WMPS RADIO / RADIO CENTER - In a city known worldwide for its musical heritage, Memphis' Radio Center is a landmark whose significant contributions to the broadcloth of that heritage have now been lost. We all know of the other music landmarks of Memphis, Sun Studios, Graceland, Beale Street, and others, but up until now, few knew that Radio Center is perhaps the only building in Memphis that can bind the meaning of all of these other landmarks together. Built in 1948 as the new home for radio powerhouse WMPS, and later to house the equally formidable and legendary WDIA, the broadcasts that emanated from Radio Center shaped the popular culture of Memphis and America for over a half century. While the building no longer houses a radio station, it’s walls still reverberate with the sounds of Memphis and American music made since World War II.
The famed WMPS radio station can trace its roots back to 1923 when the station first went on the air as WGBC, the official radio station of the First Baptist Church of Memphis, with studios based out of the DeVoy Hotel. The station was acquired by the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper in August of 1937, renamed WMPS, and its studios were relocated to the Columbia Mutual Tower on Court Square, the building most people know today...
...as the Lincoln-American Tower. At the time, the station broadcast on the AM dial with only10 kilowatts of power during the day, and five kilowatts of power at night, which was barely enough power for the station to be heard outside of the city’s limits.
During the late-1930s, WMPS was a member of NBC's ''Blue Network'' (the radio station that hosted NBC's premier ''Red Network'' was WMC, owned by rival newspaper the Commercial-Appeal. This affiliation allowed the station to relay the national broadcasts of programs like Amos and Andy, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as programs that introduced America to the likes of Jack Benny and Bob Hope. But, like many big city radio stations of the day, WMPS also originated some of its own programming, which helped to showcase the early careers of notable singers like Kay Starr and Eddie Arnold prior to World War II. Though most of us associate the sound of the ''Big Band'' era with radio in the 1930s, WMPS was largely an early proponent of country and western music (or hillbilly music, as it was often called at the time, a genre that at the time also encompassed western swing, bluegrass, and gospel music). The national stars of the day featured on WMPS were the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, Charlie and Bill Monroe, and Bob Wills, among others.
In the early 1940s, Memphis-based pharmaceutical giant Plough Incorporated began to diversify its interests into radio broadcasting with the purchase of WMPS, a move begun in 1944 but not completed until the station’s license was officially transferred in March of 1948. The station switched its network affiliation from the NBC Blue Network to ABC during this transition.
In early February of 1947, the building containing one of the downtown Walgreen's stores burned to the ground. The building had been owned by Plough Incorporated, apparently because the site had once housed one of its Pantaze Drug Stores. Plough had abandoned the notion of owning its own drug stores in the 1930s, and a few of the former Pantaze locations had been leased to Walgreen's, a major client of the Plough company. It was announced soon after the fire that Walgreen's and Plough Broadcasting would partner to build a new structure on the site at the corner of Union Avenue and Main Street. Local architect E. L. Harrison was retained to design the new building, in part because his abilities as a ''Modern'' architect were already well established. His design for the new building was unveiled to the public on February 29, 1947, less than three weeks after the fire had been extinguished, and it was announced that the building was to be called ''Radio Center''. Construction proceeded quickly and the new Walgreen's store was able to open to the public just in time for Christmas in December of 1948. WMPS Radio began broadcasting from ''Radio Center'' two months later on February 25, 1949.
The character of commercial radio in Memphis at the time was radically different than the radio broadcasts we know of today. In the late 1940s, WMPS was broadcasting a mix of live music and variety shows generated in Memphis; recorded music spun by disc jockeys; and, ''live feed'' or pre-recorded programs purchased from a network or other outside source. The local programming was usually scheduled around the mealtimes of most listeners, with national programming sandwiched in between and in ''prime time'' at night. This combination of programming was quite standard for a ''big city'' radio station in the era, and the style had gone virtually unchanged since radio stations became common in the 1920s.
Portions of WMPS' local programming, though, were something very much out of the ordinary, and the period between 1947 and 1954 was very special, indeed. In July of 1947, WMPS hired ''Smiling'' Eddie Hill away from WSM and the ''Grand Ole Opry'' to head the new house band for the station. He brought with him seven hillbilly, musicians, among them brothers Ira and Charlie Louvin, later known to a worldwide audience as The Louvin Brothers. The Louvin Brothers were the core of Hill's band, not just for their singing and their talents on guitar and mandolin, but also for their strong songwriting abilities. The first twenty or so songs in their career catalog were written during their Memphis tenure and most became country and western and gospel standards, covered by the likes of Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Mark Knopfler, Allison Kraus and Ray Charles. The Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. The half-hour Eddie Hill Show was broadcast live twice daily: the 6:00 a.m. show originated from the WMPS studios at Radio Center; but the noon hour show was broadcast by remote from the mezzanine of the Black and White Store on Main Street, the building now occupied by Jolly Royal Furniture. Johnny Cash recalled with great respect and fondness his memories as a child listening to the Louvin Brothers perform with the Eddie Hill band from his home in Dyess, Arkansas; he later met the brothers during one of their weekend performances with Eddie Hill that were held around the region on Saturday nights.
The demands of a six-day per week performance schedule were too great to allow the Eddie Hill Band to completely fill WMPS' local performance programming slots, and so Sonny Loden and his band The Southerners was also hired to fill another half hour slot both before the Eddie Hill Show in the morning and after the noon program. Loden and the Eddie Hill Band combined forces to play together between 6:30 and 6:45 a.m. Most people will not recognize the name of Sonny Loden, who first began performing with his parents and siblings as the Loden Family in the 1930s and 1940s. But many will recognize Loden as Sonny James, the stage name he adopted when he moved to Nashville in 1952. While James’ career included an amazing forty-three Top Ten Country & Western hits, twenty-three of which occupied the number 1 spot, it was his 1957 classic cross-over song ''Young Love'' which is the song most people associate with James today.
Unfortunately, the Korean War brought an end to the daily programs with the Louvin Brothers and Sonny James; Charlie Louvin was drafted in 1950, and the war also caused Sonny James to join the National Guard in Mississippi. Their programs simply fell apart without them. Eddie Hill left Memphis in 1951 to become the all-night disc jockey at WSM in Nashville, but Ira Louvin remained at WMPS as a disc jockey until his brother returned from the war. Once reunited, the brothers eventually found a new career in Nashville and with Capitol Records became major recording stars.
WMPS turned to another major act to fill the void in 1950 when they hired the famed Blackwood Brothers quartet to perform for its morning and noonday audiences, sponsored by the Dixie Lilly Flour Company. The Blackwood Brothers remained on the air until 1954, when WMPS shifted to an all Top 40 format and eliminated its regular live remote broadcasts. The gospel singing of the Blackwood's was hugely popular in the WMPS broadcast region, which spread over several states during the daytime. But the greatest impact that their show probably had occurred just a few blocks to the north of Radio Center, specifically in Apartment 328 of the public housing project called Lauderdale Courts. It was there on weekday mornings that a young Elvis Presley would listen to the Blackwood Brothers radio show while getting ready for school, and he would later credit the Blackwoods with solidifying his appreciation for gospel music. Elvis’s family attended at the First Assembly of God church together with the Blackwoods, and Elvis would often show up at the stage door to listen at the Blackwood's monthly concerts at Ellis Auditorium. Elvis maintained a musical relationship with the members of the Blackwood Brothers quartet for the rest of his life, sometimes joining the quartet on stage in a song, or later on, with the Blackwood Brothers as the backup singers for Elvis' gospel concerts.
The shift to a Top Forty format was pioneered locally by WMPS. As a former disc jockey from the era remarked, the format was marked by a ''fast tune, followed by a medium fast tune, followed by a slow tune with no disc jockey patter, just time and temperature info in between… The slogan was 'WMPS, where you’re never more than 5 minutes away from music'. It was hugely successful, big ratings, big advertising bucks''.
The change to Top Forty caused many of the station's former on-air ''personalities'' to either adapt or leave the station. Bob Neal was one of those notable characters who survived the transition, perhaps because he was also the station's Program Director. Neal managed a precarious balance between his job as Program Director; his anachronistic daily county and western music program in spite of WMPS' Top Forty format; and, his work outside of the station as a promoter of music acts and music events. Neal was adept as a music promoter, having put on his ''County Music Jamboree'' at the Overton Park Shell for about ten years between 1946 and 1956. The year 1955 was probably the pinnacle of Neal's career, when he signed a contract on January 1, 1955 to become Elvis Presleys' first manager, and later in the year, when he introduced the world to the music of Johnny Cash on WMPS. Both performers were featured in his Jamboree at the Shell on August 5, 1955. Neal's success was short-lived, as Elvis fans know, for it was later in August of 1955 that Elvis' contract with Neal was usurped by Colonel Tom Parker. Bob Neal left WMPS in 1956 to pursue music promotion full-time, including a stint beginning in 1958 as Johnnie Cash's manager.
With the exit of Bob Neal as the last of the ''old time'' disc jockeys, the transition to the Top Forty format was complete, and some have said that the character of radio in Memphis changed for the worse. WMPS and WHBQ rivaled one another as the number 1 and number 2 radio stations in the city for the next fifteen years, but the former role of the disc jockey as the bridge between the radio audience for stations like WMPS, and the talent, like Elvis and Johnnie Cash, or promoters like Sam Phillips, Cowboy Jack Clement and Chips Moman was lost. Radio was programmed not by the ''seat of the pants'', as Bob Neal or Dewey Phillips might have called it, but rather by the weekly results of local record sales. Within the confines of the Top Forty format, Dewey Phillips at WHBQ would have never been allowed to play Elvis' previously unheard ''That’s All Right'' as he did in 1954, nor would Bob Neal have been allowed to introduce Johnny Cash's ''Hey Porter'' and ''Cry, Cry, Cry'' as he did on WMPS in 1955 (WHBQ went to a Top Forty format in 1958 and fired Dewey Phillips). Slowly and surely, the artists who used to pass through WMPS' to record at the commercial rental studios on the second floor stopped coming to the building. Acts like Billy Lee Riley, and Eddie Bond and the Stompers, who are now regarded as giants of the early rock and rockabilly genre, could never get the local radio exposure that was available to Elvis, Johnny Cash and the rest of the major original Sun Records artists. It became somewhat ironic, then, that in the last half of the 1950s, the discovery and promotion of local acts had to take a detour through the doors of the big record companies in Nashville and New York before they could be heard in Memphis on WMPS.
There were significant exceptions, of course. Companies like Chips Moman's American Sound Studio and Stax Records in the 1960s and 1970s were successful in bringing the ''Memphis Sound'' of blues, soul, and funk to America's ears, and of course, WMPS was one of the places on the dial where the sound could be heard. As a national phenomena, even Top Forty stations like WMPS started to once again foster the ''on-air personality'' as an element of their programming. One of those early personalities was Roy Mack, who stole a page from old Bob Neal's playbook by becoming the manager of the Devilles while working as a disc jockey at WMPS. Mack changed the group’s name to ''The Box Tops'', and they went on to record ten Top 100 singles between 1967 and 1970, including their number 1 hit ''The Letter''.
Another of the new disc jockeys at WMPS was Rick Dees, who came the station in 1976 while still in his earlys. Dees introduced the concept of a ''morning program'' to the Memphis airwaves, working with a mixture of music, news, talk, and his own brand of humor performed by his ''Cast of Idiots''. While at WMPS, Dees recorded the novelty/satirical single ''Disco Duck'' in August 1976, which rocketed to the number 1 slot on the pop charts on October 16th. Ironically, Dees, who was prevented from playing the song on WMPS due to concerns over conflict of interest and the appearance of payola, was fired by WMPS on October 11th for having mentioned the name of the song on-air. In spite of a non-competition clause in his former contract that caused him to sit out for a short stint, Dees was hired by rival WHBQ, where his new show became a resounding success. In 1979, Dees left for Los Angeles and eventually became the host of a nationally syndicated Top Forty radio program.
