Saturday, February 25, 2017

Sun Records: Episode 1

Episode 1 of Sun Records, CMT’s new series about the rise of the Memphis music scene in the 1950s, opens in 1950 with a fifteen-year-old Elvis Presley sitting in a stairwell of a housing project and quietly strumming a guitar. He is listening to a radio that is playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The door to his family’s apartment is open. Inside, Elvis’s father (whose name was Vernon) is grousing about his son making Cs and Ds in school and wasting time fooling around with music. Vernon has been drinking, and he is bitter about everything under the sun. “You get that boy off your teat, Gladys,” he mutters to his wife, Elvis’s mother, as he opens another beer. “He’s too old to be coddled.” Gladys is warm and supportive and tries to smooth things over. She calls Elvis “pumpkin,” kisses him on the cheek, and runs her fingers through his hair. “For God is the King of all the earth,” she tells him. “Sing praises with a song.”

Angry, unfeeling, alcoholic fathers offset by saintly, supportive, loving mothers are not the only clichés in the episode. Sam Phillips, the founder of Memphis Recording Service and the man behind Sun Records (the label), cannot get through the episode without having an affair with his secretary—and this after he dreamily tells his wife, as they sit in the car in front of the building that will become his recording studio, “This is what I was put on this earth to do. And I know you came here to help me do it.” Elvis, bored with the staid Sunday morning service in his white church, up and leaves and removes himself to a service in a black church, where the music is of course rollicking and full of spirit. How will the congregation react to the late-arriving white boy? Without skipping a beat. A lady sitting in front of him encourages him to join in on the clapping and the singing. After the service, as he cheerfully mingles with the congregation on the front steps of the church, his girlfriend’s parents drive by—Lord only knows why their route took them through that part of town—and see “that Presley boy” fraternizing with the wrong race. Affronted and scandalized, they forbid their daughter from ever seeing Elvis again.

Chad Michael Murray plays Sam Phillips; he’s superb and looks the part. In my reconceptualization of Sun Records, the show would revolve around his character only, letting other characters such as Elvis and J. R. (later known as Johnny) Cash come and go as needed—sort of like a Union Avenue–based Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I would give Sam Phillips a troublesome uncle—maybe an uncle who takes over his brother’s, Sam’s father’s, studio in Memphis after his brother mysteriously dies. Sam, determined to carry on his father’s work, opens his own studio. The uncle, along with his studio, would be a pawn in Boss Crump’s political machine. Sam Phillips would smell something rotten but get caught up in machinations beyond his ken—all the while producing some of the most important popular music in the world.

By the way, despite what CMT’s website says, the story of the birth of rock and roll is anything but “untold.” Colin Escott, one of the producers of the show, published an excellent book on the subject in 1991 titled Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll. And of course Peter Guralnick, who wrote a biography of Elvis, published in 2015 Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. Sun Records is also the subject of a 2001 episode of the PBS series American Masters.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Orange Mound

In 1979, Charles Williams, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Illinois, began calling on residents of Orange Mound, a black neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. He was conducting an ethnographic study of the neighborhood and the families who lived there. Although black himself, Williams was viewed with suspicion or alarm by many elderly residents, who, at the sight of the unfamiliar young man approaching them, would leave the shade of their front porches and duck inside their un-air-conditioned homes. Williams later learned that they were afraid he had come to rob them or were afraid of becoming known as an “informant” if they talked to the outsider from Illinois who for some strange reason found their community an interesting subject for a doctoral dissertation.

We can be thankful that Charles Williams, who went on to become a professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis, persevered with his project and endured the “snubs, labels, insults, misinformation, and in some instances, down-right ostracism” directed toward him, for the result of his study is a valuable book titled African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound, published in 2013 by Lexington Books.

The land that would eventually become developed as Orange Mound was once part of the five-thousand-acre Deaderick Plantation. At the time, the plantation was five miles east of the city, and the only way to travel from the plantation to Memphis itself was along the Pontotoc Trace, which today is Lamar Avenue. In 1889, the Deaderick family sold part of its land to a real estate developer named Elzey Eugene Meacham. As Professor Williams writes, for reasons that may never become clear, Meacham developed the land into a residential community for blacks in Memphis. The community became known as Orange Mound because of the osage orange hedgerow that grew naturally on the old Deaderick Plantation.

Williams lists in helpful detail the names of many of the families and residents who lived in Orange Mound during its earliest days. The neighborhood was originally populated by pastors and school teachers, businessmen and porters, blacksmiths and carpenters. Lonnie Briscoe Jr. was well-known for selling class rings to graduating seniors; Jessie Springer was a renowned teacher at Booker T. Washington and later principal of Douglass High School. In 1931, a physician named Wheelock A. Bisson arrived in Memphis and settled in Orange Mound. Most residents, however, worked as day laborers and domestics.

