Monday, August 15, 2011

Overton Square Revisited

WKNO's newest documentary in their "Memphis Memoirs" series; Overton Square: The Golden Age, premiered on the local public network last week, and it was just great. I don't say that merely because I am in it, although my inclusion enhances nearly every occasion, but because director Susie Howe captured the joyous spirit that came along with Memphis' continuing celebration surrounding the Square's development. Begun as the pipe dream of four young scions of prominent Memphis families: Jimmy "J-Rob" Robinson, Ben Woodson, Charlie Hull, and Frank "Bubba" Doggrell," along with prominent developer George Saig, Overton Square blossomed into Memphis' combined version of the French Quarter, Greenwich Village, and Ghirardelli Square in a few city blocks. The music, the food, the intoxicants of choice, the crowds, the events, and the fun have become legendary, and as evidenced by this film, those enterprising young men did this town a big favor by throwing a wild, decade-long party from which the participants are still hung-over forty years later.

Since we both worked there at various locations, Melody and I enjoyed sharing our experiences with the director. Melody lived just behind the Square for a time with a previous spouse and witnessed the mayhem from her front porch nightly. My first employment came as a singer at the Looking Glass, the predecessor to Bombay Bicycle Club. I sat on a high stool in a corner area decorated to look like a library with real bookshelves containing large, leather-bound tomes of ancient history, surrounded by customers sitting in overstuffed couches and puffy lounge chairs. I expanded the act to a duo with conga, then an acoustic trio, and finally a band. After being away from Memphis for a number of years, I was a workhorse for the Square and thrilled with the employment. My champion, more times than not, was Thomas Boggs, whom I had known since his days as drummer for Memphis' legendary garage band, Tommy Burk and the Counts. The Square management put Thomas in charge of the music since they figured he spoke the musicians' language, which was cash. Boggs moved us across the street to Lafayette's Music Room, and was so driven and dedicated in his new management career, that I couldn't help but enjoy being an occasional pain in the ass just to get a rise out of him. My affection for him was shared by many others and made obvious at the film's premier when Thomas' image on the screen was greeted with sustained applause.

Lafayette's Music Room was the gem of midtown. It didn't matter whose name was on the marquee, your friends were there and you were going to hear something new; even if it was Kiss, who got laughed out of town. The consensus was that these four guys couldn't hide their mediocre musicianship underneath a bunch of silly greasepaint. Kansas ("Dust In the Wind") was so loud, they cleared the house in ten minutes, while Minnie Ripperton was sublime. A friend once asked me to accompany her to hear an unknown "Korean jazz pianist," who turned out to be Chick Corea and his trio. From August, 1972- August, 1975, Lafayette's presented new artists to Memphis like Billy Joel, Leo Sayer, Pure Prairie League, Leon Russell, and Phoebe Snow. We rocked out to the Alex Taylor Band before we even realized he was James' brother. In the new film, George Saig said Lafayette's was hemorrhaging money and had to close. It's true that it was small and had to share a nasty kitchen with Friday's, but it was also the searchlight and draw for the entire area. With due respect to Playhouse on the Square, which replaced Lafayette's, the demise of the showcase club was, for me, the end of the Square. The Playhouse drew one audience per night, but Lafayette's turned the house every hour.

One tale left untold in the documentary was the night in Lafayette's when Mayor Wyeth Chandler got his ass kicked. The story has morphed into outlandish descriptions of parking lot stand-offs and fistfights between the Mayor and assorted waiters, but the true tale comes from bartender Joe Dougherty: Chandler, a Square regular, was in attendance with his entourage and was, in a phrase; "shit-faced." An unknown couple at the next table was being harassed by the Mayor, and when Chandler groped the young woman, her date cold-cocked him, knocking him to the floor and sending both the mayor's and Lafayette's staff into a frenzy. Into the breach leaped Thomas Boggs, who hoisted the stunned mayor to his feet and escorted him out a back entrance and into his limousine. Knowing the police were on the way, Thomas felt that the Mayor had it coming and was so fair-minded that he assuaged the offended couple and escorted them from the premises to avoid further questions from the authorities. The Mayor showed up for work the next day looking like he'd gone six rounds with Mike Tyson and was immortalized in a Bill Garner editorial cartoon which pictured him sitting at his desk with a black-eye and wearing boxing gloves. The identity of the man who smacked the mayor is still unknown.

