The soul of Memphis

The birthplace of American pop was a place where dreams could be both fulfilled and dashed, and no one personified it better than the great Isaac Hayes. By Andria Lisle

As the legend goes, if you plant your pocket change on the silty banks of the lower Mississippi River, copper and silver trees will spring up overnight. Maybe that's not entirely true - but what Memphis, Tennessee lacks in monetary riches has, in musical wealth, been harvested a hundredfold. Beginning in the early 20th century and lasting until the mid-1970s, Memphis was the birthing ground for pop music in the truest sense of the word. Popular music - purveyed, initially, by groups such as the Memphis Jug Band and the Mississippi Sheiks (who were the U2 and Radiohead of their day) - then transmogrified into guttural, guitar-based blues; raucous, early rock'n'roll; and sweet southern soul. The hits flowed, initially midwifed by a trio of unlikely doulas: the intense, godlike Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, Hi Records/Royal Studio's cerebrally cool Poppa Willie Mitchell, and Stax head Jim Stewart, a bank teller-turned-soul music maven. They set the standard, and then dozens more would-be producers scrambled to catch up, turning garages, hotel rooms and even YMCA hallways into makeshift studios.

Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Ike Turner, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Finas Newborn's family band. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Charlie Feathers, Charlie Rich. OV Wright and Al Green; Elvis Presley and Otis Redding. Even their names serve as onomatopoeic clues to the sonic mysteries that lay dormant for years, then sprang into America's consciousness overnight.

Some were born within the city limits; others migrated here from outlying specks on the map to be reborn. Some stopped here for a short layover, on their way to bigger and better things; others put down Memphis roots and remained, no matter how rich or successful they became. Isaac Hayes was one of those who came from the country.

Born - literally, in a tin-roofed shack - to a family of sharecroppers in rural Rialto, Tennessee, in 1942, Hayes was orphaned at an early age and handed over to his grandmother, Rushia Wade. Like many African-Americans of that era, Hayes toiled in the cotton fields and found solace at church. He moved, with his grandparents and sister, Willette Hayes, to Memphis in June 1949. They found a home on the north side of town, but by the time Hayes graduated from high school, he'd already found his way across town to an inner-city neighborhood that lay between Sun Studio and Graceland.

If Memphis is the birthplace of blues and rock'n'roll music, Hayes's district - Soulsville, USA, as it was eventually called - is recognised as ground zero. Aretha Franklin took her first breath here, on Lucy Street; blues pianist Memphis Slim and R&B singer Johnny Ace hung their hats in houses just a few blocks away in either direction. Two gospel powerhouses, the diminutive Lucie Campbell and her larger-than-life counterpart, Rev Herbert Brewster, saved souls, while Slim Jenkins' Place and the Four-Way Grill addressed citizens' more earthly needs. In the 1950s, an abandoned Soulsville cinema, the Royal, was resurrected as Hi Records' recording studio. A decade later, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton transformed the Capitol Theatre, located at 926 E McLemore Avenue, into a studio called Stax.

Long before Hayes walked through the doors at Stax, a plethora of neighborhood kids - including would-be songwriter David Porter, who bagged groceries across the street, and organist Booker T Jones - had already made it across the threshold, hanging out in the tiny Satellite Record Shop and availing themselves whenever opportunity struck. Hayes, dubbed "the Smooth Crooner" by his classmates, tried to gain entry twice and failed, first with a doo-wop group, the Ambassadors, and then with a blues band called Calvin and the Swing Cats. He slipped past Stewart's watchful eye in 1964, as a pianist on an instrumental single called Frog Stomp.

Before then, life was tough. Like so many African-American matriarchs eking out a meager existence in the Jim Crow south, Rushia Wade often fell short. She and her grandchildren bounced from a one-room flat above a storefront church to less habitable places where they had to break down the wooden outhouse and burn it for kindling, or trundle buckets of water from the neighbours' apartments in order to cook and wash up. Unconsciously emulating Clarksdale, Mississippi-born Ike Turner and Rosemark, Tennessee native Bobby "Blue" Bland, Hayes responded the only way he knew how: mastering the street corner hustle. Turner's method was raising chickens and masquerading as a beggar; Bland preferred parking white folks' cars and transporting moonshine across the county line. Hayes adapted to city life by delivering groceries, shining shoes and passing out fliers for shows at the Savoy Theatre.

He'd dropped out of high school once, but, encouraged by his grandmother, stuck it out, attaining his degree when he was 20 years old and married. With a baby on the way, Hayes got a job at a meat packing plant, and in his spare time started hanging out at the American Sound Studios, run by the great white, blue-eyed soul songwriter and producer Chips Moman. By 1961 he was singing three nights a week at Curry's Club Tropicana; Hayes picked up piano by bluffing his way into a gig at the Plantation Inn; and, when Booker T Jones went off to college, he began sitting in on various Stax sessions. From there he became a songwriter, writing hit after hit for Stax with his partner David Porter, then became a recording star in his own right. Hayes was one of the dominating figures in the second decade of Memphis's reign as, arguably, the most important city in the history of popular music.

The number of hit singles that flew out of Memphis recording studios and on to the Billboard charts from 1954-1974 is still mind-boggling. Starting with That's All Right Mama, Elvis's Sun debut, Memphis hit its stride with a string of Moman-engineered hits - 122 songs, to be exact, including Sandy Posey's Born a Woman, Dusty Springfield's Son of a Preacher Man, Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline and Elvis's Suspicious Minds - then wound down with Al Green and Ann Peebles' no-less-astonishing Hi oeuvre. Recounting a list is easy. It's much more difficult to decipher the why.

