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.