Memphis Minute - September 9th
They came to Memphis to make music. Of course, two out of three didn’t know it at the time. One was born on this day. One made his show debut without the famous host. One had the first of only two chart toppers before scandal derailed his career. On this day in Memphis music history, we celebrate them all.
Jerry Lee Lewis came to Memphis from Louisiana to make music. He searched out Sam Phillips but did not find him at Sun Studio. He came back and it paid off. Lewis got session work and his own contract at Sun, though he was first told he was too country. He had seen Maybelle Smith perform a song and worked it into his repertoire. In his own second session he set that song on fire and added some spoken asides. That song, written by Curlee Williams and recorded two years earlier by Smith, was released by Sun in April and hit the charts. Later that year he struck gold again while setting pianos on fire during his shows. But after he married his 13 year old second cousin no one but Alan Freed played his records and seats went empty. Ten years later, "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)" topped the country charts - in Canada. He had a string of country hits in the late 60’s including “To Make Love Sweeter for You” which capped U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles ten years after “Great Balls of Fire” did the same.
But on this day in Memphis music history in 1957, the Jerry Lee Lewis version of “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On” topped the R&B charts!
The way I heard it there, the teenager’s family left Tupelo in debt and in the middle of the night. They settled in public housing in Memphis. His high school music teacher said he couldn’t sing. He didn’t give up playing and singing but got work wherever he could during and after high school. He visited Sun Studio to cut a record as a gift and returned to no success. But Sam Phillips heard something in his voice that music teacher didn’t understand. The singer had Beale Street and WDIA to learn the best music in Memphis in the ‘50’s - songs made by African-American artists like Rufus Thomas, Big Mama Thornton, and Arthur Crudup. And he had Phillip’s ear - who then brought in two musicians to see what the teen could do. They were messing around with a Crudup song when Phillips had his “Eureka” moment. A few months later the man they called "Daddy-O" played it on WHBQ radio repeatedly and the youngster was on his way. Two years later he made his debut - on the Charles Laughton show? No actor Laughton was just filling in for his friend and regular host who was recovering from an accident. The cameras stayed high and didn’t show his hips swaying to keep things family friendly.
On this day in Memphis music history, Elvis Presley performed Lieber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” which had been recorded by Big Mama Thornton first in 1952.
Capping a phenomenal day in Memphis music history is another non-native, who like Elvis, did not come here to record, but to help his boss. Johnny Jenkins was a guitarist and bandleader. His style influenced Jimi Hendrix and he later had Duane Allman on his sessions. They say he was a wild man on stage. He also had an ear for talent and the “right” place to be - but didn’t have a driver’s license. So he brought one of his band mates with him to Memphis - as his driver. Of course, you know how these things go when destiny takes the lead. His session with the Stax Records house band wasn’t productive so he and the studio gave the driver a chance at the mike. Jenkins stayed on guitar so the Stax guitarist went to the piano. In a moment defining Memphis music, Johnny Jenkins and Steve Cropper backed an overnight sensation.
Twenty-one years earlier, on September 9, 1941, that singer and songwriter of "These Arms of Mine," Otis Redding, was born in Dawson Georgia!