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Author Robert Gordon uncovers the raw blues behind Memphis’ musical legacy

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In his new book “Memphis Rent Party” Gordon writes about Sam Phillips’ crazed Letterman appearance to encounters with impoverished bluesmen in rural juke-joints.

Nashville and Memphis are only about 200 miles apart, yet the two Tennessee cities couldn’t be more different — especially when it comes to music.

In the '50s and '60s, Nashville churned out smooth, commercial-oriented country hits while Memphis embraced an edgier sound. Think Sun Records, Sam Phillips’s label which introduced Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and Stax Records with its many soul influencers like Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas.

Memphis-based author and filmmaker Robert Gordon captures the grit of his hometown in his new book “Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown," from Sam Phillips’ crazed appearance on David Letterman’s show to encounters with impoverished bluesmen in rural juke-joints.

Interview Highlights:

On seeing Furry Lewis open for the Rolling Stones:

I heard this craggy voice and this sound of a guy on an acoustic guitar and I turned around and I was like, what is that? I was totally smitten by Furry Lewis' performance. I think I knew at that point that the blues were from Memphis — that we were the 'home of the blues.' But I didn't realize until then that the old cats were still alive.

Memphis-based guitarist and singer, Furry Lewis, preserved a wide range of traditional blues styles.
Axel Küstner
Memphis-based guitarist and singer, Furry Lewis, preserved a wide range of traditional blues styles.

On visiting Lewis' place and paying for interviews:

Furry's place was so impoverished. I was from solidly middle class tending toward upper-middle class. In terms of a career, what I realized happened there was, I connected the blues with social circumstance. 

I realized early on that paying with publicity was not paying. Paying with publicity was thieving. I have had hard arguments with people about this, but I believe in paying for interviews. These guys give me their time. I'm creating an article that I'm getting paid for and they've got heating bills.

On Sam Phillips' musical influence and his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman:

Sam's credo was, give me something different. Someone asked him early on, why are you setting up in Memphis? Why don't you go to Nashville where there's much more music industry? Sam said, Nashville is a follower's mentality. 

Sam Phillips gets an invitation to appear on David Letterman. I don't think Sam knew anything about him, but I think he was probably warned that this guy is kind of a jokester. Sam's thing was to be different. When he produced records he didn't want it to be something you were familiar with. He wanted to take you somewhere. If you watch his appearance on Letterman, there's no other guest like that. David is constantly trying to get the rains back, but Sam's got total control and David is completely uncomfortable. And it's important that Sam is producing Dave, not Dave hosting Sam.

On the Memphis blues band, The Fieldstones, and their performance venue:

They had a home in a club called Green's Lounge. It was a double shotgun, cinderblock building. There was a bar on one side and seating on the other. It was just so small and intimate. So smokey. People in California today would freak out walking into that place. They were a great band because they ruled the dance floor. That was a place you could go dance from the first song on the first set to the last song on the last set. The band had recorded an album at one point for the University of Memphis' record label called High Water. One day they said, we have a second record in the can. I was like, oh, excellent! Can't wait! Turned out it was 20 years before it came out.

Memphis Rent Party

"Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown" is available now.

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