There will be — indeed, there already have been — major statesmen, captains of industry, stars of stage and screen, inventors, wizards, and saints who come and go in this world without leaving the kind of imprint on their environment and on humankind that Irvin Salky did.
- Irvin Salky
The diminutive 75-year-old genie — a Memphian first, last, and always — did not invent the art of friendship, nor distill the essence of cool, nor perfect the nature of service, but he mastered all these arts and did as much as any individual person could to help his often uncertain native city find its heart and discern those of its attributes that could appeal to, fascinate, and even ennoble the rest of the world. In 1977, Salky both founded and funded the Beale Street Music Festival, for decades now a celebration of the city's own great musical history, an exposition of state-of-the-art musical forms from all over, a model for other cities, and, not least, a grand good time, a great party.
Irv Salky served his community as a resident conscience of sorts, though he was never pompous or pious or didactic about it. In the mid-1960s, he was an early member of the city's first fully integrated law firm — Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, Willis and Caldwell — which pursued civil rights causes and civil liberties issues that other firms were loath to touch. Cases in point included defending the Invaders, a black militant group that some blamed for street violence during the fateful sanitation strike of 1968, and Georgina Spelvin, the star of the sexually explicit 1973 film, The Devil in Miss Jones.
Salky's spirit and energy belied his undersized and increasingly frail physique. He lost part of a lung years ago because of what may have been a medical misdiagnosis and later would lose the rest of that lung to cancer. As with the human rights matters that moved him, he fought his health issues hard in these last several weeks, but the combined effects of a stroke and a bout of pneumonia finally proved too much for him.
Salky's circle of friends was extensive, including movie stars, musicians, and major politicians — none closer than 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, for whom Salky, his elder by several years, was something of a beacon.
"A great friend and mentor to me and many, many others," said Cohen in a Facebook post Thursday that, for many of us, was our first news about Irv's passing. Cohen would have much to say about his friend then and in the days after that, including an eloquent and heartfelt eulogy before a large and diverse crowd on the occasion of Salky's funeral Monday at Baron Hirsch Cemetery.
But it is hard to improve on these words from the congressman's Thursday night Facebook post: "Irvin was law, civil rights, music, jazz, sports, cool hats, sartorial style, classic aged cars, and Midtown. He was a Navy vet, a Vandy law and Memphis State grad, the guardian and manager of Phineas Newborn, Furry Lewis, and Memphis Slim among others, the founder of the Beale Street Music Festival, and the superb lawyer for so many. He loved Memphis, his partners at the Russell Sugarmon law firm, and really everyone he came in contact with. No more friendly or kind a person has Memphis known."