SBC: Book review from today's W Post: MEMPHIS BEAT,

John Chamberlin
Tue Jun 9 11:44:00 EDT 1998

Singing the Praises of Memphis, Where the  Beat Rolls On and On

                  By David Nicholson

                  Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page D09

                  MEMPHIS BEAT

                  The Lives and Times of America's Musical Crossroads

                  By Larry Nager

                  St. Martin's. 287 pp. $23.95

                  This is an engaging little book, well written and easy to
 read, a worthwhile
                  introduction to the role that Memphis and the Mississippi
 Delta have
                  played in the development of American music.

                  For author Larry Nager, a journalist and sometime jug
band musician,
                  Memphis is "the most important city in the evolution of
American popular
                  music." It's a provocative claim. And, while Nager
doesn't absolutely
                  convince us of its truth, he comes close as he depicts
the city as the
                  wellspring of an "incredible diversity" of music --
blues, jazz, rock, country
                  and gospel.

                  Over the course of about 250 pages, Nager covers
centuries (yes,
                  centuries) of history, beginning with Hernando de Soto,
"the first European
                  to get the blues in the Mississippi Delta." (In 1541,
hostile Chickasaw
                  drove him and his party from a site near what is now
Memphis.) He ends
                  with the scene at Junior's, a juke joint in northern
Mississippi, "close
                  enough to Memphis to see those big-city lights reflected
against the hazy
                  sky," where "the blues is a living thing, walking like a

                  In between, Nager touches on race in Memphis before and
after the Civil
                  War, minstrelsy, the development of Beale Street as a
center of black life,
                  the black migration from the plantation to Memphis and
other cities farther
                  north, and Memphis's position as a crossroads of black
and white cultures.
                  He does it all in clear, unaffected prose that is
blessedly free of academic

                  Music, of course, is at the center of "Memphis Beat," and
 there are a host
                  of familiar stories. W.C. Handy hears a lone guitarist
playing at a
                  Mississippi train station in 1902 and is inspired to add
some "low-down"
                  music to his band's repertoire. A decade or so later he
publishes the
                  phenomenally successful "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis
Blues," earning
                  himself the sobriquet the Father of the Blues.

                  Some 40 years later, another musical entrepreneur -- Sam
Phillips --
                  records musicians such as Howlin' Wolf at his Memphis
                  Service, then sells the masters to small record
companies. It's at his studio
                  that Ike Turner comes in 1951 to record "Rocket 88"
(released on Chess
                  under the name Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats),
considered by many
                  the first rock-and-roll record.

                  Eventually, tired of watching others profit on the music
he's recorded,
                  Phillips forms his own label: Sun Records. Looking for
something different,
                  "a white singer with the Negro sound and the Negro feel,"
 Phillips finds him
                  in Elvis Presley. The rest of that story is too well
known to bear repeating.

                  That last points to one of the problems with "Memphis
Beat." Most of
                  what Nager tells us has been told before, and at least as
 well, in books
                  such as Stanley Booth's "Rhythm Oil: A Journey Through
the Music of the
                  American South" and Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins's
"Good Rockin'
                  Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'N' Roll."

                  Some stories, like that of jazz pianist Phineas Newborn
Jr. -- he
                  established a strong local reputation with his drummer
father and guitarist
                  brother Calvin, won acclaim in New York, then succumbed
to drugs and
                  alcohol -- richly deserve to be told again. Those who
like to read about
                  jazz, rock and the blues, as well as listen to them, will
 find themselves
                  skimming whole sections, however, because they're so

                  Then, too, what we miss here is the interweaving of fact
and interpretation
                  that characterizes masterpieces such as Peter Guralnick's
 "Lost Highway."
                  At one point, discussing the Grand Ole Opry, Nager notes
that many early
                  broadcasts featured blackface comedy and fiddle and banjo
 tunes of black
                  origin. "In its early days, the Grand Ole Opry was
essentially a Beale
                  Street show passing for white," he observes, proposing
that "the show's
                  trademark burlesque of the hillbilly lifestyle may have
come about as a way
                  to obscure the show's black origins." It's one of the
more concrete
                  demonstrations of Nager's primary thesis that "if there's
 a single reason
                  why Memphis became the most important city in the
evolution of American
                  popular music, it's the unique mix of strict social
segregation combined with
                  cultural integration."

                  A little bit more of that kind of speculation would have
made this a great
                  book, instead of just a good one.

                  David Nicholson is a Washington writer whose reviews
appear Tuesdays
                  in Style. He can be reached at

                           ? Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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