The post Second World War Memphis Mix was cooked up in the Memphis recording studios of Sun Records, and later, Stax Records, and delivered to a listening world that had tasted nothing like it.
All of Sun’s well-known recording artists were deeply influenced by black music, and mixed with black musicians. (see Elvis in Photography). Rockabilly redneck Charlie Feathers hung out with blues man Junior Kimbrough.
Both black and white grew up in a segregated world in Memphis in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the blacks on the receiving end of the segregation. But usually the food they favoured knew no racial boundary.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, on April 4, 1968, polarisation took place, or was enforced, between musicians who had worked together, whether black or white. The polarisation happened at Stax Records where threats were indirectly made towards the white half of Booker T and The MGs: Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. Though not from Memphis or Tennesee, the times were caught in Lousianna born Tony Joe White’s song Willie and Laura Mae Jones. Time did heal, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich were photographed at their pianos, either side of B.B.King at a concert at the Holiday Inn in Rivermont, Tennessee in the 198os
The Junior League of Memphis Cook Book, 1952 edition that Le Patron came across is a well used copy. The dedication in the copy was to Shirley, in June 1954.
June, 1954. This was just a month away from truck driver Elvis Presley being paired up with The Starlight Wranglers guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black by Sam Phillips, who was looking for a new pop sound. It is reported that Bill and Scotty weren’t too impressed with the vocal quality of the young Elvis. There were some rehearsals, and then they went into the Sun Studios on 5 July to try some songs out. Singing country numbers at the usual slow tempo didn’t impress anyone too much. So they all took a break. The famous break. Elvis seemingly started “fooling around” in the studio with an Arthur Crudup blues number That’s Alright Mama. Sam’s commercially tuned ears twitched, and he got Scotty and Bill to pick up their instruments and follow what Elvis was doing, whilst he wound the tape back. Things were suddenly falling into place. They gave some other material the same treatment, including taking the country standard Blue Moon of Kentucky out for a scorching hot rod ride. And history – oh boy, what history – was made.
We know that Elvis particularly liked a peanut butter and banana sandwich, with or without some bacon. He also liked pork chops, cheeseburgers, mashed potatoes and fried chicken. He also liked grape jelly and milkshakes. His liking for fried chicken echoed the Memphis and State of Tennessee liking for the dish. Shirley gives the Fried Chicken recipe three ticks, her highest accolade.
Maybe as a starter she’d serve another three ticks recipe:
To finish the meal off she could serve another of her three ticks favourites: Southern Pecan Pie.
She didn’t tick Gumbo or Ribs, but here they are anyway.
Barbecue cooked meat is a Memphis favourite, with several highly rated restaurants specialising in the cuisine. In fact Memphis also hosts the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest every May. As the Wikipedia entry on Memphis highlights, Memphis barbecue is distinct by the sole use of pork, rather than beef, with a focus too on shoulder and rib cuts.
Elvis did not wax lyrical in the Sun or RCA recording studios about his peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but he did sing about a Southern staple, polk salad, in Polk Salad Annie, written by the previously mentioned above Tony Joe White.
When Le Patron came across the Junior League of Memphis 1952 Cook Book he searched hopefully through the list of recipe contributors:
No. No Mrs Vernon Presley, no Mrs Bill Black or Mrs Scotty (Winfield Scott) Moore. There are Phillips, yes, but no Mrs Sam Phillips, and there is a Kimbrough, but it is doubtful if the Junior League of Memphis in 1952 had many, if any, ladies from the black community. There is no Mrs Jim (or James) Stewart – Jim Stewart, founder of Stax records. Never mind.
The Junior League is still very much in business and A Sterling Cookbook: the Best of the Junior League of Memphis is a collection from fifty years of their Cook Books. Details of the book and current activities of the Junior League are available Here
Where is the King? Photo books celebrating 150 years of the Art of Photography, published around the time that the Twentieth Century was on the way out, were noticeably lacking one photo – that of Elvis.
These books had photos of not quite a King – Edward 8th – always taken with his American wife. (The photographer Phillipe Halsman had them jumping – his trademark shot – in their stockinged feet). Then there was the not-quite-an-artist Andy Warhol who repeated his 15 minutes of ‘fame’, every fifteen minutes, for 15 years, usually with a photographer on hand.
But Elvis? Yes, there were nods to popular culture – Marilyn Monroe, for instance shot by Eve Arnold on the set of The Misfits. But Elvis? True, his manager ‘Colonel’ Parker tightened the reigns on unofficial exposure to Elvis by autumn 1956, including photographic exposure, but that can’t be the only explanation.
A New Star in the Galaxy
By the time RCA had released his first single with them in early 1956 ( having been signed from Sam Phillip’s Memphis Sun label) the King had not so much as arrived, as exploded in the North American white popular culture cosmos. White audiences had never seen sexual gyrations like it, let alone heard a style of music that blended country and rhythm and blues or was pure rhythm and blues, such as Hound Dog (released shortly before the Independence Day Memphis show, above).
Elvis’s incendiary sexuality caused kittens for the nationwide Steve Allen TV show and its sponsers. To neuter him for the white TV audience Elvis had to perform in a suit and and tails, with a basset hound wearing a top hat on a pedestal, as Elvis sang Hound Dog. The show had a higher rating than Ed Sullivan’s, who allegedly had said he would never have Elvis on his show. After being knocked off the Number One perch by Allen (and Elvis), he relented.
