Can Dewey Phillips' broadcast booth be saved?
The sound booth on the mezzanine level of the Hotel Chisca, where WHBQ's rebellious "Red Hot & Blue" disc jockey first played Elvis Presley's "That's All Right," introduced Presley to Memphis, and conducted the world's first rock-and-roll interview, is shockingly well preserved. The original seaweed wallpaper still clings to the wall, and vintage acoustic tiles surround the window where, according to those who knew him, Daddy-O Dewey was "hard on the equipment."
The process of converting the long-abandoned and nearly century-old Chisca into apartments will begin May 7th, and, although the building will be preserved, the booth where Presley's live and recorded voice first went out over the air waves is in danger of being demolished.
Enter Mike McCarthy, the artist and filmmaker turned preservationist, and music promoter Rachel Hurley, who are partnering with PledgeMusic.com on "Red Hot & Rescue" — a project to raise funds to preserve and store the booth. Ideally, it would eventually be reinstalled on the lower level of the Chisca or placed in a museum.
"You would think that monetizing Elvis would be a no-brainer," says McCarthy, a grizzled veteran of the Save Libertyland campaign, sitting in his attic office, surrounded by storyboards and decades of Memphis rock-and-roll memorabilia. With Dewey-esque enthusiasm, he recounts the events of July 8, 1954, explaining how Phillips played an acetate of "That's All Right" and the WHBQ switchboard instantly lit up with requests for him to play it again. As the calls poured in, Phillips called Gladys and Vernon Presley and asked them to get their son, who'd gone to the Suzore Theater to hide out while the song was being played, and bring him down to the studio to say hello to his brand-new fans.
"Of course, that's all lost," McCarthy says. "Like so many great moments in rock-and-roll, it's just a memory."
To help save Phillips' broadcast booth, McCarthy called on Hurley, who had successfully worked with PledgeMusic.com to crowd-fund recording projects. When she heard how quickly the funds had to be raised, she recommended PledgeMusic, an online crowd-funding site similar to Kickstarter.
"You have to pitch your idea to Kickstarter and wait for them to get back to you," Hurley explains. "I'd used PledgeMusic to raise money for Star & Micey to record, and I knew I could make this happen quickly."
After a week online, "Red Hot & Rescue" has raised only $1,300, but McCarthy and Hurley are hopeful that the campaign will catch on. PledgeMusic encouraged donor incentives, and "Red Hot & Rescue" will soon be offering poster art by McCarthy, art depicting Elvis and Dewey by Lamar Sorrento, and original acoustic tiles from WHBQ autographed by disc jockey and Elvis friend George Klein.
Initial estimates for relocating the Dewey booth topped $250,000. The goals of "Red Hot & Rescue" are more modest. "We need to focus on what we can actually do," says Hurley, who says the goal is to simply salvage and store the artifacts then determine how they might fit back into the Chisca and how the exhibit might be financed.
"The most important thing is that we're preserving the building," says developer Terry Lynch, of Main Street Partners LLC. "We almost lost it. And the last thing downtown Memphis needs is one more surface parking lot."
Lynch describes the rehab project, which would allow for commercial space on the ground floor, as being transformational:
"It's the key to connecting the entertainment district, the central business district, and South Main. The Chisca is right at the center of all of those things and the way to pull the pieces together."
Although saving Phillips' studio is a private effort not associated with the rehab, Lynch has agreed to donate the acoustic tiles as giveaways to donors.
"We've identified two potential locations where we could relocate or provide space for relocation of the studio," Lynch says. The best, he says, is on the side of the building fronting on Main, where it could be easily viewed by pedestrians.
To learn more about the project or donate, visit pledgemusic.com/projects/redhotandrescue.