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Sister Cities: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans and Stax Records’ Memphis

ISSUE:  Spring 2014

Editor’s note: Enjoy a playlist of New Orleans and Memphis music, created by Preston Lauterbach.

They are sister cities, one is high maintenance and fussy, but so seductive. The other is warm and friendly, but carries a razor in her boot. They share a parent, the Mississippi River, and legacies as the two most vital cities in American music history. They are New Orleans and Memphis.

<i>Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism.</i> By Thomas Brothers. W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.  608p. HB, $39.95.Throughout most of the twentieth century, New Orleans, far above any other city, played a fundamental, indispensible part in the development of jazz, rock and roll, and the elusive but distinctive quality that transcends all genre, funk. Memphis, meanwhile, blossomed into a formidable recording-​industry hub. No homegrown New Orleans record company approached the commercial success of Memphis’s Sun Records—​where Sam Phillips, almost unbelievably, made the debut commercial recordings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That all happened after Phillips engineered early recordings of B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, among others, and produced the near legendary “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (including controversial rock pioneer Ike Turner). Of course, there’s Stax Records, which groomed Booker T. & The MGs as its house band and launched the careers of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, or even Hi Records, which made Al Green a star, produced the classic “I Can’t Stand The Rain” by Ann Peebles, and recorded the spine-​tingling O. V. Wright, many an aficionado’s choice as the greatest vocalist in soul music. That’s not to mention the crack production team at American Sound, who churned out more number-​one hits than any Memphis studio, albeit with established star talent from all over the pop music spectrum. (Even at that, it must be noted that Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in New Orleans, and local record producer Cosimo Matassa cut numerous seminal sides at his little J&M Recording Studio for big music companies from outside the city that tapped into New Orleans talent.) 

The celebrity death match between the two cities is too close to call, with New Orleans mustering Louis Armstrong against Memphis’s Elvis Presley, Jelly Roll Morton against W. C. Handy, and Fats Domino versus Al Green in the heavyweight division. Insanely creative and creatively insane pianists James Booker of New Orleans and Phineas Newborn Jr. from Memphis highlight a loaded undercard of colorful, revolutionary, if not always recognized characters, like the Crescent City’s Professor Longhair, forgotten R & B king and rock pioneer Roy Brown, and Fats Domino’s chief songwriter and producer Dave Bartholomew, plus the Bluff City’s founding father of music education, Jimmie Lunceford, star-​crossed crooner Johnny Ace, and Beale Street blues players from Memphis Minnie and Furry Lewis to Junior Parker and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And those rosters are just a beginning. Seriously, how about Ernie K-​Doe versus Rufus Thomas? Dr. John against Justin Timberlake? 

The separation between the two great Mississippi River music towns comes not from any discrepancy in talent or cultural contribution—​their respective histories lived—​but in their histories written. A couple of new books, Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism and Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, got me thinking about the differences between the bodies of written history surrounding New Orleans music and Memphis music, despite the similarity of the places’ historical impact.

A virtual library addresses the question, “Why New Orleans?” going back to Fredric Ramsey’s 1939 Jazzmen, through numerous studies of individual artists and the city’s notable neighborhoods, on up to more recent scholarship like Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans, detailing the components of African, European, and Caribbean cultures that set New Orleans apart from other American cities beginning before there were American cities. In the latest addition to this library, New Orleans’s genius of place goes national with Louis Armstrong becoming its most famous export. 

<i>Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.</i> By Robert Gordon. Bloomsbury, 2013.  480p. HB, $30.Thomas Brothers has continued where he ended Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, published in 2006, with Armstrong leaving his hometown for Chicago. Armstrong’s transformation from second cornet player in Joe “King” Oliver’s Chicago-​based band in 1922 to his status as master of modernism in the ensuing handful of years fed off of a succession of vocational and creative experiences. He brought his New Orleans way of making music into two distinct audience contexts that boosted his game as he elevated expectations in the Southern colony on Chicago’s South Side and in the Northern, black elite enclave of Harlem. The result was the definition of jazz as we know it. 

Brothers frames the New Orleans way of making music as “the fixed and variable model.” Though it’s hard to imagine this kind of talk flying in a New Orleans jam session—​Say, Kermit, let’s hit one in the fixed and variable model—​it pretty well encapsulates the lingua franca of the New Orleans musician away from home. The musicians Armstrong joined in Chicago—​King Oliver, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Honoré Dutrey, and the many other Crescent City emigrants to the Windy City—​knew how to improvise based on a blues rhythmic foundation—​that rhythm being the fixed, improv, the variable, in Brothers’s definition. They all drew from the same well of African rhythm and pastiche style. This, Brothers explains, “accounts for central qualities of jazz as Armstrong learned it, transformed it, and propagated it.” The genius of place meets the genius of man. 