Two days later Elvis was back home in Memphis. When Elvis took the stage on July 4, 1956 at the Independence Day show at the Memphis Russwood Stadium he told the 14,000 people at the show: “I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is tonight”. And he let rip.
The White Supremecists were incensed at his “Nigger music” (in Alabama they went on TV to protest at everything Elvis stood for, using the above phrase). In Florida a Judge banned Elvis from gyrating whilst in venues within the jurisdiction of the Judge.
The White Supremicists were right to be alarmed.
Two years after his death, the book Elvis ’56: In the Beginning was first published. It was packed with intimate photographs of Elvis taken by freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer, with a commentary by him to the photographs, and the circumstances in which they were taken.
Alfred had been contacted by the Pop Division of RCA records in March 1956 to take some shots of Elvis. Liking what they saw from the first batch he was contracted to continue shadowing Elvis (with a Nikon S-2 camera) through to the July 4 concert in Memphis. In his forward Alfred reckons that by the time that Elvis appeared on of the Ed Sullivan show in September, 1956 the Colonel was having his way with increasingly isolating Elvis from the impromptu and un-authorised contacts Elvis had with the media.
Luckily, Elvis wasn’t always taking notice and the Colonel couldn’t be everywhere at once. Because of this, in addition to Alfred Wertheimer’s intimate photographs of Elvis we have the stunning photos of him, arms around some of the cream of the black r & b, ballad, and doo-wop scene, taken by Memphis based Ernest C. Withers backstage and on stage at an all black concert for an all black audience (segregation was still a reality in 1956) at the Memphis Ellis Auditorium, December 6 – 7.
It is unclear in The Memphis Blues Again, the collection of Ernest C. Withers photos of local and visiting black artists, from the early 1950’s through to the 1980’s, whether the photos taken of Elvis having a ball were published locally or nationally at the time. It is doubtful. The Colonel would certainly have spiked them. As Ernest C. Withers comments “Elvis was young and he was not chaperoned by Colonel Parker and them around black people…” but he goes on to say that was soon to change.
Ernest’s photos show Elvis on stage with Rufus Thomas, and backstage hanging out with Junior Parker, Bobby Blue Bland, Brook Benton, B.B.King, amongst others. Also on stage were The Moonglows, and Ray Charles.
That early December – just after Thanksgiving Day – was some week: December 4, two days before, Elvis dropped in on Sam Phillips cramped studio and caught Carl Perkins trying some ideas out, with Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. Always with an eye for publicity Sam Phillips rang up Johnny Cash and got him to drop by for a Photo Opportunity: The Million Dollar Quartet was what it became known as.
And yes, the White Supremecists were right to be outraged. Here was a white boy crossing the line, against a background of segregation in the South and the fight back from a concerted black Civil Rights movement. In less than a year – 1957 – there was a stand-off between the Arkansas State and the Federal Government over integration in the classroom. In September of 1957, to enforce de-segregation President Esienhower had to send in the US Army 101st Airborne Division to escort what were known as the Little Rock Nine black high school students into the High School. At the time, in the Billboard R & B charts the second only ever white singer was Number One: Jerry Lee Lewis with Whole Lot of Shaking Going On. (Four years later Jimi Hendrix did time in the 101st Airborne).
Jerry Lee had also crossed the line. In 1956, the year of these revealing photos, Elvis had been the first ever white artist to make it into the Billboard R & B charts, with Hound Dog, a hit amongst the black record buying public when released by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, written by the white duo Leiber and Stoller. In 1956 Elvis was in the R & B company of black artists including Ray Charles, Little Richard, Bill Doggett, Shirley & Lee and Fats Domino.
At every level Elvis was one of the most significant ‘phenomena’ in the United States, and his impact and influence, in music and/or style eventually permeated large parts of the Globe. He was and remains the undisputed King. And his picture in Photo Anthologies? Absent. Why? A Cultural Stitch-Up? Not consciously, but many of those assembling the photos wouldn’t even think to include him. There are, however, a lot of other significant musical Royalty and Aristocracy missing, who also had a huge impact on racial relations within the United States. Without them, a recent commentator has suggested, Barack Obama may never have made it to the Whitehouse.
King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines… All missing. But there is a King Edward (not to be confused with the potato that was named after his grand-father), and there is a minor artist called Andy Warhol in these anthologies. Never mind. There is one photo book collection that does include a snap of Elvis, by Bill Ray. It isn’t an anthology of 150 years of photography, but it’s the one book of photographs Le Patron would have above all others: The Great Life Photographers.
Notes & Sources Elvis ’56 by Alfred Wertheimer is still in print, and sold in the US with a different cover to the UK 1994 edition. Also still in print is The Memphis BluesAgain, by Ernest C. Withers. Ernest C. Withers was one of the foremost photographers of the Black Civil Rights movement, and his photographs of that movement have been, over the years, on exhibitions throughout the United States. The Great Life Photographers is also still in print. Many of the great photographers of the Twentieth Century such as Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows, are in it.
Note on photo cropping: No photographer likes someone else to crop their photos. Unfortunately the double page spreads of some of Arnold Wertheimer’s photos of his time with Elvis in Elvis ’56 were too large for Le Patron’s photo scanner. He humbly apologises and urges the interested to buy a copy of Elvis ’56 to see the uncropped originals.
Here is a link to a You Tube homage to Elvis and the Black American community: