Friday, May 22, 2009
Roots and the Radio: Dewey Phillips in Memphis
About three weeks ago I posted on the move toward integration of black and white performers in the field of music during the 1950's. One facet of this convergence that wasn't discussed was the role of radio in creating the growing audiences who were listening and learning to appreciate the creative efforts of R&B and country musicians alike. Integration of radio formats was catching on in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the post war U.S., and it was in the South that this movement was most pronounced.
As mentioned previously, Sam Phillips worked as a disc jockey in Muscle Shoals before moving to Memphis. By 1950, Memphis had it's own DJ named Dewey Phillips who was actively integrating the airways on his nightly on his show "Red Hot and Blue" on WHBQ a.m. radio. Phillips is primarily known for playing "That's All Right Mama" and for the subsequent interview of Elvis in 1954 that divulged his "white identity." Yet his role as a DJ who showcased musicians black and white was instrumental in integrating musical tastes and promoting wider acceptance of black musicians, allowing in turn rockabilly and rock n' roll to emerge as national trends. By 1954, Dewey's shows were hugely popular throughout the mid South among white and black audiences alike.
On any given night in 1952, a Dewey Phillips play-list may have looked something like this:
Louis Jordan: "Blue Light Boogie" or "Let the Good Times Roll"
Muddy Waters: "Rollin Stone"
Hank Williams: "Hey Good Lookin"
Hank Snow: "I'm Movin' On
Wynonie Harris "Good Rockin Tonight"
Elmore James: "Dust My Broom"
The Soul Stirrers "Jesus Gave Me Water" - with Sam Cooke
Larry Darnell: "What More Do You Want"
Hank Thompson: "The Wild Side of Life"
Jackie Brenston "Rocket 88"
Although the eclectic range of material here is but a guess as to the formatting choices made by Phillips, from what I have read it is a pretty accurate reflection of what he was up to. What is fascinating is that playing songs like this back to back seemed to broaden the musical tastes and affinities of all listeners as well as stimulate the incorporation of different styles within song, a fundamental part of early rock n' roll and rockabilly. In many ways, Dewey Phillips being fired by WHBQ in 1958 for refusing to go along with the station's new "top 40" format is indicative of the move toward a more standardized, corporate control of popular music which is largely complete by the the end of the decade.