Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Greatest Guitarist You Never Heard

This week, rather than rant, I'd prefer to rave, about the greatest guitarist you never heard. His name was Lyn Vernon. You'd be forgiven for not recognizing his name. This year marked the 40th year of his passing and no one outside of a few crusty musicians remembers who he was, yet his influence on this entity we call the Memphis Sound is so enormous that it would not be the same without him. Vernon made his living playing Big Band music and Jazz during the post-war era of live radio transmissions from the Peabody Skyway. For several years, he worked with veteran trombonist Louie Pierini in a jazz quartet, and doubled on guitar and vibraphone with pianist Irving Evans' orchestra at the exclusive Summit Club, five nights a week, for two decades. He was in such demand as a performer that young Memphians might never have seen him if not for his morning gig. "Good Morning From Memphis," on then WREC TV, was co-hosted by the erudite Fred Cook and Gordon Lawhead, with news, conversation, and a live band, featuring Vernon. Every morning the stocky man with the short, curly hair would offer a beaming smile for the camera while his fingers flew over the neck of his guitar, creating clean, clear notes that cascaded from the TV speaker like droplets of water from a rushing stream. He made it look fun and easy.

After Memphis got their first good look at Elvis in 1956, hundreds of local kids fanned out in search of guitars and someone to show them how to play. It so happened that Lyn's day job was teaching guitar in a cramped attic studio of a girls' dancing school at Summer and National. After a great deal of pleading, my parents agreed to let me take guitar lessons at $9.00 per week, only there was a waiting list. I finally took my first lesson from Mr. Vernon in the spring of my 11th year. The greasers who hung out next door at Geters Dollar Store, wearing blue jeans and white T-shirts with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeve, would yell at me, "Hey Elvis, play us a song," to general laughter. A delinquent with greasy hair molded into a duck-tail sneered, "That gee-tar is bigger than he is," which would have been funny had it not been true. From there, I had to negotiate my way through a sea of tiny, giggling girls in pink tutus to a ladder that led to the attic. Halfway up, mounted on the wall, was an 8x10 glossy photo of a young Larry Raspberry dressed in a fringed cowboy shirt. Climbing back down the attic ladder after my time was up, I encountered Larry Raspberry himself, who had the lesson after me. Then, it was once again through the phalanx of ballerinas to face the waiting greasers. One day, my ride was late and I got the usual, "Hey, Elvis," jocularity. I put the case on the sidewalk and extracted my Sears guitar. Then, daringly putting one foot on their chrome bumper and placing the guitar on my knee, I sang Elvis' version of "Mean Woman Blues." When the song ended, just like a real Elvis movie, the heckling stopped. When I showed up the following week, they still yelled, "Hey Elvis," only this time with a tone of respect.

Another aspiring guitarist was a youngster named Sid Manker. By the mid-fifties Manker was an advanced student of Vernon's when he co-wrote and played the hypnotic guitar line of "Raunchy," by the Bill Justis Orchestra. Released by Sam Phillips on The Phillips International label, the record became the biggest instrumental hit of its time, selling over three million copies. Encouraged by his friend Manker, Sun session guitarist Roland Janes ran to Vernon and paid him for lessons in advance, "to learn more about chord theory." Janes' electrifying, fuzz-drenched guitar caught fire on records by Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley, and before Janes could take his lessons, he had become one of the nation's first guitar heroes. Roland claimed every time he ran into Vernon, he would try to give him his money back. But Janes insisted that he keep it as a down-payment for the lessons he planned to take as soon as he got a break from making hit records. Sid Manker used his royalties from "Raunchy" to support his own Memphis Jazz Quartet. There, he befriended a local jazz musician named Sidney Chilton, who convinced Manker to teach his young son, Alex, to play the guitar.

