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Stanley Booth's Half-Century of Writing About Memphis and the Blues

Stanley Booth is probably a happier person than this. But he's armed and ready for the Memphis Mafia (from Elvis, not the Italians) should they come to settle a score.
Stanley Booth is probably a happier person than this. But he's armed and ready for the Memphis Mafia (from Elvis, not the Italians) should they come to settle a score.
Photo by Stanley Booth/Courtesy of Chicago Review Press
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Red Hot and Blue: Fifty Years of Writing About Music, Memphis, and Motherf**kers
By Stanley Booth
400 pp.
$19.99
Chicago Review Press

Of all the American music journalists who invented the genre and cut their teeth in the ‘60s and ‘70s – names like Paul Nelson, Richard Meltzer, Lillian Roxon, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Paul Williams, Robert Palmer, and Peter Guralnick, perhaps none were so associated with a city and a sound as Stanley Booth has been with Memphis and the blues.

This compendium is not quite a “Greatest Hits,” but it shows how much skill Booth had as a writer, and how setting a scene and introducing the character and inner tickings of a musician could be just as important as the sounds they created. Few music journos do atmosphere like Booth. And unlike, say, Lester Bangs, Booth can also insert himself in a story to where his presence illuminates rather than grandstands.

There’s a holy trinity of pieces on Memphis’ most famous musical product, Elvis Presley. It include a 1967 Esquire piece largely considered the first “serious” attempt to write about the King (spoiler alert: the Elvis here is not the one familiar to fans from the teen magazines), one on the importance of legacy of Graceland, and an lengthy profile of Dr. Nick, Elvis’ pill-prescribing personal physician who some feel was responsible for his death. That train of thought isn’t so clear here.

Other musicians come to vivid life, be they old blues and jazz players (Furry Lewis, Ma Rainey, Blind Willie McTell, Joe “King” Oliver), country rockers (The Flying Burrito Brothers), more contemporary blues/R&B cats (Bobby Rush, Marvin Sease), and soul icons. Booth is in the studio with Otis Redding and Steve Cropper as they record “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” and chronicles the bizarre tale of James Brown just as he’s about to get out of jail.

Some of the essays about Booth’s own life or the geography or social makeup of Tennessee and Georgia won’t appeal to the straight music fan. And it’s odd he doesn’t include anything on the Rolling Stones, especially since he spent so much time on the road and around the band (his The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, a fly-on-the-wall account of their 1969 tour, is an epochal and must-have work).

It’s fitting that this collection culminates in a profile of groundbreaking Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips – Booth even names this book after his radio show. Written as a series of scenes and vignettes, it shows more about the iconoclastic wild man and the other white Memphis male with the last name Phillips who advocated early and often for rock and roll and Elvis Presley. Though this one has never really gotten his due.

If writing about music was like writing about war, then this book shows that you’d want Stanley Booth on the ground, doing his best tuneful Edward R. Murrow.

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