For the next month, Bass Hall will be having a mostly Memphis festival.
The national touring production of the musical Memphis opens an eight-performance run Tuesday at the downtown Fort Worth venue. And three weeks later, the Memphis-set Million Dollar Quartet opens its eight-performance run there.
In addition to being set in the same city, both stories take place in the mid-1950s, when Elvis was just beginning to reinvent American popular music. Both shows did well on Broadway and elsewhere. Both shows earned several Tony Award nominations in 2010. Million Dollar Quartet won one and Memphis took four, including best musical.
The plot of Memphis, which features original music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, deals with a forbidden romance between a white Memphis disc jockey and a black singer.
Million Dollar Quartet derives its name from an incredible gathering of talent in a small Memphis recording studio Dec. 4, 1956. On that fateful day, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all dropped by Sun Studio at the same time. Because of the marketability of those artists, the participants in that chance meeting were collectively dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. This musical does not try to re-create the gathering as it happened (audiences would probably be disappointed if it did), but rather uses the event as a springboard for a musical revue featuring songs the quartet made famous individually.
That's a lot of Memphis in a short period.
So please allow me to step up and give you some background. I feel considerably closer to this material than, say, Hello, Dolly, for a number of reasons. For starters, I was born in Memphis. And although my childhood was spent on Western ranches, we often returned there for visits. Eventually, my family moved back to that area and I lived a number of my formative years about 25 miles east of the city. I earned my undergraduate degree in theater there (at Southwestern at Memphis then, Rhodes College now). And I began my journalism career there, writing obituaries and rock-music criticism for the old Memphis Press-Scimitar, where our offices were less than three blocks from Sun Studio.
But if that is not enough to give me some Memphis cred, consider this: My mother went to the same high school as Elvis.
So indulge me while I offer observations about the city and its music, in hopes of enhancing your Memphis experiences at Bass Hall.
The Mississippi River: Memphis is a river town in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, sitting high on a bluff above the Mississippi (it is often referred to as the "Bluff City" in that area). Both the city and its music sprang from the Mississippi, a two-way highway that allowed musical influences to come down from St. Louis and up from New Orleans throughout the city's history. Memphis absorbed the sounds that flowed with the riverboats and the barges, always melding them with the blues and country traditions that were already there. Given the ideal location of Memphis as a musical crossroads, the explosive emergence of an artist like Elvis was not just possible -- it was inevitable.
W.C. Handy (1873-1958): Known as "the Father of the Blues," songwriter and band leader Handy put Memphis on the musical map long before Elvis came around. Ironically, his best-known tune was Saint Louis Blues, not the closer-to-home Memphis Blues, initially a campaign song for Memphis' Boss Crump (see below). Handy formalized the music that was the soundtrack of life in and around Memphis, and made it appeal to a mass audience.
E.H. "Boss" Crump (1874-1954): Crump dominated political life in Memphis for most of the first half of the 20th century -- a period when Memphis was blossoming into the largest and most important city in the region (known there as the Mid-South). His legacy is still hotly debated, with some vilifying him as a self-serving tyrant, others hailing him as a benevolent visionary. And there are people who find both views valid. But few dispute that he helped shape every aspect of Memphis' political, business and socio-cultural development in the years leading up to the rise of Elvis and the other members of the Million Dollar Quartet. It is highly significant that the Million Dollar Quartet convened just two years after Crump's death, when the city he built was beginning to try to find its way without him.
Barbecue: If you say "Give me a barbecue" in Memphis, you are going to get a pulled pork shoulder sandwich with coleslaw on the sandwich, not on the side. The sauce will have just the slightest tang to it, but it will be sweeter than most Texas sauces. And when you bite into it, it will be one of the most delicious experiences your taste buds have ever known. Pork barbecue defines Memphis in the same way chicken-fried steak defines Texas. If you want to know what Memphis music tastes like, stop in any barbecue joint. And it is smoked and served in exactly the same way now as it was when the Million Dollar Quartet convened.
Beale Street: This downtown street was the epicenter of Memphis' early musical life. Blues guitar legend B.B. King developed his stage name from being known as the "Beale Street Blues Boy" on local radio, for example. Anchored by the New Daisy Theatre (a venue that has variously served as a live theater and a movie and concert venue), the street was lined with the clubs and bars that served as the incubator for what would come to be understood as Memphis' distinctive sound. The street fell into urban decay by the 1970s, but the area has been revitalized into a magnet for tourism, with music museums and a statue of Elvis joining the hot spots offering live music.
Sam Phillips (1923-2003)/Sun Studio/Sun Records: You cannot separate the man from his studio and his label. His contributions to the history of rock 'n' roll were astonishing. His greatest gift was an ear for new talent. He launched the career of Elvis Presley based on hearing him do a recording as a birthday present for his mother. Phillips' Sun Studio, a tiny recording room on Union Avenue near downtown, was the site of the legendary gathering of the Million Dollar Quartet, which comprised just four of the great talents who recorded with Phillips at Sun. There were many others.
Dewey Phillips (1926-1968) [not related to Sam]: In the 1950s, black music was not always easy to find on the radio dial. But Phillips was one of the first disc jockeys to play the songs that would provide the foundation for rock 'n' roll as we know it for white radio listeners. And he is credited with being the first DJ to play an Elvis record. So his impact on the airwaves of Memphis was enormous. The musical Memphis is based, in part, on Phillips' life.
Cotton: A lot of commodities move through Memphis, by river, rail and air (today it is home to FedEx). The city has long been a major distribution center for hardwood, for example. But in the Memphis of the early 1950s, cotton was still king. Those little white fluffy bolls drove the economy of Memphis and its surrounding area and, beginning in 1931, was celebrated each year with the Cotton Carnival -- a major social event that continues today as Carnival Memphis, since cotton is no longer the dominant crop it once was. But in the 1950s, cotton not only put money in pockets, it helped determine social status based on who owned the land versus who worked the land.
Elvis Presley (1935-1977): The King was more a by-product of the aforementioned forces than a creator of them. But, of course, it would be impossible to overstate his importance to Memphis and the world. He was the catalyst through which Memphis' blend of Delta blues, hardcore country, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rockabilly grew into rock 'n' roll. And the world hasn't been the same since.
Race relations: Like most Southern cities, Memphis had a long history of tense race relations and was a troubled place during the civil rights era. And, just as Dallas will always bear the stigma of the Kennedy assassination, Memphis (just as fairly or unfairly, depending on your view) must bear the burden of being the city where Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was taken in 1968. In the era of these two Broadway shows, the racial tensions that would ultimately bubble over into violence were just simmering beneath the surface. Typical of its place and the times, 1950s Memphis was completely segregated -- from its separate schools for black and whites to the "colored only" drinking fountains I remember seeing in department stores as a child. The trouble caused by the interracial romance in Memphis is, unfortunately, highly credible. Such things were simply not done in those days.
So, strange though it may seem, the music and events depicted in the two Broadway shows coming to Bass Hall were precipitated by a number of musical and nonmusical factors.
If you don't taste the barbecue, see the cotton bolls ripening in the fields or feel the invisible hand of Boss Crump when you see Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet, then the shows haven't painted the whole picture for you. The Memphis seen and heard in these stage works was shaped by economic and political forces that in turn shaped the city's social and cultural structure, which, in turn, shaped the city's music.