As Professor Williams explains, Orange Mound can be understood only in the context of Memphis as a whole. Memphis, of course, has a long history of racial segregation, oppression, and violence, and Orange Mound survived by developing its own institutions and “accommodating” the prevailing social order, avoiding confrontation with the white ruling class. During the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, for instance, Orange Mound “remained peaceful” with no “outward sign of protest and demonstration.”

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of Williams’s book examines some of the “threats” that residents of Orange Mound have faced over the years. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which runs along Southern Avenue, brought potential environmental hazards and threatened, under the right of eminent domain, to strip homeowners of their property. In the late 1960s, Orange Mound had “one of the best public parks in the city” until the city sold it to businessmen who built on the site the Mid-South Refrigerated Warehouse Company—an indignation against which the normally quiet residents of the neighborhood rose in “great protest.” The growth of “street corner society” brought crime, harassment, and disorder. Jewish entrepreneurs were sometimes seen as exploitative; Williams discusses at length a particular merchant named Milton Evensky, who owned a grocery store in the neighborhood. Police relations are treated as well, including a 1971 case involving seventeen-year-old Elton Hayes, who was beaten to death by police officers, white and black.

Orange Mound has always been poor and remains so today. What is different, Professor Williams says, is that “the community’s legendary core values for culture, traditions, family, church, public education, hard work, ownership of property, pride in the concept of ‘community,’ self-respect, trust and appreciation of neighbors, and the alleviation of poverty have to an extent collapsed over the past several decades.” He offers as a “compelling theory” the notion that the first two or three generations of residents simply became complacent and took for granted the continued vitality of the community they had built, “failing to invest in or rebuild the community of their birth through the integration of new people with new ideas.”

Professor Williams closes his book by stating that in order to become a healthy community again, residents of Orange Mound must set aside “class stratification and provincialism” and put the needs of the community above individual interests. Home ownership must be encouraged, and residents should be given control over neighborhood institutions, especially the schools. But what’s happened to Orange Mound is what’s happened to America itself and is a manifestation of the social and economic structure we have inherited and continue to perpetuate to one degree or another. Writing in 2016 in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the political scientist Corey Robin says that “Coates dares whites to prove that we do not believe ourselves to be separate from black people, that we understand that we cannot escape the ramifications of the fate we have assigned to African-Americans. . . . Your actions, says Coates—the daily ease with which you tolerate the policing, incarceration, and murder of black citizens; the daily ease with which your white life goes on amid so much black death—shows that you have no desire, intention, or need to end my situation.” Or, one can add, the situation in Orange Mound.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The House of Church

How does one explain a Frederick Douglass, a Booker T. Washington, a George Washington Carver? The fact that some blacks were permitted to flourish in a society otherwise committed to racial oppression makes the oppression seem all the crueler, because it reveals how truly selective it was. I suppose a black man in the 1880s might look upon a Frederick Douglass and think, “That could be me!” But I suspect he might be equally likely to say to his white oppressors, “Why are you making my life a living hell but letting that guy off the hook?”

To the Douglasses, Washingtons, and Carvers can be added Robert Reed Church (1839–1912), a Memphis businessman and banker who became the first black millionaire in the South. Robert Church was born a slave in 1839, the son of his white owner and a mixed-race mother. In 1855, Church and his father survived the sinking of the Bulletin no. 2, and seven years later the young man had to swim for his life in the Mississippi River at Memphis, reaching the riverbank as Federal warships overpowered a Confederate flotilla. In 1865, Church opened a saloon in Memphis, despite being denied a permit. The next year, he was shot in the neck during a race riot and left for dead. Four years later, he opened a brothel in downtown Memphis, on Second and Gayoso—and thus his rise began. He acquired more property during the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878—he had the means by then to send his two children out of the city to New York City by train—and by 1885 he had made his fortune. He took his family on a European tour in 1889 and visited the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893. Around that time he received at his Memphis home Frederick Douglass himself. “A Mr. Robert R. Church owns one of the finest hotels in Memphis,” a Boston newspaper reported in 1889. “Nor is this all. In the registry of deeds his name is on the books as the lawful owner of 60 brick and wooden houses. His note is good for at least $250,000.”

Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr., are the nominal subjects of Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, a 2015 book written by Preston Lauterbach. But this is not so much a history of the Churches as it is an on-the-ground history of the city between the 1860s and the 1930s, organized around the often rambunctious dealings—political, business, artistic—of a half dozen prominent Memphians, the Churches being the most central, and another half dozen or so lesser lights.