Ask anyone with any amount of interest in Memphis music, and they'll point to the humidity, the aftereffects of segregation, and that fertile Mississippi mud. The truth is, no one quite understands just what happened here time and time again.

Race relations were certainly a factor. Like many great art movements, much of Memphis's musical legacy was borne on an unsettling malaise, which hung over the city like a fog. Sun studio, in which Phillips harnessed what he described as "a raw, black sound", lay just a stone's throw from the gravesite of the confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Brought to town to galvanise striking sanitation workers, Martin Luther King Jr was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where many Stax staffers, black and white, gathered to eat barbecue, swim and work on songs. Talented African-Americans who tried their luck in the music biz toed a delicate line, as crooner Billy Eckstine discovered when he sat down for a meal at a Memphis restaurant and was served a steak dinner topped with finely ground glass. When that racial tension collided with creative genius, the results were nearly always incendiary.

Religion - amplified by the sharp contrast between the devil-may-care attitudes that prevailed on Saturday night and the humble worshippers who prayed for eternal salvation on Sunday mornings - was another factor. Some musicians, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, struggled to make that tough decision between the club scene and the church. Others, including Elvis, who in his early years often snuck out the back door of the all-white Assembly of God Church to take in services at Rev Brewster's East Trigg Baptist Church, capitalised on the dynamics of religious fanaticism and hedonistic fervour.

Poverty, perhaps, was the most motivating factor of all. It gnawed at empty stomachs, and spurred countless dreamers into action. Even Elvis started out as poor folk. His father, a one-time cheque forger, did time on Parchman Farm; upon his release in 1948, the Presleys loaded everything they owned into their 1937 Plymouth and moved from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis's Lauderdale Courts housing project in a desperate bid to start life fresh. Elvis's dogged determination put the family on an upward trajectory that rocketed them, in less than a decade, from public housing to the Graceland mansion.

At Stax, Hayes embraced and exploited all of it. Teamed with fellow songwriter Porter, he mined his gospel background for potential hits for performers such as the Soul Children and Sam and Dave. As a solo star in the 1970s, he transformed himself into Black Moses, an avatar for the black consciousness movement. And, thanks to (Theme From) Shaft, he was landing $300,000 a year, running his own recording studio, called Hot Buttered Soul, and living part-time in Beverly Hills. The confident, sharply dressed bald-headed figure who strode down McLemore Avenue bore little resemblance to the resolute young man in patched, outgrown clothes who once loitered outside under the Stax marquee. With the purchase of a 1972 Cadillac El Dorado custom-trimmed in white fur and solid gold, the metamorphosis from cotton picker to megastar was complete.

But his good thing was about to end. Here in west Tennessee, it's perceived as a matter of fact: the success of many Memphis musicians is often eclipsed by a spectacular downfall. Bo Carter, who as the frontman for the Mississippi Sheiks was once one of the south's biggest recording stars, died blind and destitute in Memphis in September 1964. Johnny Cash, who never quite recovered from the guilt he felt after the death of his brother Jack, wrestled with drug addiction for years. OV Wright, another drug casualty, died of a heart attack at 41 and was given a pauper's burial in an unmarked grave. Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays were killed when their plane crashed into icy Lake Monona in December 1967. Presley died, allegedly, on the toilet in August 1977. Al Green barely survived an attack from a spurned lover, who tossed a pot of boiling grits on his bare skin. And Ike Turner survived a prison stint and accusations of wife-beating, only to die of a cocaine overdose last year.

In retrospect, Hayes got off lightly. He was forced into bankruptcy brought on by Stax Records' own financial problems, which cost him royalties from everything he'd written, produced or recorded at Stax. He endured a humiliating public auction, where greedy Memphians pawed over his lavish wardrobe, his jewellery and other personal effects. He was able to return, but never as the star he had been.

The Memphis music industry has fared less well. When the once-mighty Stax and American Sound Studios closed their doors in the mid-1970s, a creative diaspora took place, flinging singers and session players far and wide. Those who could packed their bags and moved out of town, following the paths of relatives who fled the south in the great migration of the 1940s. The number of hits recorded here in the past three decades are faint blips on the Billboard charts. There are a handful of rap songs, including Three 6 Mafia's telling It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp, a heavy metal number by a band called Saliva, and Cat Power's charming indie effort, The Greatest, which features one-time Stax and Hi guitarist Teenie Hodges' work. The city's greatest export, Justin Timberlake, is a marquee name, but for the most part, JT prefers the creature comforts of Hollywood to the local scene.

Hayes's unexpected death last Sunday - it occurred a few days before the 31st anniversary of Elvis's passing, a hoopla locals call "Death Week" - caps off a rough couple of weeks. A local disc jockey, Steve Ladd, was felled by a brain aneurysm on July 20. Five days earlier, 73-year-old Dee Henderson - known to listeners of WEVL, a community radio station, as longtime volunteer blues DJ "Cap'n Pete" - was murdered. Henderson, like Hayes, was the son of sharecroppers who came to Memphis in search of a better life. To the horror of friends and family, his grandson, Cortez Thomas, confessed within hours to shooting Henderson in the back as he tended to his garden. Then last Saturday, Chicago-born comedian Bernie Mac unexpectedly died, four months after spending time here filming the movie Soul Men - which features Hayes in a cameo role. Soul Men, due for release in November, was originally intended as a Sam and Dave tribute. Now it will memorialise Mac and Hayes' last work.

Andria Lisle

The GuardianTramp

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