The argument is made by some local radio historians that the loss of Rick Dees was the final battle in the 25-year old ratings war between WMPS and WHBQ, and WHBQ came away the winner. In short order, the station moved to abandon its old Top Forty format in favor of country and western music in 1978, thus at least symbolically returning the station to its pre-1955 roots. As also was the trend in the mid-1980s, ''Radio Center'' was abandoned by Plough Broadcasting in favor of a new broadcast facility in a suburban office park, and the broadcast slot at 680 AM was sold by Plough and given other call letters soon after. The call letters of WMPS were revived by Flinn Broadcasting around 2001; today, the station broadcasts as WMPS 1210 AM from its current home in Bartlett, Tennessee.
In 1985, the vacated studios at Radio Center were occupied by another radio legend of Memphis, the ''Goodwill Station'' as it was known far and wide, WDIA-AM, the nation's premier African-American radio station. Owners John Pepper and Dick Ferguson put WDIA on-air for the first time in June of 1947 from studios located at 2074 Union Avenue; they would later relocate to Central Avenue in the 1960s. The original format for the station was similar to the country and western and light pop played by WMPS, but it could not compete and was a commercial flop. Before giving up on the station entirely, the owners happened to hire local syndicated columnist and high school teacher Nat D. Williams. Williams brought his program, the ''Tan Town Jubilee'', to the air in October of 1948. It was the first radio program broadcast in America that was specifically aimed at an African-American audience, and with it, the legend was born. Within a year, the station’s ratings even with only a partial African-American”'' format stood at number 2 in the Memphis market; following the switch to an full-time African-American format, the station quickly became number 1. The growth of the station’s appeal was helped along in part because of its history of retaining luminary on-air personalities, including B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, and so many others. The programming was unlike any other station in the nation, with disc jockeys spinning blues, soul, gospel, rhythm and blues, continuing up to today with hip hop music. Apart from the music program were the talent shows from the Palace Theater on Beale Street, which helped to showcase the early careers of Stax artists like Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas; and, local news and public interest shows, which posted job listings and other ''public bulletin board'' items of interest to its audience.
While some may suggest that the historic years of WDIA were behind them when they moved to Radio Center, others would see things differently. Though Nat D. Williams had ceased his on-air program in 1972 following a stroke, Rufus Thomas continued to work at the station up until his death in 2001. Bobby O'Jay and other new on-air personalities had joined the station to keep the station fresh and alive. WDIA had a major hand in fostering the redevelopment of Beale Street, along with the National Civil Rights Museum, Soulsville, USA, and other cultural institutions and events. Perhaps the greatest change to the station occurred in 1996 with the acquisition of WDIA by media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications. Clear Channel has clearly had a hand in reshaping the content, personalities and on-air character of the station, but WDIA still retains a strong audience share, in spite of inroads by stations featuring ''urban contemporary formats'' that have whittled away WDIA's market share among the young and young adult audiences. WDIA closed its downtown Union Avenue offices in 2004 and relocated to a suburban office park. For the first time in fifty-five continuous years of broadcasting, Radio Center fell silent.
The rebirth of Radio Center has been achieved by its new owners as a result of an extraordinary effort. Though the exterior of Radio Center has been restored very much like its appearance when the doors opened in 1948, few of the radio personalities and station staff members would recognize it’s interior today. When work began on the redevelopment project in 2005, environmental reports found significant concentrations of friable asbestos in almost every surface in the building, the plaster walls, the studio partitions and ceiling tiles, the floor tiles, etc., and every bit of it had to be removed to preserve the safety of the public and that of the building’s tenants. The redeveloped building has been carefully designed to retain the best of Radio Center's historic Modernist design while introducing new spaces and finishes updated for contemporary living for a new century in Downtown Memphis.
Copyright John Hopkins-Oates & Associates 2008