Much of Lauterbach’s story, which draws copiously from newspapers of the time, involves the disgraceful, the disreputable, and the dishonorable. He opens with the race riot of 1866, which, in the author’s telling, was fomented as much by the animosity between the black soldiers garrisoned at Fort Pickering and the white city police force as by the liquor that both sides liberally consumed. The riot, which made plain the unwillingness of the federal government to protect the newly freed, led blacks in Memphis to close ranks and “gravitate to their own prominent citizens,” particularly Robert Church. Over the next three hundred or so pages, Lauterbach relates the rise of the Churches and that of Beale Street, the two being of a piece. Along the way, other Memphians—Ida B. Wells, W. C. Handy, E. H. Crump, and George W. Lee being the best known—take centerstage, with the Churches disappearing from the narrative for pages at a time. That disappearing act caught this reader by surprise. The “prologue” states that the book will be about the Churches’ rise to fortune and influence. It is—but that’s only one of its subjects.

Lauterbach’s history, which was published by Norton, is as hyperlocal a one I’ve read. A plenitude of ordinary Memphians of yore slip in and out of the author’s brisk narrative. We meet policeman David Roach, who, revolted by the thought of miscegenation, invaded brothels and homes where black men and white women “knotted up” (Lauterbach’s pitch-perfect phrase); it was Roach who, in the race riot of 1866, shot Robert Church in the neck. We meet Mary Grady, who owned a dance hall. We meet police chief Ben Garrett, who, in an investigation of police misconduct, felt free to let slip that his officers were “sometimes” sober. We meet City Recorder John C. Creighton, who publicly exhorted his fellow white citizens to “kill and drive” every black from the city. We meet Jackson Goodell, a black drayman who was beaten by two policemen. We meet a C. M. Cooley, a Lavinia Goodell (Jackson’s wife), a Lucy Taylor, a Harriet Armour, a “constable” named O’Hearn, a Joe Clouston (a mulatto barber), an Adam Lock, a Rachel Hatcher, and an Austin Cotton—and all of those just in chapter 2.

A handful of characters whom I doubt appear in any other history of the city receive several pages. Three at random are James Kinnane, who ran his own entertainment district on the north side of town and who, one newspaper insinuated, directed his black clientele to support Crump’s opponent in the 1909 mayoral election; Frank Liberto, who as a teenager delivered meals to the “girls” who worked in the brothels and who later ran an inn on Beale Street; and David Park “Pappy” Hadden, a businessman and public official who in the 1870s brought Mardi Gras to the city and who, as police court judge, closed a number of brothels. Actually, I’m wrong about Hadden not appearing in any other history: he is mentioned in a 2013 history of Orange Mound by Charles Williams. But still. One can marvel at the author’s resolve to document by name a large cast of workaday Memphians who may not be historically significant but who made Memphis the rowdy and spirited place it was at the time.

Indeed, Lauterbach opens up a Memphis that sometimes sounds like the stuff of pulp fiction and film noir:
Nello Grandi and his brother Olento arrived on Beale before 1910, tall Nello becoming Big Grandi and diminutive Olento, Little Grandi. Big Grandi worked with Vigelio “Pee Wee” Maffei in one of the little legend’s saloons. This joint sat practically on the banks of the Mississippi, and here Big Grandi saw strapping Negro roustabouts with their hundred-dollar pay strolling straight down a cotton steamer gangplank right into Pee Wee’s, which promptly soaked them for every cent.
In a similar vein, of one of James Kinnane’s hired hands Lauterbach writes, “Tick Houston was a renaissance man of sorts, managing under one roof a con game, a colored vaudeville theater, and a pimp hive.”

One of the fascinating things we learn from this enjoyable book is that brothels were legal and regulated in Memphis until 1940—long after the famous Storyville area of New Orleans was shut down in 1917. In time, the brothels became concentrated around Beale Street. A tantalized William Faulkner came poking around them in the early 1920s. But when propositioned, he begged off. “No thank you, ma’am. I’m on my vacation.”

That a society committed to white supremacy made room for a Robert Church Sr. is impossible to explain. As Lauterbach writes, “In the decades following the Civil War, black men were lynched for two reasons down South: for daring to compete economically with white men and for soiling the honor of white women. Bob Church was doing both, and with tacit license and open appreciation.”

There’s virtually nothing left of the Church legacy in Memphis today, other than a small park named in honor of Robert Sr. The Churches deserve better. As Lauterbach makes clear, Robert Reed Church was devoted to Memphis and is no small reason why the city exists today. With the struggling tax district on the brink of extinction after the yellow-fever epidemic, it was Church who purchased the first bond issued to pay off the city’s old debt. As a newspaper reported, “With this example before them, capitalists of the Caucasian race could not be shy, and the whole of the bonds was placed.”