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THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DAVID GEST TO TOWN

THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DAVID GEST TO TOWN

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A VINTAGE CLIP

For better or worse, blame John King for bringing Memphis’ newest impresario, David Gest, to town. “I think that’s wonderful!” King laughs when I tell him that he is responsible for Gest coming to Memphis for the first time in May, 1973, for the Rock Writer’s Convention. King was the marketing director for Ardent Records at the time and organized an incredibly successful media weekend in Memphis that brought more than one hundred writers to town to sample the music of Big Star, Larry Raspberry, Don Nix, Skin Alley, Hot Dog, and Furry Lewis. Not only did King help to create this fall’s biggest social story and controversy, but King’s convention also broke Big Star for years to come in the hip eyes and ears of the musical cognescenti. “At the time everybody at Ardent was disheartened, but the press always loved Big Star,” he recently said.

Some of the biggest names in music journalism in the ‘70s, ‘80s, & ‘90s attended the convention including Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Stanley Booth, Cameron Crowe, Robot Hull (later of the Memphis Goons), Jon Tiven, Chet Flippo, Greg Shaw (founder of Bomp! and Bomp Records), Nick Tosches, Bud Scopa, and of course, David Gest (“I don’t remember who he wrote for!”). King remembers fondly: “Cameron Crowe was really young. He bugged the shit out of me to get him down here. He was persistent and bright.” (Crowe returned to Memphis this summer for a couple of days to film his next rock ‘n roll road movie, Elizabethtown, with Allison Munn and Lord of the Ring‘s Orlando Bloom).

The other events planned for the writers during the convention included a BBQ feast in Overton Park, a riverboat cruise with Furry Lewis performing (“I stuck my hand out to shake his hand and he turned his palm over to get paid!”), a Schlitz brewery tour, a tour of Stax studios, a premiere of the Bob Dylan Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid film, many hospitality suites where the drinks flowed as well as conferences for the writers and publishers during the day, and of course, the Big Star performance at Lafayette’s Corner that sealed the band’s cult status for the past thirty years. Asked if he thought his convention helped to create the legend of Big Star, the self-deprecating King replied, “It might haveÉalong with our tremendous mailing list. Our press department at Ardent kicked ass. We had all the FM stations with the jock’s home mailing addresses. I loved those guys and the college radio guys too. The worst review we got was, ‘Rock Writers Convene and Find Each Other Absurd.’”

The Rock Writer’s Convention was just one of many musical feathers in the cap of King, who has had a love affair with radio and the record business since he was a young boy growing up listening to WLAC and WDIA. “Lucille, our housekeeper, would take me downtown, and she liked Home of the Blues. So we’d go there and Reuben Cherry had nickels and quarters in the wood on the counter, and I was always trying to dig them out! Lucille would buy 78s of Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. We used to send telegrams in to Dewey Phillips (You could charge them to your telephone). Dewey used to get hundreds of telegrams so you had to request something he liked too, or you weren’t going to hear it!” Listening to King talk about growing up in Memphis takes one back to the halcyon days of when Memphis music ruled the industry.

In 1961 the fifteen-year old King, John Fry, and Fred Smith (future founder of Federal Express) formed Ardent Records and Fry even issued stock! “It was so exciting at the time. You had Sun, Rita, Anita, Fernwood, Home of the BluesÉ At that time you could get played (on radio)Ñnot just in Memphis. I always felt like I was part of these labels.” Early records released on Ardent included the frat rock of the Ole Miss Downbeats. Asked if he thought these early Memphis labels were serious competition for Ardent, he scoffed, “I was sent off to military school, and I was always promoting the Ole Miss Downbeats in a military school uniform. I think the program directors got a kick out of it!”

Later in the ‘60s King joined the Air Force and used his trading skills to negotiate the equipment he needed to produce his radio tip sheets. “The Colonel and Sgt. Major liked me, and I got an IBM Selectric and a Gestetner mimeograph machine that I traded with the Navy for excess copper that we had.” The Gideon B. Matthews Radio Report was born! Based on the Gavin Radio Report, it began as a 2-sider and then expanded later. King took his mailing list he built up while in the military and moved back to Memphis, working out of the Ardent location on National where John Fry provided him with office space. This location allowed him to continue his radio tip sheet work, promoting Sid Selvidge and other Memphis artists. By promoting Memphis artists without creating a conflict of interest, he said, “You had to walk a fine line.” A couple of years later, after a stint in the family business, he became Ardent Records head of marketing and came up with the Rock Writer’s Convention brainstorm. It was at this time that King’s greatest moment in the music business occurred: “I was at WNEW in New York and they played the Big Star album #1 Record. 2 or 3 cuts! They were the big album station in New York City!”

Since then King has continued to review records for various trade publications and collected a prodigious amount of records, music books, and sound effects. He has one of the most incredible collections of Memphis music anywhere, including over 25,000 45s, many of which are rare one-off Memphis labels. What does a fifty-year fan of radio do with such a vast collection? Start a radio station, of course! King has created an internet radio station called Tiger Radio (www.tigeradio.com), where he produces his own original radio shows as a tribute to the great radio he heard growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. So far he has created a couple of different programs which include appropriate news stories of the day from February, 1964, and January, 1966. “It’s evolving and will evolve to a tip of the hat to ‘50’s and ‘60s radio, which I have great respect for. I am trying to recreate the jingles and what a show of the time would sound like,” King enthusiastically raves. Memphis radio personality Jack Parnell helps King with voiceovers. Would that Memphis radio today had the personality, knowledge, and experience that King puts into his shows. Check it out now, hepcats!

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Other idle thoughts: Speaking ofÉLiza Minnelli was also in Memphis in the early 1970s, recording at the short-lived Fame Studios on Bellevue. Coincidence? I think not!...I’d be remiss to do a column on Memphis radio this week without mentioning our condolences for one of Memphis’ and WDIA’s all-time radio greats, A.C. “Moohah” Williams, who I am sorry to hear passed away this week. Williams was a great radio personality and mentor for the Teen Town Singers.

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