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.

20 comments:

BILLY WICKS said...

NOW RANDY,THIS IS WHAT I REALLY ENJOY, RESPECTFULLY YOURS BILLY WICKS...I MET SCOTTY MOORE ONE AND MARTY LACKY

BILLY WICKS said...

KEEP YOUR HEAD UP AND YOUR ELBOWS IN....BILLY WICKS

Anonymous said...

This is where you really shine. You have an incredible memory about Memphis music history. Leave the the politcal crap alone. Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece, Randy! It's so important to remember unsung heroes like Vernon. I think I met him a time or 2... probably in the wee hours at Pat's Pizza. (Joe M.)

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Randy. I had heard of him but you filled in the details. If we had a Hall of Fame in Memphis, he would deserve to be the first inductee.

Joel W.

Jim Burge said...

This is great, Randy. A fitting tribute to a man who made his mark on Memphis music from a man who knows gratitude. Randy, you're a gift to us all. BTW, please DON"T "leave the political crap alone". Happy Hanukkah!

Unc. said...

Lovely story, R.J. By the way, where did you get that guitar?

Anonymous said...

Randy,
Thanks so much for doing this story on Lyn Vernon. He certainly deserves to be remembered. One quick note to set the record straight: I played guitar in the Natchez band for a while, but was not a founder of that group. That said, I'd also like to say that I still play Mr. Vernon's arrangements of a lot of those old standards, and they bring as much joy to me now as they did when I learned them. Lyn Vernon had a special gift as a teacher, not just as a great guitarist. He could show you more in 30 minutes than most guys could in a day, and you would remember it, too. I still do, and I took those lessons over 40 years ago. -- Allen Hester

greg said...

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this article. A wonderful tribute that leaves me with a sense of wonder for this unknown legend. As a Memphis guitarist it gives me a sense of honor for the many who helped create and those who continue to sustain a sound that is genuinely unique. That "Memphis Sound". Thanks for writing it! -Greg Cartwright

Randal said...

Great, Great Story! I feel kinda the same way aobut my teacher at Melody Music: Mr. Fusco.

Chris Ellis said...

Well done, Haspel. I don't remember Vernon, but you make me wish I did.
And I enjoy the political crap.

geno722 said...

Really, really interesting and cool! The fact that so many of the Memphis guitarists learned from him really is a part of Memphis music history. Guitarists here sort of "play a certain way" in the same way that there's a "Nashville" guitar style. I've been lucky enough to play with a fair number of Lyn's Vernon's "students" through the years but never knew about him till now. Great stuff Randy!!!

Diana Stein said...

Randy,
This is so wonderful to read. I didn't know of the great Lyn Vernon, but am so pleased to learn of him. I have been lucky to know some of those folks you mentioned, like Rick Ireland. Thanks so much for writing bout your experience with this fine gentleman/musician.
Diana Stein

Bobby said...

Thanks so much for the post and the mention of my father, Rick Ireland, he loved Lyn and I heard about him often. My dad recently passed away so things like this are priceless..

Anonymous said...

Kudos for this piece, Randy. I actually remember Vernon from Fred Cook's show. And, OMG, Melody Music. Pulled that one from the golden oldies. . . . Grew up in Memphis, and I love these trips down memory lane. That's what I enjoyed about posting to Alex Chilton on nola.com, even though I had no idea who he was. Memories of my home town. And please keep up the political stuff. I don't always agree with you, but you write so well I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. Happy "Hanukkah," and fond memories of A Dickens Christmas in Overton Square. Hey to Melody, too. Theresa Counce

Allen Rankin said...

Randy, I know Steve Vernon, Lyn's son. He will very much appreciate your tribute to his dad. I will share it with him. Thanks for your rave.

Allen Rankin

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Randy! To your knowledge did Lyn Vernon ever do any recording?

Also, did Reggie Young ever study under Lyn Verson?

Eddie Hankins

Shoefus said...

All ten of my thumbs up !!!

Made me think of Rebecca Doss, my drum teacher from Central Acadamy of Music. I guess in reality we all mean something to each other in the Memphis fraternity.

Greg M.

bob reuter said...

found Lyn Vernon's "caravan" about six years ago - having never heard of him, i didnt even know it it was a man or a woman but it rocked and it swung so I began playing it on my radio show out of KDHX fm 88-1 in St. Louis. One day i got an e-mail from a guy who told me Vernon was his dad. that he had put out several 45's, that there was one obscure collection of them all out somewhere but that it was hard to find. he said that his mom had a hard life cause Lynn made no money to speak of. Somehow through this little connection i felt a special closeness to Lynn Vernon, knowing that i was probably walking in his shoes, at the very least, standing on his shoulders - thank you for your reminiscents - Bob Reuter

elvisbooks said...

Outstanding piece. Was reacquainting myself with Charlie Freeman & Google sent me here. Best regards from Patrick McCabe, aka Bob Laughlin