This week, rather than rant, I'd prefer to rave about the greatest guitarist you never heard. His name was Lyn Vernon. You'd be forgiven for not recognizing his name. This year marked the 40th year of his passing and no one outside of a few crusty musicians remembers who he was, yet his influence on this entity we call the Memphis Sound is so enormous that it would not be the same without him.
Vernon made his living playing big band music and jazz during the post-war era of live radio transmissions from the Peabody Skyway. For several years, he worked with veteran trombonist Louie Pierini in a jazz quartet and doubled on guitar and vibraphone with pianist Irving Evans' orchestra at the exclusive Summit Club, five nights a week, for two decades. He was in such demand as a performer that young Memphians might never have seen him if not for his morning gig. Good Morning From Memphis, on then-WREC TV, was co-hosted by Fred Cook and Gordon Lawhead, with news, conversation, and a live band featuring Vernon. Every morning, the stocky man with the short, curly hair would offer a beaming smile for the camera while his fingers flew over the neck of his guitar, creating clean, clear notes that cascaded from the TV speaker. He made it look fun and easy.
After Memphis got its first good look at Elvis in 1956, hundreds of local kids fanned out in search of guitars and someone to show them how to play. Vernon's day job was teaching guitar in a cramped attic studio of a girls' dancing school at Summer and National. After a great deal of pleading, my parents agreed to let me take guitar lessons at $9 per week. I took my first lesson from Mr. Vernon in the spring of my 11th year. The greasers who hung out next door at Geters Dollar Store, wearing blue jeans and white T-shirts with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeve, would yell at me, "Hey Elvis, play us a song," to general laughter. A delinquent with greasy hair molded into a ducktail sneered, "That gee-tar is bigger than he is," which would have been funny had it not been true.
From there, I had to negotiate my way through a sea of giggling girls in pink tutus to a ladder that led to the attic. Halfway up, mounted on the wall, was an 8x10 glossy photo of a young Larry Raspberry dressed in a fringed cowboy shirt. Climbing back down the attic ladder after my time was up, I encountered Raspberry himself, who had the lesson after me. Then, it was once again through the phalanx of ballerinas to face the greasers. One day, my ride was late, and I got the usual "Hey, Elvis" jocularity. I put the case on the sidewalk and extracted my Sears guitar. Then, daringly putting one foot on their chrome bumper and placing the guitar on my knee, I sang Elvis' version of "Mean Woman Blues." When the song ended, just like a real Elvis movie, the heckling stopped.
Another aspiring guitarist was a youngster named Sid Manker. By the mid-1950s, Manker was an advanced student of Vernon's when he co-wrote and played the hypnotic guitar line of "Raunchy," by the Bill Justis Orchestra. Released by Sam Phillips, the record became the biggest instrumental hit of its time. Encouraged by his friend Manker, Sun session guitarist Roland Janes went to Vernon and paid him for lessons in advance "to learn more about chord theory." Janes' electrifying, fuzz-drenched guitar caught fire on records by Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley. Before Janes could take his lessons, he had become one of the nation's first guitar heroes. Manker used his royalties from "Raunchy" to support his own Memphis Jazz Quartet. There, he befriended a local jazz musician named Sidney Chilton, who convinced Manker to teach his young son Alex to play the guitar.
Charlie Freeman was a skinny kid from Messick who would demonstrate what he learned from Vernon to his pal Steve Cropper. Cropper explained, "I would go to Charlie's house after school and wait for him to get home from his lesson. It worked out pretty good for both of us." Cropper added, "Later, I saved up enough money to get lessons from Lyn myself." Freeman and Cropper formed a band that became the Mar-Keys, with Freeman continuing as lead session player for Chips Moman's American Studios and Atlantic Records' Criteria Studios in Miami. Cropper, of course, became one-fourth of Booker T. & the MGs and, as a musician, songwriter, and producer, one of the pillars of the glorious Stax sound.
When garage rock emerged in the mid-1960s, many of Vernon's charges became successful musicians. Rick Ireland became so proficient that Vernon convinced him to help teach the overflow of young students before Ireland became the manager of Ardent Studios. Bob Simon and I started the Casuals, then the Radiants, while Raspberry formed the Gentrys. B.B. Cunningham Jr. recorded the smash hit "Let It All Hang Out" with his band, the Hombres. Bobby Manuel became a session guitarist for Stax, working primarily with Isaac Hayes, before producing and engineering the immortal "Disco Duck" by local deejay Rick Dees. Jack Rowell Jr. made his debut in the Debuts with Jimi Jamison and worked with Joyce Cobb before forming his current band, Triplthret. Allen Hester, founder of Natchez, claimed the lesson after Rowell. To sum up, Lyn Vernon taught the major session guitarists at Sun, Stax, and American Studios, and he was the Father of Garage Rock. Yet, despite the near reverence in which his students hold him, no one knows his name. Vernon died of a heart attack at 49, in the studio, preparing to go on morning television. He still had 41 students.
Once, during a lesson, I played a difficult song with gusto and found Mr. Vernon smiling broadly. "I can see it all now," he said. "In a few years, you're going to be riding around in the back of a limousine, I'll just be sitting there on the corner, and you won't even stop. You'll just speed by." I answered him earnestly, "No, Mr. Vernon. I'll always stop and pick you up. I promise." Perhaps, in a small way, I've finally succeeded.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies, where a version of this column also appears.