West Memphis & the Great Gathering of the Blues People
by Dale Franklin
Memphus And the Great Gathering of the
written by Dale Franklin
Art, Photography & Illustrations Dale Franklin Published by A.K. Nolden Publishing
copyright 2009 All rights reserved SMALL DREAMS
About the Author
Dale Franklin is a Memphis Musician and a member of NARAS, the organization of musicians who present the Grammy Awards each year. Dale signed a publishing contract with MCA Records in 1985. He is a performing musician, songwriter, studio musician,and recording engineer. Dale is also a Graphic Designer , photographer and is featured in the book, "The Best of CD Art & Design" published in 1997 and he designed the album cover for the Grammy winner's 3-6 Mafia â€œMystic Stylzâ€?. Dale has preformed with many artists including Jerry Lee Lewis, The Bill Black Combo, Memphis Slim, Ben Cauley of the Otis Redding Band, Linda Gail Lewis, Stan Kessler & Smoochy of the The SUN Rhythm Section and others as well as his own bands including the legendary Dick's Garage Band, Countryside and The Cyclones. Dale is an original member of The Lucy Opry in Memphis. Dale has appeared on several Albums and Video's for Television, and has recorded at Cotton Row Studios, The Attic, Sounds Unreel, Ardent, Sonic Studios w/ Roland Janes, & Delta Sound Studios . Dale is associated with the UPlay Guitar Systems, iCode Music Systems, the Levee Blues Foundation, and the new KWEM Radio Station. www.kwemradio.com www.myspace.com/dalefranklinopry
Once upon a time.... There was a great country, a nation, called America. America the beautiful they would say, the US of A...and America was beautiful. And all the countries around the world talked about what a great place that America was. America was the home of the brave and the land of the freed...or so it appeared. In the late 1940â€™ish years, America was coming to a Crossroads, and there were things that needed to change. Indeed things were beginning to change...
and thatâ€™s where this story begins!
The Crossroads Clarksdale, MS
Down in the deep South of North there was a great city named Memphis. Memphis was right on the edge of a mighty river called the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River water ran dark and brown like chocolate, and when the river overflowed itâ€™s banks during the great spring floods, it left itâ€™s brown muddy chocolaty soil everywhere. Out of the thick chocolate earth it left behind, the white sticky cotton would grow and grow. It turns out that all around the world people loved the white sticky cotton, and the best white sticky cotton grew in the fields that lay all around Memphis and south of Memphis.
Now the White Collar people were the people who lived in Memphis and ran the city of Memphis. The White Collar people collected the white sticky cotton, weighed it, baled it, and shipped it out on river barges and trains to the rest of the world! The White Collar people were very happy and made a good living this way. However, the White Tie people were not the only people around.
There were other people living in Memphis and through out the South of North. They were the Blues people. They were different from the White Collar people, and because they were different, the White Collar people did not want to let the Blues people participate in the profits and fun that the white sticky cotton brought to the area. Instead, they only wanted the Blues people to plant and pick the white sticky cotton, which was a very, very hot job and very, very hard work. The Blues people had to live in shuck & jive shacks at the Planterâ€™s Stations where the white sticky cotton grew. They could hardly make a living that way. Many Blues people left the South of North, and traveled to the North of South to cities like Chi-ca-go and De-tro-it to find better jobs.
In Memphis and in a lot of towns in America it was decided that there should be Separation...to keep the White Collar people and the Blues people apart. Memphis made a special street named Beale Street for the Blues people to enjoy. There were Movie Theatres for Blues people and Restaurants for Blues people and Music Clubs for Blues people.
But the Blues people were not able to enjoy the rest of the city. They couldnâ€™t go to the Main street to shop and eat, or even the 2nd Street or the 3rd Street!
The Blues people were mainly supposed to pick the white sticky cotton and keep things cleaned up. If the Blues people wanted a drink of cool Memphis city water, they had to find a “Blues Only” water fountain, for they were not allowed to drink out of the fountains where the White Collar people drank. In fact, there was only one day a week that the Blues people were allowed to visit the great Memphus Zoo or go to the Fairgrounds Fun Park to ride the thrilling Pipin Roller Coaster Ride, and that was on “Blues Only” day! As you can imagine they were really starting to get the BLUES!
