Thursday, May 20, 2010
In my boyhood room on the night table next to my bed there was a plastic, box radio with a large moon dial with the word
“Philco” engraved in a semi-circle across the top. If you turned the dial all the way to the right, you could sometimes hear Wolfman Jack howling out of Mexico. The middle of the dial brought you WLS in Chicago with Dick Bionde, or KXOK in St. Louis and Johnny Rabbitt. All the way to the left of the dial was channel 56 and Daddio Dewey Phillips with “The hottest cottin’ picking show in the country, 'Red, Hot, and Blue,’ coming to you from WHBQ, on the ‘magazine’ floor of the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis.” Dewey would say that he was “downtown about as far as you can get.” Phillip's radio show was on late when I was supposed to be asleep. But every night, right after Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, I turned down the volume and leaned in close to the radio to get the greatest lesson in Rhythm & Blues on the air. Dewey had such a thick southern drawl and was so frenetic, he probably should never have been on the air in the first place. He was the complete opposite of what a radio announcer was supposed to sound like in the fifties. WHBQ only hired him because of the business being generated by WDIA, the first Negro station in the nation. The commercial potential for Memphis’ African-American community could no longer be ignored and WDIA proved that. Except WDIA went off the air at sunset, leaving fans of "race music" with nowhere to turn. Enter Dewey Mills Phillips.
If Rufus Thomas was the strong, steady presence on Memphis radio, Dewey Phillips was its’ shooting star. He shined brightly for a while and then burned out. However, during his command of the airwaves, he held the listening public in thrall for most of the fifties with his outrageous jabber and his taste for hot music. Dewey was not merely the first man to play an Elvis record on the radio; he was the first white disc jockey in the Mid-South to play black music, laying the groundwork for Elvis to emerge. Dewey’s voice; nasal, country, and rapid-fire, was more suited for a Southern auctioneer or a carnival barker. But his experience as a salesman in the record department of W.T. Grant’s on Main Street gave him an expanse of knowledge about Rhythm and Blues music and a proximity to Beale Street enjoyed by only a very few white men. He was also close to the Hotel Chisca where the WHBQ studios were located. Dewey somehow convinced the station manager that he was the man for the nine to midnight shift after WDIA, "the black spot on your dial,” went off the air, and he was right. Every night, WDIA’s massive audience switched the dial to Dewey along with growing numbers of white children discovering the music for the first time. All through the segregated 1950s, Dewey Phillips offered up a sampling of juke, jive, and jump, along with a healthy selection of black gospel music, to an ever-growing audience that was anything but segregated, and all right in the heart of Dixie.
My memories of Dewey begin in adolescence. Although I do not recall exactly when I began to listen, I know it was as early as age seven in 1954, because my paternal grandmother died that year. My sister and I returned from school to find our house filled with weeping relatives. Susan burst into tears, but I was uncertain how to react, so I put on a grim face and pondered it. My grandmother was only in her mid 50s, but she had seemed older to me. All day and night, the house filled with mourners and well-wishers until it was my bedtime. I lay in the dark pondering death until it was time for Dewey's program when I again leaned in close to the radio. I was delighted by his deranged ramblings but felt that I should not be having this much fun when everyone else was so sad. In the rest of the house, people were crying or talking in hushed tones. But in my bedroom, Dewey was playing Louis Jordan singing, "Dadgum your hide, boy/Dadgum your dirty hide/ Dadgum your hide, boy/ I gave you a pig but you wanted a sow,” and I had to laugh. I was transported to a world that the adults knew nothing about. Still, it felt odd that while the grown-ups were in the living room grieving, I was in my bedroom, grooving.
In that same year, on the night of my Davy Crockett Christmas, I wore my brand new coonskin cap to bed and tuned in again to Dewey, expecting some yuletide revelry. It was only a week after my eighth birthday, and I was still supposed to be sleeping. So, once again, with the volume low, I leaned in to listen. Dewey had the unusual practice of yammering right over the record; or if a lyric made a statement or asked a question, Dewey would answer it. Sometimes he even sang along, which made it tough for music lovers, but delighted Dewey's fans. It often seemed that the music was merely the background soundtrack for Dewey’s manic patter, but his listeners kept growing. On that Christmas night, he was as zany as ever until suddenly something unprecedented happened; Dewey stopped being funny. The first sign was he allowed an entire song to play without interruption. When he returned to the air, Phillips was serious and somber. He said that he had just gotten off the phone, long-distance from Houston, and was sorry to announce that Johnny Ace was dead. Even as a child, I knew who Johnny Ace was, if for no other reason than every time Dewey played one of his records, he introduced it as “Memphis’ own Johnny Ace.” I listened wide-awake while Dewey described the scene in Houston. Ace was in his dressing room between Christmas shows at the Houston Civic Auditorium with a group of fans and friends when he put a pistol to his head as some sort of game and pulled the trigger. The gun went off and Ace fell over dead. It was chilling news, made more so by Dewey’s introduction to the next song. For the very first time, Dewey uttered the phrase that would become famous in popular music history. He introduced "Pledging My Love," the brand new record by, "the late, great Johnny Ace.” Then a slow ballad with a tinkling vibraphone began and the echo-drenched baritone voice of Johnny Ace sounded like it was coming from the grave itself. "Forever my darling, my love will be true,” the chimes rang like chapel bells. "I’ll forever love you, the rest of my days/ I’ll never part from you, and your loving ways.” Johnny sang as if he knew his fate in advance. I remembered that earlier night when my grandmother had died, and I was stunned to realize that I had just been listening to a voice from the beyond. At song's end, Dewey said once again, “the late, great Johnny Ace, dead at age twenty-six.”
The next morning, I asked my father what Russian Roulette was and he asked where I possibly could have heard that. I told him about Johnny Ace, but he said there was nothing about it in the newspaper. The death of Johnny Ace did not command the attention of white Memphis, but the hometown Tri-State Defender reported that an overflow crowd of five thousand people jammed the two thousand-seat Clayborn AME Temple, the same site of Martin Luther King’s final speech, for the funeral, while near hysterical mourners poured into the street. It was Memphis’ largest funeral gathering since the death of E.H. “Boss” Crump, but neither the morning paper, The Commercial Appeal, nor the afternoon Memphis Press Scimitar printed a word about it. It became underground news for the city’s white teenagers because in attendance at the obsequies was Dewey Phillips. His words, “The late, great Johnny Ace,” would enter the lexicon of pop music, both as the title of a Paul Simon song, and as the description of the first shocking casualty of rock and roll. Whenever I hear the plaintive opening notes of "Pledging My Love," chiming like heavenly harps, I get the same unearthly feeling as when Dewey first played the record on the very night that Johnny Ace ended his life.
(Click on title to hear "Pledging My Love.")
an excerpt from the memoir "Can a White Boy Sing the Blues," by Randy Haspel