Blue Notes

The Sweet Soul (and Rock...and Gospel...) of Memphis

In 1978, soul superstar the Rev. Al Green — here at his Memphis Full Gospel Tabernacle Church — had (temporarily) given up secular music.
In 1978, soul superstar the Rev. Al Green — here at his Memphis Full Gospel Tabernacle Church — had (temporarily) given up secular music. Photo by Rick Ivy/Courtesy of ECW Press
Memphis Mayhem: A Story of the Music That Shook the World
By David A. Less
232 pp.
ECW Press

While the first part of its title is more reminiscent of a true crime book, it’s actually a lightning-quick, fast-paced, tour through a city that at one time in the late ‘60s was the third most active place for recording in the entire United States. And a place whose musical history stretches back decades before Elvis, when in 1909 musician/bandleader W.C. Handy wrote a little ditty called “The Memphis Blues,” following it up years later with “Beale Street Blues” – two of the most popular tunes of the early 20th century, and namechecking the Bluff City.

click to enlarge
Book cover by ECW Press
Memphis is arguably the most music rich and historically musically diverse city in America. Blues, R&B, gospel, country, funk, rockabilly, and rock all had thriving scenes of discovery here. And in the case of older bluesman like Furry Lewis and Bukka White, “rediscovery” in the early ‘60s.

This is a book that really benefits from the author’s invisible, but very much felt, presence. David A. Less is a third-generation Memphian who has had bylines in Rolling Stone, Down Beat, and Blues Revue. He has also worked on documentation projects for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Gibson Guitar Foundation.

Many of the musician interviews excerpted here are ones he personally conducted for those projects, with many two decades or more old. Good to have, as their subjects have since passed away. Less’ easy-gong narration style is very conversational, and his passion for the topic jumps off every page.

And while later chapters touch on Memphis’ contributions to punk and rap as well as its place of music tourism today, clearly the meat of the book is on artists and records labels of the ‘50s and ‘60s – Sun, Stax, Hi, and American. All the “big names” of Memphis music are duly trotted out (Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Al Green, Ann Peebles, Sam Phillips, B.B. King, Steve Cropper), sometimes with Less’ firsthand interactions. But it's in the nooks and crannies where the most interesting people like Harmonica Frank, Dub Jenkins, Jimmy Lunceford, Jim Dickinson, and Phineas Newborn, Jr. live.

Memphis Mayhem is about much more than music, as Less shows how area high schools, churches, nightclubs, record stores, and radio stations were crucial to the city’s musical development and promotion. Likewise, he has much to say about racism, racial identity, and race mingling – both in music and Memphis society – and what impact that had from the days of rampant Jim Crow right up to 2020’s Black Lives Matter.

With its short, snippet-like presentation, Less is up front when he says that this book is neither a comprehensive or definitive chronicling of Memphis music history. That’s more of the bag of writers like Robert Gordon, Stanley Booth, and Peter Guralnick (the last a collaborator/friend of Less who pens the intro). Think of them as hip college professors and lecturers—while Less is a friendly and garrulous tour guide with a story for every occasion.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero