The Memphis Music Hall of Fame will induct its latest class at a ceremony Thursday, November 7th, at the Gibson Showcase Lounge.
This year's nominees include some glaring omissions from last year's inaugural class: Johnny Cash and Carla Thomas. There are some well-reasoned picks who were recently lost to us: Roland Janes and Sid Selvidge. There's a nod to the depth of the Stax roster with the Bar-Kays, David Porter, and Albert King. There's a nod to Sun with Knox Phillips and to Elvis Presley's gospel roots with the Blackwood Brothers. But there are four lesser-known inductees we will consider here. While they may not be as well known as the others, they left their mark on the sound of this city.
Kay Starr may not ring the memory bell like this year's other nominees, but Starr glowed brightly over the middle 20th century. Her work spanned several decades and included hits both on her own and with established greats.
The native Oklahoman was gigging before age 10, which helped her family during the Depression. Her dad was relocated to Memphis, where she took her talent to local radio station WMPS. The staffers at the station noticed her name was misspelled in her fan mail and added the second "R." So, while she's not a native Memphian, our civic-wide inability to spell "star" left a permanent mark on her nascent career. At 15, she took up with bandleader Joe Venuti and landed a job singing at the Peabody. She did a brief stint with Glenn Miller in 1939. Later, she joined a female-heavy roster at Capitol and got lost in the mix.
In 1950, Starr heard a version of Pee Wee King's fiddle tune Bonaparte's Retreat. She was so taken with it that she took it straight to Roy Acuff in Nashville. Acuff, the multigenerational master of the music-publishing game in Nashville, wrote lyrics for the song, which sold close to a million copies. Starr's run through the 1950s netted more than 10 songs in the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100 chart with "Wheel of Fortune" and "Rock and Roll Waltz" hitting #1.
The rise of rock-and-roll music eclipsed her notoriety in the public's mind. But Billie Holiday's biographer quotes the jazz great saying that Kay Starr was the "only white woman who could sing the blues."
Rev. Herbert Brewster
For the 57 years leading up to 1987, Rev. W. Herbert Brewster was the pastor of East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church. But through his compositions and his radio broadcasts, he reached a wide audience. Brewster was the first artist to sell a million copies of a gospel record with both "Surely God Is Able" and with "Move On Up a Little Higher," Mahalia Jackson's first hit. His works are staples of the gospel choir repertoire and were recorded by such masters as the Soul Stirrers, Queen C. Anderson, and Marion Williams.
Brewster is also known for his musical dramas. He wrote more than 15 plays and was noted by the Smithsonian Institution, which produced his Sowing in Tears, Reaping in Joy in 1982.
There's lots of ink on Sam Phillips and Jim Stewart and their intrepid journey into African-American culture and the revolutions in popular music that followed. But it has to be said that Brewster, perhaps more than anyone, paved the way for that cross-pollination of American music. Sam Phillips was a regular listener to Brewster's broadcasts. Elvis Presley was so enamored of the sermons and sounds he heard on his radio that he attended services at Trigg.
Phineas Newborn Jr.
The Newborn name is synonymous with jazz in Memphis. Phineas Sr. was a musician and his sons Phineas Jr. and Calvin would cement the surname into the annals of Memphis music greatness.
Two generations of Newborns were members of what may be the most important band in Memphis music history. Before the MGs or the Tennessee Two, there was the band at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis. Ask any Stax luminary where it all started. The answer is over the river. The house band included Phineas Sr. on drums, saxophonist Ben Branch, Tuff Green on bass, and a trumpeter named Willie Mitchell.
Jim Dickinson and anyone else alive at the time not only heaps praise on the band that was out of Boss Crump's reach, they go so far as to credit this band with the Memphis sound: the smaller horn section, the stompy, surly grooves, and the shout all come from West Memphis. At a time when the culture of Memphis was supposedly not ready for Elvis, plenty of Memphians crossed the bridge to have a drink and dance their crew cuts off.
Phineas Jr.'s influence stretched farther than East Parkway, though. He played with Charles Mingus and Lionel Hampton. He was on B.B. King's first-ever recording and his first recording on Sun.
Newborn struggled with health problems and died in 1989. His financial difficulties spurred the creation of the Jazz Foundation of America, which still provides musicians with career support as well as emergency funds.
The Memphis Jug Band
The Memphis Jug Band should be honored for lots of small reasons: for adding the kazoo to the jug-band sound or for having a song called "Insane Crazy Blues." But the big deal is their influence on this community's musical culture.
The band started in 1926 under the leadership of Will Shade, a romantic rival to Furry Lewis. They were the subject of the first commercial recordings to be produced in Memphis, eventually cutting for Victor, Champion-Gennet, and Okeh labels. The band was rooted in the past and also more forward-looking than you might think. Musicologists have described the instrumentation of jugs, banjo, and fiddle as closely tuned to the African string traditions. The band's repertoire reflected the onset of jazz as the musical language of the 20th century.
They were a favorite of Boss Crump and appeared with him in a photo in Life magazine in 1941. In the 1950s, they were documented as part of the field-recording movement that was the vanguard of the nascent folk explosion.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame 2013 Induction Ceremony, Thursday, November 7th, at the Gibson Showcase Lounge. Valet parking will be available. Reserved seating is $50 per person; tickets for premium seating and limited reserved table seating are $100 per person. Tickets are available by calling 205-2536 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.