Charlie Freeman was a skinny kid from Messick High who would demonstrate what he had learned from Vernon to his high school pal, Steve Cropper. Cropper explained, "I would go to Charlie's house after school and wait for him to get home from his lesson. It worked out pretty good for both of us," Steve laughed, "I got a free lesson and Charlie got to practice what he had been taught." Cropper added, "Later, I saved up enough money to get lessons from Lyn myself." Wayne Thompson, lead guitarist for legendary garage band Tommy Burk and the Counts, claimed, "Cropper had the lesson just before mine." Charlie Freeman and Cropper formed a band that ultimately became the Mar-Keys, with Freeman continuing as lead session player for Chips Moman's American Studios and Atlantic Records' Criterion Studios in Miami. Cropper, of course, became one-fourth of Booker T. & the MGs, and as a musician, songwriter and producer, one of the pillars of the glorious Stax sound.

When garage rock emerged in the mid-sixties, performed entirely by high school students, many of Lyn Vernon's charges became successful musicians. Rick Ireland became so proficient that Vernon convinced him to help teach the overflow of young students before Ireland became the manager of Ardent Studios. Fellow students, Bob Simon and I, started the Casuals, then the Radiants, while Larry Raspberry formed the Gentrys with his classmates from Treadwell, and later the super-charged Highsteppers. B.B. Cunningham, Jr. recorded the "Summer of Love" smash hit, "Let It All Hang Out," with his band, the Hombres, and now works with Jerry Lee Lewis. Bobby Manuel became a session guitarist for Stax, working primarily with Isaac Hayes, before producing and engineering the immortal, platinum selling "Disco Duck," by local deejay Rick Dees. Jack Rowell, Jr. made his debut in the Debuts, with Jimi Jamison, and worked with Joyce Cobb before forming his current band, Triplthret. Allen Hester, founder of Natchez, claimed the lesson after Rowell. To sum up, Lyn Vernon taught the major session guitarists at Sun, Stax, and American Studios, and he was the Father of Garage Rock. Yet, despite the near reverence in which his students hold him, no one knows his name. Vernon died at age 49, after experiencing a heart attack in the studio preparing to go on morning television. He still had 41 students. Once, during a lesson, I played a difficult assigned song with gusto and found Mr. Vernon smiling broadly. "I can see it all now," he said. "In a few years, you're going to be riding around in the back of a limousine, I'll just be sitting there on the corner, and you won't even stop. You'll just speed by." I answered him earnestly, "No, Mr. Vernon. I'll always stop and pick you up. I promise." Perhaps, in a small way, I've finally succeeded.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sexual Congress

I've been enjoying the new reality show, "Sex Lives of the Rich and Heinous," starring the 2012 GOP presidential contenders, only now it's on every channel. In the latest episode, people everywhere held their breath as the fate of the free world fell into the hands of a single woman; Gloria Cain. Would she tell her husband that he was a scoundrel and philanderer and to get his hound-dog ass home? Or would she make a personal sacrifice for the greater good and not allow a bee-hive of scurrilous rumors to derail the "Cain Train," thus depriving a grateful nation of the entertaining pizza magnate who only last month was the Republican front-runner? After the Cain's "face-to-face," a press conference was held where it looked for all the world like Gloria was about to do her best Tammy Wynette impersonation and "Stand By Her Man," but alas, the Cain Train has pulled into the station and drawn its brakes. The press conference began with a prayer from Alveda King, the right-wing niece of Martin, and the La Toya of the King family, before the Cains entered hand-in-hand with the crowd chanting "Gloria," like it was a Van Morrison concert. But, Gloria just smiled and waved while Herman continued to deny a boatload of charges of sexual impropriety, blamed it all on the elitist media, and claimed that politics was "a dirty, dirty game." I suppose the devil made him grope those women. After all, "9-9-9" is just "6-6-6" upside-down.

Just before Cain returned to Georgia to face his wife, he claimed in a speech that, "Stupid people are ruining America." Here, I tend to agree with you, Bubba. Only a fool would launch a candidacy for president with a virtual harem of accusing women claiming sexual abuse just a tabloid's phone call away. Yet Cain seemed oblivious to mounting charges of inappropriate sexual conduct, harassment, assault, and finally, a 13-year long extra-marital affair. Who does this guy think he is, Bill Clinton? At least Clinton acknowledged his serial infidelities as "problems" in his marriage, but Cain insisted his 13 year fling with a Georgia woman was merely one of a generous businessman helping out a friend in need. I wanted to test that theory in real life, so I told my wife, Melody, that I've had this secret gal-pal for many years, and because times are tough, I've been paying her car note and utilities. Before I could scream that the friendship was strictly Platonic and it was only my compassionate nature speaking, Melody was headed for the knife drawer in the kitchen, muttering something about a Lorena Bobbitt. I explained that I only kept it quiet so as not to burden her with all those cancelled checks made out to "Gigi," but I guess my wife isn't as understanding as Mrs.Cain. One of Herman's accusers claimed that he reached under her dress and grabbed her inner-thigh, proving Cain to be the ultimate pizza man, always going for that extra slice. To translate the end of the Herman Cain presidential campaign into the language of the pizzeria; Gloria was the hot pepper and ground sausage. Herman was the barbequed chicken, deep-dish.

Michele Bachmann defended Cain saying, "(He) brought much energy and goodwill to the race." Of course Bachmann also said that a woman should bear her rapist's child, and that her religious belief requires her to be "submissive to her husband." The Stepford Candidate was in Iowa, stumping to overturn the state law recognizing same-sex marriage, when a student asked her why gay people shouldn't have the same rights to marry as heterosexual couples. Bachmann patiently explained that, according to her Oral Roberts University law degree, "All of us have the same civil rights, but we must follow the law." Ergo, gay men and lesbians do have the same rights as everyone else, only they must marry someone of the opposite sex. So, a gay man marrying a straight woman is completely acceptable in Bachmann world. In poker, they call that tipping your hand. Already going down in the polls like the Hindenburg, Bachmann expressed hope that true conservatives that had backed Cain would "return to her," after she lost her brief lead to Rick Perry. The Texas governor has had to confront rumors of infidelity for years in his home state. The issue probably hasn't arisen in the campaign because Perry is too busy stepping on his own dick.

No sooner had I washed the stench of the John Edwards affair from my nostrils, than here comes a resurgent Newt Gingrich. The ethically challenged Gingrich is being hailed as the "probable nominee" by many pundits, including Gingrich himself, who recently intimated that this just might be God's plan. Only, Cain and Bachmann said the same thing, so I think God is just messing with them. For those with a short memory, here's a brief, documented and sourced, highlight reel of the life of Newton Gingrich, defender of family values and the sanctity of marriage. Gingrich married his high school Geometry teacher, Jackie, when he was 19 and she was 26. Jackie paid Newt's way through college all the way to his PhD, and they had two daughters, while Gingrich conveniently avoided the Vietnam War, which he supported. When Newt acquired political ambition, he brought divorce papers to his wife's hospital room while she was recovering from uterine cancer. After being granted the divorce, Newt refused to pay alimony and child support until his hometown 1st Baptist Church had to take up a collection to support the deserted family. Regarding his wife, Gingrich was quoted as saying in an article featured in The New York Times; "She's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a president. And besides, she has cancer."

Newt's second wife, Marianne, maintained a separate residence for six of their twenty-year marriage. Newt asked for a divorce from Marianne by phoning her on Mother's Day, 1999, after indulging in a six year affair with his current wife, Callista, she of the golden helmet of hair. During their clandestine assignations, Gingrich led the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and stacked up 84 charges of personal ethics violations resulting in a $300,000 fine and his ultimate resignation from office. Newt was also an enabler. If he had not led the government shut-down of 1995, Monica Lewinsky would never have delivered that pizza. Somehow, it all gets back to pizza. And if  Callista has a half-million dollar a year jewelry habit, Newt might not be able to afford being president. I'm reminded of the line by comedian Stephen Wright, who said of a friend, "He's gotten himself a trophy wife, only I don't think it was for first place." Still, the rabid right-wing hails Gingrich as a man of "big ideas," like child labor and apprentice school janitors. Slavery was a big idea; it just wasn't a good idea. Gingrich bragged in an interview last week that he was among the primary architects of supply-side, trickle-down economics during the Reagan era. So the joke's on us. We're all Newt's bitches now. Shouldn't I at least get some Tiffany cuff-links, or something?