Maybe you knew or maybe you've heard tell of the Lauderdales, one of Memphis' oldest, finest families. Or maybe you didn't or maybe you haven't, and if so either way the story goes this way:
First, a fortune was built on jute factories in Indonesia, millinery mills in Nova Scotia, and linotype foundries in Itta Bena, in addition to a fleet of steamships and dirigibles to go with a chain of short-lived sno-cone parlors. Then what? Times changed or maybe the times simply lost interest. The Lauderdales fell on hard times. Very hard. Mama and Papa Lauderdale took off with the jewelry, the silver, and the car for somewhere (parts unknown? the great hereafter?). Uncle Lance got struck by lightning. And poor little unrich Vance, age 27, got stuck with an empty mansion and a pile of unpaid bills.
Then, times changed again. It was back in 1991, when the newspaper you're now reading was brand-new and it stepped in with an offer Vance couldn't refuse: The Lord and readership willing, the paper would pay him -- but for what? A weekly thousand words or so on the odd questions curious Flyer readers had about their old hometown. (Or was it curious questions from odd readers?) You know, the "lost" Memphis that Memphians grew up with, the city's hidden history readers once knew or heard tell of: the beaten signs and boarded storefronts they'd passed a million times and couldn't make heads or tails of. Faded postcards and vintage photos they'd fished out of a drawer. An out-of-the-way municipal marker here, a mysterious gravesite there. Former nightspots; shuttered hamburger joints. Weird monuments; weirder stories. People, places, things. Stuff. And in the case of a lot of it, the exact whereabouts: unknown. The explanation: inexplicable. Found: the original WHBQties. Lost: the Tropical Freeze drive-in at Poplar and White Station.
Well, that Ask Vance column (one part native intelligence, one part hard research, one part harder legwork, two parts pure invention or beside-the-point but hilarious preamble to some honest answers) proved very successful. So successful, in fact, that The Memphis Flyer's sister publication, Memphis magazine, in 1995 made Vance a counteroffer he couldn't refuse: that publication's back pages (plus pay).
Then, times changed -- again. Now Vance is in that magazine's front pages. And now he's booked, under cover, in Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (for $19.95), a compilation of columns brought to you by Bluff City Books, a publishing startup from Contemporary Media Inc., parent company of The Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine. The excellent editing credit for the book goes to Memphis and Flyer senior editor Michael Finger, who knows Vance like the back of his hand. (Or did he once give Vance the back of his hand? Nobody knows.) The handsome layout credit goes to Memphis magazine art director Murry Keith. But one unanswered item you'll search in vain to find. I quote:
Dear Vance: A 'Qtie I think who went on to be crowned Mrs. America I believe had a date in junior high with a friend of mine I'm pretty sure once. This was in 1960-something. Who is she and where is he? Am I odd, curious, both? You should know. -- L.G., Memphis.
Vance Lauderdale will be signing Ask Vance at Burke's Book Store (1719 Poplar Avenue) on Thursday, April 24th, from 5 to 7 p.m. Call the store at 278-7484 to reserve copies. You can also order Ask Vance from the Memphis magazine circulation department at 901-575-9470.
More publishing news just in and also on the homefront: This month, Sanctuary Publishing in England has brought out Waking Up in Memphis: Discovering the Heartland of Blues and Rock 'N' Roll ($18.95) by Andria Lisle (Local Beat columnist in the newspaper you're now reading) and co-author Mike Evans on what made and makes Memphis music great. Lisle's legwork and love are written all over it -- whether it's an evening out at Wild Bill's (where she figures she's put in a good 1,000 hours), rubbing shoulders with the late Othar Turner at his annual goat barbecue in north Mississippi, sampling the menu at the Big S Grill with R&B legend Rosco Gordon, getting saved under the direction of Rev. Al Green at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, hanging out with "East Memphis's Persian Princess" and classical guitarist Lily Afshar, or paying tribute to Jim Dickinson, who's paved the way for sons Luther and Cody and the new Memphis sound.
"During the decade and a half I've lived [in Memphis]," Lisle writes near the close of her and Evans' book, "the city has taken on a mythic quality, and in more recent years I have seen reality and fiction combine into a new fabric as strong as the old tapestries of Sun and Stax."
Andria Lisle, participant observer to much of this city's music scene, has woven a fabric of her own.