Even the Music was Separated.... There was Pop Music for the White Collarâ€™s with Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and others. There was Hillbilly Music for the country White Collar people (sometimes called the rednecks) with Hank Williams and Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.
Finally there was a Separate music for the Blues people called Blues music, and it was for Blues people only. White Collar people pretty much pretended that it didnâ€™t exist and they ignored it.. ..at least for awhile!
Now right across the Mississippi River from Memphis, sitting behind the huge wall of a great mud Levee that kept the river in her place, lay another town. A quiet little town that was called West Memphis. Now West Memphis really was not a part of Memphis. It was really three little towns in the state of Ar-Kan-Sas that decided to name themselves West Memphis in order to help them sell their white sticky cotton and lumber to other countries, just like the real Memphis did. It turned out that the very best white sticky cotton in the world grew in the fields just outside of West Memphis. As you might guess there were many, many Blues people there to plant and pick the white sticky cotton. Their help was greatly needed by the White Collar people in Ar-Kan-Sas , and the Blues people were greatly appreciated and welcomed!
Here is where the story gets really interesting. Not all the Blues people wanted to pick the white sticky cotton. Some of them, especially the ones who came from Clarksdale, Miss-is-sip-pi, and the ones from Helena, Ar-Kan-Sas , could play and sing music...their music, blues music. Guitar, Harmonica, Piano, Drums, Horns...you name it and they could play it. They played for Blues people at parties, fish frys, churches, schools, dances, and what they called Jook Joints. But it gets better. They got Electrified! They got
ahold of Mr. Gibsonâ€™s Electric Guitars and man, things really
sounded so good, and it made all
happy! Even the White Collar people in Ar-Kan-Sas started to notice.
One of the first Blues Musicians to come to West Memphis was Sonny Boy Williamson from the King Biscuit Radio Show down in Helena, Arkan-sas. Sonny Boy played harmonica or blues harp as it was called. His friends played guitar and other instruments. They had really neat names, just like Sonny Boy. Elmore “Slide Guitar” James, Arthur “Big Boy” Cradup, “Junior” Lockhart, Houston Stackhouse and Robert Nighthawk were just a few of his friends. They started to play every day on the West Memphis KWEM Radio Station and things got to jumping! The Blues people loved the Blues music that was being played on the radio in West Memphis by Sonny Boy and his friends. Soon Blues people all over Ten-nes-see, Miss-is-sip-pi and Ar-Kan-Sas were tuning in to hear the wonderful sounds coming through the air to their radio sets. In Memphis, another radio station, WDIA, jumped in and became the first radio station in America to feature only Blues people music and they had only
KWEM Radio Station
Blues people DJ’s (the people who played the music). Most radio stations in America mostly had only White Collar DJ’s. 16
KWEM also had another show featuring live Blues music. This show featured a huge, wonderful Blues Man named Howlin’ Wolf! And boy could he howl, sing and play guitar. Soon Jook Joints were appearing all over West Memphis where Blues people could come and hear and dance and see Sonny Boy, Howlin’ Wolf, and their friends! West Memphis soon filled up with Blues Musicians....most of whom would become famous someday. B.B. King, Ike Turner, Phineas Newborn, Willie Mitchell, Junior Parker, James Cotton...so many came to West Memphus that you just really couldn’t count them! And were they ever Rockin’! Now early on, most of the White Collar people didn’t seem to notice what was beginning to happen with this Electric Blues Music, and how it was spreading. North & South, East & West, Beale Street and beyond and so on. Those Mr. Gibson Electric Guitars were getting louder and louder! But one White Collar person did hear the music.
He heard it and he liked it.! That man was Sam Phillips.Sam had just opened up a little recording studio called Memphus Recording Services to make Vinyl Records for sale. Sam said, “I’ve got to record
these Blues people...this is the best music I’ve ever heard!”. And record them he did!
He recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner. Then the most unbelievable and incredible thing happened. They all had Number 1 Hits!!! That’s right, Top of the Blues Charts! They had become Stars in the Blues World! In fact, Ike Turner recorded a song called “Rocket 88” about a fast, sleek Oldsmobile car, that would later be considered to be the FIRST
Rock-n-Roll Record ever!
Now hold on to your hats...Rockn-Roll hadnâ€™t even been invented yet. Could it be? Could it be that this Electric Blues Music was turning into something totally new? A NEW kind of Music??? Well the truth is, nobody knew just yet. After all, White Tie people were supposed to only like and listen to White Collar music, and Blues people were only supposed to listen to and like Blues music. But what happened next, nobody could have expected! Sam Phillips was so excited about the Number One Blues Record Hits that he had just recorded, that he decided to start his own Record Company.
He didn’t care what kind of music that the White Collar people were listening to. He only knew that this Blues Music was “Hot” and it was selling! He decided to call his new record company “SUN Records”, and he made his logo a big rising Sun.. coming up in the morning. As Sam put it, “the rising of the Sun meant...a new Day was dawning!” And he was right, a new day was dawning! Now hanging around Memphis, West Memphis and Beale Street that year was an unusual and...just different...young man. And he had a different and unusual name, Elvis. Elvis didn’t seem to know the rules about White Collar Music and Blues Music. Elvis hung around with DJ Texas Bill at the KWEM Radio Station in West Memphis. He even got to sing on the KWEM Radio Station. 21
Elvis listened to Ike Turner and his Blues Band, but he also listened to Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys... and Pop Artists like Dean Martin. He bought his clothes on
Beale Street at the
Lansky Brothers store...not on Main Street as would be expected. He just loved music, all music. Top Pop, HillBilly, and Blues. And he sang them all. Elvis heard about SUN Records, and he had been told that anybody could make
there, so he went to see Mr. Sam Phillips. Elvis was kind of shy, but he told Sam that he wanted to make a record.
not!”, and he set up an audition for the very young Elvis Presley. Dale Franklin
Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black got together in the Sun Studios on a warm Summer night a couple of weeks later and began to try out songs for Sam Phillips. Elvis did his best Top of the Pop songs, but Sam said they just weren’t special. Then he did a bunch of Hill Billy Songs, and again Sam just wasn’t buying. He said, ”I don’t Dale Franklin
know what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I hear it!”.
Then, almost out of nowhere, Elvis burst into a Blues song, one he had heard from one on Sonny Boy’s friends, Arthur “Big Boy” Cradup...”That’s alright Mama, That’s alright for you,...” Bill Black started moving and shaking and slapping the strings on his big brown upright bass, and Scotty Moore started wailing like a crazy man on his Mr. Gibson Electric Guitar ...and the hair stood up on the back of Sam Phillips neck!!! “WOW, that’s
it...that’s it”, he exclaimed, “Keep on playing”. And with that he switched on his recording machine and “Cat Daddy, Man”, they had a Hit!!! 23
That night, White Collar DJ, Dewey Phillips, started playing the new SUN record by Elvis, “That’s Alright Mama”, on the Memphus radio, and he played it over and over...it was the only song he would play...and the phones rang and rang and would not stop. Rock-n-Roll had been born! Almost overnight everybody was playing and singing Rock-n-Roll. Didn’t matter if you were White Collar or Blues... It was Rock-n-Roll!
For the first time since people could remember, there was no Separation in Music. White Collar and Blues Musicians played together in the same bands, they were on the same Radio Shows. Top Pop Charts went away and they were replaced by the new Rock-n-Roll Charts.
This was the beginning of the end of Separation in America. Oh, it would take a few years for White Collar people and Blues people to come together on all the issues as to everyone being free and equal, but the ball was rolling. In the end it all came about and a miracle had happened. America became America...like she was always supposed to be. Thanks to those Blues guys: Howlin Wolf, B.B. King, Sonny
Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, James Cotton, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Elmore James, Arthur â€œBig Boyâ€? Cradup, Willie Nix, Phineas & Calvin Newborn, Willie Mitchell, Ben Branch, Tuff Green and the whole lot who had gathered that year around Memphis and sang and played their hearts out like there was no tomorrow, they did something that had never been done.
They brought America together, and started all kinds of new music...Electric Blues, Rockabilly, Soul and last but not least...Rock-n-Roll! And it was a new day for America! Sometime you might want to listen closely to some of that Blues music that B.B. King, Howlinâ€™ Wolf and those other great Blues musicians created back then...and in fact,,thereâ€™s a little bit of that music in every song that you listen to!
With the rising of the Sun came a new dawn, a new day, and a better tomorrow.
The Gathering- West Memphis, AR 1947-1954 Blues Musicians who had gathered in West Memphis from 1947-1954: Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Junior Lockwood, Elmore James, Ike Turner and Band, Jackie Bresden, Albert King, B.B. King, Phineas Newborn, Calvin Newborn, Finas Newborn, Willie Mitchell, Ben Branch, Tuf Green, Bow Legs Miller, Arthur “Big Boy” Cradup, Junior Parker, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Floyd Murphy, Willie Nix, Willie Love, Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland, Roscoe Gordon, Joe Louis Hill, King Bee Griffith, and a host of sidemen and band members.
Future Rockabilly Artists playing in West Memphis: Paul Burlison, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Trio, Warren Smith, Barbara Pittman, Jim Stewart, Stan Kessler, Eddie Bond and Band with Reggie Young, a young Wayne Jackson, Texas Bill Strength, Dick Stewart, Doug Poindexter & the Starlight Wranglers, Slim Rhodes, Clyde Leopard and the Snearly Ranch Boys, Sonny Burgess, and in and out of town would be Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black as well as all the supporting band members and other bands that gigged around Memphis & West Memphis.
Why West Memphis? Beale Street in the 1940’s to 1950’s had been cleaned up by the city of Memphis. There were a few places to play, but not much money to be made for unknown musicians. People who played Beale Street were top groups like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Louie Jordon and so on. Other bands were “house bands” like the Bill Harvey Band and Al Jackson’s Band. Vagrancy and loitering on Beale Street could get you arrested. Helena, Arkansas had also calmed down after the Prohibition ended in 1939. After World War II the economy had slowed down and there was racial tension between the towns of Helena and West Helena. King Biscuit continued on the air, but the star of the Delta, Sonny Boy Williamson, had headed for West Memphis in 1947. However, West Memphis, Arkansas after the World War II was a “wide open” town. There were dives and juke joints all over the place on 8th Street, 16th Street,
and 17th Street. There was gambling and all night dancing. High school kids could get into music venues. West Memphis also had “White Clubs” that were known for their great bands. Phineas Newborn and band were at the Plantation Inn. There were great country bands at Danny’s and the Cotton Club. Future SUN Records, Chess Records, Trumpet Records and Modern/RPM Records recording artists were on every corner. In West Memphis it was a boom town. There was a tremendous demand for musicians, rent was cheap, Memphis was just across the river, the “Law” was friendly, there was a back door to gigs all over the Delta from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Helena, Arkansas, to Jonesboro, Arkansas...and West Memphis had a great radio station, KWEM, that invited LIVE music, a place where a musician could get on the air, promote themselves and get gigs. Indeed, Sam Phillips was listening to KWEM radio looking for and finding talent.
Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King & Howlin’Wolf led the way! In 1947 Sonny Boy Williamson, the star of the Delta, moved to just outside of West Memphis, Arkansas to Twist, Arkansas. He had been living in Helena, Arkansas since 1941. Sonny Boy had been playing the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with Robert “Junior” Lockwood. In Twist, Arkansas he lived with his sister and her husband, Howlin' Wolf. Sonny Boy would teach Howlin' Wolf how to play blues harp. (Later, for Checker Records, he did a parody of Howlin' Wolf entitled "Like Wolf."). Twist, Arkansas would also be the town where B.B. King played in 1949, and after almost being killed in a Juke Joint fire while trying to save his Gibson Guitar there, he would name his guitar “Lucille”, in honor of the girl for whom the fight started. The fire started when a vat of Kerosene that was being used for heat was kicked over. Sonny Boy then moved into West Memphis, Arkansas where he performed on a KWEM radio show from 1947 to 1951 selling the elixir Hadacol. At KWEM, Sonny Boy would introduce Riley B. King, later to be known as B.B. King, to the world by giving him his first radio appearance, and also giving B.B. King a gig that Sonny Boy had double booked at Miss Annie's Diner on 16th Street in West Memphis, Arkansas. B.B. would make $12.50 a night plus room & board (4 times the money that could be made picking cotton) playing at Miss Annie's for the next 2 years. He would then record "3 O'Clock Blues" with Ike Turner's Band (also living and working in West Memphis) at the Memphis YMCA for the Bihari Brother's Modern Records, and become famous and begin touring all across America! Sonny Boy also brought his King Biscuit musician friends to West Memphis, Robert "Junior" Lockwood, Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Arthur "Big
Boy" Cradup, Robert Nighthawk and others to perform on KWEM Radio. These radio programs at KWEM would be a major influence on a young Albert King, who lived just outside of West Memphis, Arkansas. KFFA Radio Station in Helena and KWEM Radio in West Memphis would influence a failing radio station in Memphis, TN, WDIA, to change to an all R & B (“colored”) format. Thanks to Sonny Boy, Howlin' Wolf would also have his own show on KWEM Radio in West Memphis, Arkansas from 4:30 to 5:00 daily, being sponsored by a Tractor Implement Company. Howlin' Wolf's show would broadcast from 1948 til 1951, when he would be discovered by Sam Phillips who was listening to KWEM. Sam would record Howlin’ Wolfs’ "Moanin' at Midnight", and have a hugh hit for Chess Records (Sam Phillips leased the tracks to Chess). In 1952 Howlin' Wolf would leave West Memphis, Arkansas for Chicago and his "West Memphis Blues" would become the "Chicago Blues”.
Sonny Boy is recognized as one of the first musicians to "electrify" the blues (a major influence on what would would become Rock n Roll), when he and Lockwood would use electric guitar and a microphone for the harp as early as 1940, which was unheard of. Later, Sonny Boy would pass this "electric blues style" on to student "Little Walter" who would become the greatest blues harp artist of this style, backing legend Muddy Waters and creating his part of the "Chicago Electric Blues" sound. Muddy Waters, who had moved straight to Chicago from Clarkesdale, Mississippi, would hire West Memphis blues musicians Hubert Sumlin, Walter Horton and Junior Parker and relocate them to Chicago and Chess Records where they would play in the bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and record for them. While at KWEM Radio in 1949, Howlin’ Wolf would play with Paul Burlison, who was playing with a country band on the station just before Howlin’ Wolf went on the air. Paul Burlison would become one of the most influential Rock & Roll guitarists of the early 50’s. Paul lived in Lauderdale Courts in Memphis along with Elvis Presley, Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, Bill Black and Johnny Black. Paul became the guitarist for The Johnny Burnette Trio, considered one of the very first Rockabilly Bands. Paul was friendly with Elvis and allowed Elvis to sit in with the band in 1953, including a live broadcast on KWEM, West Memphis, that aired in 1953 almost a year before Elvis recorded at SUN Studios for Sam Phillips. This was Elvis’ 1st radio appearance.
The SUN Records Connection Because of the 3 hit records cut in 1951 by Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Ike
The Music Bridge, Memphis by Dale Franklin Special Thanks to: The New KWEM Radio Station www.kwemradio.com Jay Sieleman, The Blues Foundation www.blues.org Blues In the Schools Dr. Glen Fenter, Mid South Community College Alex Coulter, Michael Coulter, Evening Times Newspaper, West Memphis, AR Janine Earney, Delta Arts Council Carolyn Redfern, West Memphis Library Southern Folklore Center Karen Pulfer Focht, Memphis Commercial Appeal Blake Franklin, Select-O-Hits Records Troy Keepings, Southland Greyhound Park Sara Beth Christian, West Memphis Chamber of Commerce Peggy Seessel, Memphis Arts Council Annette Blount, Lucite International Lewis Ray, Texan Amanda Nolden Publishing Donna Franklin
The story of West Memphis and Howlin Wolf, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Sonny Boy Williamson and the musicians who started Rock n Roll at KWEM...