and around Memphis, never lasting long.  He also battled addictions to alcohol and drugs, a problem that partially resulted from two near-fatal car crashes in the early 1950s.  His wife eventually left him and Dewey Phillips was working off the air--as a call screener for a Memphis station--when he died from heart failure on September 28, 1968.  He was 42 years old. 

The anniversary of Elvis's first radio appearance has focused new attention on Dewey Phillips as well, though he was never completely forgotten.  The lead character in the Broadway musical Memphis (Huey Calhoun) is clearly based on Phillips, and he was inducted posthumously into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  For whatever reason, he has never been selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while Alan Freed was one of the original inductees. Many would argue that Phillips and other pioneering DJs (such as John Richbourg and Hoss Allen of WLAC in Nashville) were more influential, and their induction in Cleveland is long overdue.  And don't get us started on why the hall of fame is in Ohio, and not Memphis, where Sam Phillips ushered in the rock era on that July evening in 1954.  
ADDENDUM:  As described in various accounts of Elvis's early career, Sam Phillips understood the importance of WHBQ, Red Hot and Blue and its host.  But, as a former DJ, the Sun Records impressario also realized that Dewey Phillips's nighttime audience was largely confined to the city of Memphis.  With reduced power after sunset--and a directional signal--WHBQ's signal barely reached the city limits.  That apparently motivated someone at Sun (probably Marion Keisker) to send a copy of Elvis's first single to WREC, which had a better signal and reached more of the Mid-South region. 

In those days, WREC played "standards," songs from Sinatra, Crosby and the rest of the Great American Songbook.  Elvis and his original sound was clearly outside the WREC playlist, but Sam Phillips or Ms. Keisker thought it was worth a shot.  After all, Sam Phillips had been a popular DJ at the station before starting his recording company. 

Elvis's first record landed in the hands of WREC program director Fred Cook, who doubled as the morning man.  Legend has it that Cook played it on the air for a few seconds, then pulled it, telling someone in the studio "that's the worst s--t I've ever heard," and predicting that Elvis had no future. 

Mr. Cook, who passed away in 2008, went on to a long and successful career as a radio and TV personality in Memphis.  But he also be remembered as the man who took a pass on Elvis Presley.        






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