Aside from the wonderful memories, our initial reaction to seeing our contemporaries on film was, "Do we look that old?" But I pushed up the nose-piece on my tri-focals, took Melody's trembling hand in mine, and said, "No Mother, we're still adorable." Thus assured, we enjoyed interviews with everyone from bartenders to bouncers and got to re-visit a time when Memphis experienced a minor cultural revolution on a corner. And it all began when Jimmy Robinson opened a beer joint called the Perception Lounge, because he wanted to "be cool and own his own bar." Isaac Tigrett readily credits Robinson as his role model for opening his own corner burger and beer emporium in London that he named the Hard Rock Cafe. Did we ever get the chance to say, "Thanks, guys.We had a great time?" Loeb Properties has big plans for the Square's location and I wish them well. An Overton Square comeback would be a grand boost for the city, although it will never be the same. Which is as it should be. The Square should be designed for a younger generation, keeping in mind the tradition of local merchants, live music, and the draw of a showcase music room. Then, if they have half the fun that we did, the new Overton Square is sure to be a success. And if you missed the spirited documentary on "The Golden Age,"  I'm sure WKNO will show it again, and again, and...
                                           Henry Gross sings "Overton Square" with Memphis' Freeworld.


Anonymous said...

Oh you’re not going to attack the four young men who became successful capitalist business men? They probably even employed black people who were not paid much money. Man you are falling down on the job.

geno722 said...

There's so much to say about the "square days" that I'm unsurprised that some stories remain untold. I got here for the "last half" (1976-1982) of the Square's salad days. Watching the documentary made me very sad that the Square has been neglected while both Downtown and the burbs have seen a plethora of restaurants/clubs, though nothing like the days we're remembering here!

Father Farken said...

Great memories me brother!

(1) I'll never forget the time I walked into the Bombay to drown my broken heart & saddened noggen with a multitude of beers...a miracle happens... I hear this mystical voice...the voice of Randy Haspel calling, "My good people I would like to dedicate this Carl Perkins medley to me good friend Fergus Farken." It changed me whole life. Instead of getting drunk I got tipsy...dancing with a honkey tonk angel who prayed me through a spiritual renewal...Thank you Randy! And Thank you Jesus!

(2)Went looking for you @ the Hot Air Balloon one hot August night...instead spent the whole night drinking beer & talking music with the great Jerry Lee!

(3)Was a bouncer @ Silky's me 1st year @ Memphis theolgical(81). I was Silky's prize arm wrestling & belly bumping champion.

(4) Bubba Doggrell is me 1st cousin. His sister Fran had a gallery in midtown. Me brother Ernie Pecker(changed his name from Farken to Pecker cuz he thought Farken sounded too suggestive or something) also had an art gallery...The Twin Oaks!

(5) I was the one that kicked Mayor Wyeth Chandler's ass. (mea culpa.....)

The Peace of the Lord! FFF

Alan said...

Good Post: I remember Jim Robinson had a house near by and he rented the upstairs to Mayor Chandler & his Mistress. You should have gotten WKNO to include your stint as a comedian at Playhouse for the Joyce Cobb & Rick Christian Showcase. They left out Ardent Studio that was responsible for a lot of the top acts being available.

kwk said...

Perception had a brief and unique history at that location back when there was nothing there after say 8p.m.
Moloch played in that tiny space one night (they played at Robinson's wedding reception too) and another night cops came in and forced everyone outside to be searched just because they could do it.

Story was some of the original investors had tried to make it in NYC and spent most of their after work hour at the original Friday's on the upper East Side; returning to Memphis they thought, "Hey, we should try that here!" (Maybe the TV show pointed that out, haven't seen it.)

Anonymous said...

Overton Square Website

James Hooker, Nipple Whisperer said...

Randy, I really enjoyed your post.

Did they mention that mob´d-up son of a bitch that torched my B3 along with his club?

Lord.¨The Square¨

Loved ya then, love you now, brother.