Sometimes dealing with Memphis music can seem like being trapped in a Faulkner novel, with stories of the past continually and obsessively repeated. But what's special about Sounds of Memphis, a one-hour documentary on Memphis music produced by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, isn't the stories but who is telling them.
Those stories, which most of us have probably heard before (and for those who haven't, this is a fine introduction) -- the recording of "Rocket '88" at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, the "discovery" and first real recording session of Elvis Presley, the unlikely emergence of Otis Redding, the growing partnership of songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter -- are told by the likes of Ike Turner, Scotty Moore, Sam Phillips, Steve Cropper, and Lewis Steinberg rather than by historians and writers. The personalities on display make the familiar come alive again.
Sounds of Memphis is culled from over 120 hours of videotaped interviews with more than 40 key figures in the Memphis music scene. The interviews, part of the national Grammy Living History program, have been conducted over the last two years, mostly by producer Jeff Scheftel and former Commercial Appeal music columnist Larry Nager.
This mission of historic preservation was one of the first goals that Jon Hornyak, director of the Memphis NARAS chapter and executive producer of the documentary, had when he took the NARAS post a decade ago. Hornyak says he thought it was important to preserve these oral histories before they became lost, a goal whose importance is reinforced by two key voices lost in recent months -- Rufus Thomas and gospel singer James Blackwood -- and by the film's reminder of voices long absent -- Elvis Presley, radio pioneer Dewey Phillips, drummer Al Jackson, and Otis Redding.
Scheftel, an Emmy-winning, Los Angeles-based filmmaker who used to be the national director of production for the academy and who has produced over 200 television documentaries, had worked with the Memphis chapter before, producing some video vignettes for the annual Premier Player Awards. This project was a natural for him.
"Jon has been pushing for a long time to chronicle this history," Scheftel says, "and one of my passions from the beginning has been to tell the stories of the pioneers of the recording industry."
When Scheftel came aboard he worked with NARAS CEO Michael Greene to make a deal between the academy and WKNO to produce and air the film -- and took a crash course in Memphis music. "I thought I was well-versed on the subject," Scheftel says, "then I started digging into it and realized that I knew nothing."
Scheftel took 13 trips to Memphis over the course of a year working on the film, with most interviews conducted in the city (B.B. King and Jerry Wexler are the only exceptions). The film contains (by this reporter's count) interviews with 26 subjects, with Scheftel citing Stax founders Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart as subjects he wishes he could have gotten but didn't.
Scheftel mixes the interview footage with period recordings, photographs, and films from sources such as photographer Ernest Withers and the archives of the Center for Southern Folklore. The film breaks into three parts: the atmosphere on Beale Street during the '40s and early '50s, Sun, and Stax. This time frame is deliberately incomplete, bypassing, according to Scheftel, the early days of Beale because, as an oral-history project, there was no opportunity to tell that story and stopping short of the rise of Hi and the later years of Stax due to the documentary's one-hour limit.
Sounds of Memphis is filled with wonderful moments. The opening credits begin with the voice of Jim Dickinson contending that "Memphis celebrates the sanctity of the individual spirits," then the film gives us some of those individual spirits to appreciate. Rufus Thomas gets the first proper word in, as he should, stating, "Memphis was a haven for the black man. If you were black for one Saturday night on Beale Street, you never would want to be white no more." But some of the most engaging voices are those many in the audience will be unfamiliar with: original Stax bassist Lewis Steinberg and rockabilly artist Paul Burlison in particular.
The film is also filled with deft visual touches. For example, Scheftel introduces new interview subjects by subtly fading from vintage still photographs of each speaker to them speaking on video. And his incorporation of the original television commercial for the Rocket '88 automobile into Ike Turner and Sam Phillips' discussion of the song is a hoot.
Only at the end does Sounds of Memphis falter, when, reaching for a way to sum up the "magic" of Memphis music, it lapses into promotional hyperbole -- Sam Phillips' effusive "There's something in the air in Memphis that brings you to your knees" and Jim Dickinson's dubious "Elvis Presley couldn't have happened anywhere else on earth. He would have been arrested most places."
Sounds of Memphis will be shown on WKNO Channel 10 at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 19th, but Scheftel and Hornyak are both hoping for more exposure for the project. Scheftel originally envisioned a three-to-six-part series and hopes this pilot project will lead to a larger project. Scheftel also says he has been exploring broadcast options elsewhere, mentioning PBS, BBC, and TNT as possible outlets for the film. Hornyak is hoping to incorporate the film into a proposed semester-long course on Memphis music in Memphis city and county schools.