To be perfectly fair to Brothers, he isn’t always so professorial. His writing on Armstrong’s development as heard in early recordings excited me much more than hearing the recordings did. Songs like “Canal Street Blues” and “Chimes Blues” from 1923 with Oliver, and even Armstrong’s early Hot Five sides in 1925, all sound like Dixieland doodling to me, and Armstrong’s shining moments sometimes happen suddenly in two-​ to three-​second breaks that are often buried a minute or more into a song. In other words, it really can require a Duke University professor of music to comprehend and elucidate this crucial era in Armstrong’s career: 

Tears, with the Oliver band, features Armstrong in not seven but nine breaks packed into a stretch of some 40 seconds during the middle of the piece. No duets—​it is all Armstrong. He and [Sidney] Bechet, the greatest soloists ever to come from New Orleans, had already established a budding rivalry… . Both were reared in the competitive environment of cutting contests, each trying to outplay or cut out the other, and neither was known to back down from a challenge … it is clear that Armstrong, after one year of late apprenticeship with Oliver, felt well qualified to fill the rupture of the break on his own. The recording documents a breakthrough, a proper format for presenting his creativity and intensity.

Brothers is refreshingly open-​eyed on the issue of race in Armstrong’s worlds and quite thrilling as he reconstructs Armstrong’s nights at Lincoln Gardens, the Cotton Club, and the Sunset, the venues in which Armstrong honed his unmistakable sound. Ultimately, the period Brothers dissects is critical as Armstrong transcended the genius of place and came into his own. “This process produced, in the mid-​1920s, a style that served as the basis of jazz solos for the next decade and beyond. After that, the combination of creative drive and the hustle for the rewards of the white marketplace led Armstrong to create an equally innovative modern song style.”

If a tad procedural, Brothers’s approach underscores a fact worth repeating. Armstrong’s effortless brilliance—​some have used the racially loaded term instinctive genius—​came from years of intense commitment. As you hear “Big Butter and Egg Man from the West,” a 1926 recording, you realize Brothers is right: There’s the cool, relaxed trumpet lead that is, without knowing the musicological ins and outs, recognizably Armstrong. If doubt lingers, just listen to Armstrong’s vocal, punctuated with his signature growling guffaw, and you’ll know his personality has reached full effect.

Viewed at a wider angle, Brothers’s rigor perfectly illustrates the evolution of New Orleans music’s written history—​here we have a 600-​page tome devoted to ten years in just a single artist’s work. It reflects New Orleans music’s history lived—​seemingly every note in the New Orleans canon consciously converses with centuries of evolving tradition, summarizing and leaping forth from the slave drums at Congo Square, the phantom cornet of Buddy Bolden, and mystical Mardi Gras chants.

Memphis’s cultural bedrock, meanwhile, remains terra obscura. Perhaps this too reflects the city’s character. The Memphis sound and the Memphis vibe are the very essence of nonchalance—​a group of guys jamming in an old movie theater in the ghetto hooked into a groove, recorded it, and called it “Green Onions,” and the throwaway session is now as instantly recognizable and widely commercialized a song as you’ll find. Otis Redding arrived at the Stax Records studio in that old theater as chauffeur to the one and only Johnny Jenkins. Redding was given a tryout as an afterthought. Both the fact that he was given a tryout at all and how close it seemed to never happening both perfectly illustrate the way things seem to happen in Memphis. It’s almost as if the city’s genius of place is its nonchalance. 

Historically, New Orleans fostered an international climate and culture, hosting the country’s most prosperous and ancient caste of free people of color, and boasting the longest multinational, multicultural history of any city in the US. Memphis, meanwhile, grew up a rough frontier town, deliberately developed as the inland capital of a cotton empire until the Civil War changed that scheme. Following the war, Confederate icons General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis made Memphis home. The ex-​president of the Confederacy, however, was a political nonentity in town, Forrest died broke (across the street from where Sam Phillips would found Sun Records), and Memphis elected black officials well past the collapse of Reconstruction. Just as New Orleans had its creoles of color, Memphis had a racial history all its own, politically vibrant, even prosperous—​the reputed first black millionaire of the South, Robert Church, built his fortune there. That’s not to say that Memphis enjoyed immunity from the racial conflict typical of the era, but rather that the place doesn’t conform to historical cliché or conventional wisdom when looking back at it. To have had such severe rebel mojo and nascent black power cohabitating shows something unusual about the place. 

There is an old story that the Mississippi River reversed its course, ran backward, during a devastating 1811 earthquake, and that image pretty well serves the city’s history as it unfolded from that moment. Memphis is a place where the improbable and the unbelievable happen with some regularity. The problem is, why? While perfectly fascinating, these circumstances still don’t account for the preponderance of talent nurtured in the city, which is the real bottom line. 

Literature on the Memphis sound has its highlights, most notably Peter Guralnick’s two-​volume Elvis biography, but nothing comprehensive about where the city’s abundant talent came from. W. C. Handy’s autobiography, Father of the Blues, published in 1941, gives one of the earliest accounts of black Memphis music, from the man who put it on the map. The composer of “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues” admittedly adapted his ideas from street-​corner and saloon musicians in the city, but, perhaps with copyright issues in mind, suffered little bouts of amnesia when it came to specifically identifying his sources of inspiration, beyond a woman singing spirituals on the corner, a pianist in the Monarch saloon, or the legendary lean loose-​jointed Negro he’d heard playing slide guitar in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Father of the Blues has remained controversial ever since it appeared. New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton was the first and most prominent figure who objected to the title and its inherent claim. 

Because the Memphis tradition is far less studied and less intertwined with the city’s story than New Orleans’s, the phenomenon of Memphis music can seem accidental. But the incredible occurred much too routinely in Memphis for it to have been an accident. People say it’s in the water, or it’s because of race, failing to correct for the fact that plenty of other Southern cities have had large black populations that suffered cruelty without creating anything on par with the Memphis sound. The Memphis sound has been so mysterious, even its most successful exponents can seem at a loss to explain how it went down: “It happened quickly, but not in a manner that was conscious and direct,” said Jim Stewart, cofounder of Stax Records and costar of Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself. 

Gordon’s book distills a certain genius of the place. Stax, on the surface, gave the world beautiful music that has proven timeless, laying down the nation’s soundtrack from the early sixties to the midseventies—​Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” The Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” and Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” are just the most obvious of the dozens of iconic recordings from the company—​that still resonates today (more broadly, I’d guess, than Armstrong’s brilliant 1920s cornet work). But the uplifting underdog tales of Booker T. Jones, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, and the Bar-​Kays, all local African Americans raised under the fist of white supremacy who became stars at Stax, are intertwined with tragedy, criminality, and corruption. 

This is Memphis, bittersweet. Stax tapped into this, not just the native sounds, but the city’s true character. Stewart and Stax cofounder Estelle Axton were smart. Once they located their operations in a black neighborhood, they kept the door open and the talent simply walked in. 

Think about Brothers’s precise analysis of Armstrong’s attention to detail as you read Gordon’s account of a typical, laid-​back, massive breakthrough moment in American pop culture as it happened at Stax. The scene is this. It’s summer, 1962, fairly early in Stax history. A rockabilly performer named Billy Lee Riley had a recording session in Stax’s converted movie theater/recording studio, with an anonymous session band backing him. The session wasn’t going anywhere. When everyone took a break, Riley took off. The backup band was left in the studio. Gordon writes, “The four guys … all knew each other musically, but this was the first time they’d played together as a quartet.” These four were drummer Al Jackson Jr., bassist Lewie Steinberg, guitarist Steve Cropper, and keyboardist Booker T. Jones. All were from divergent backgrounds and were of different ages—​“But they’d all been listening to the same music for several years, so finding a groove together was no problem.” They had a little time to kill, and so, as Gordon quotes Steve Cropper, “Booker goes down to the organ and starts playing … Al Jackson and Lewie fell in on it. And I think two cuts later we had what we know today to be ‘Green Onions.’ ”

Throughout the many triumphs and tragedies that make up Gordon’s engrossing story of Stax Records, I couldn’t shake that statement from label founder Jim Stewart that what happened hadn’t happened deliberately. Yet nothing like this happened in Birmingham, Charleston, Richmond, Atlanta, or even mighty New Orleans. The question still itches, Why Memphis? There is a part of me that hopes this momentous tale will lead to a broader scholarly devotion and a passionate discourse around Memphis’s full musical history and its cultural background. Perhaps we can begin to get to know Memphis’s music better, to research it, debate it, and glorify it as we have New Orleans’s.

And there’s another part of me—​more in true Memphis fashion—​that thinks, oh, the hell with it, this is it. 

Editor’s note: Enjoy a playlist of New Orleans and Memphis music, created by Preston Lauterbach.


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