THE STATIONS

Contains

WDIA Radio
''America's First All Black Radio Station''

Dewey Phillips WHBQ
''Red Hot And Blue Broadcast''

Memphis Disc Jockey Dewey Phillips
With Jerry Lee Lewis 1957 WHBQ TV

Sam Phillips By The Ladies
WHER Radio

WMPS Radio
Radio Center

- WDIA RADIO, MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE -

"I remember when the black ambulances could not haul white people. They had a white company, I'll never forget, called Thompson's. I was on my way to the station, and when I come around the curve there was the ambulance from S. W. Qualls with the door open, and there was a white lady laying in the ditch, bleeding. And they were waiting for Thompson's to come and pick her up. Qualls couldn't pick her up. I guess I waited thirty or forty minutes and still no ambulance. They tell me that the lady died. So I came to WDIA and told the tale. I said, 'Look here.' I said, 'Black folks put their hands in your flour and make your bread, they cook the meat, they clean up your house, and here's this fine aristocratic white lady laying in the ditch bleeding and they won't let black hands pick her up and rush her to the hospital.' And the next week, they changed that law where a black ambulance could pick up anybody. I got that changed on WDIA''.

Reverend Dwight ''Gatemouth'' Moore, WDIA disc jockey

Above: WDIA held its 8th Annual Goodwill Revue with Ray Charles, B.B. King, The Moonglows & The Magnificents. The gross of the rhythm and blues show totaled over $15,000. Among the personalities who attended were Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and Elvis Presley.

WDIA RADIO - is the first radio station in America that was programmed entirely by African-Americans for African-Americans. It empowered a huge segment of the population that was, until the late 1940s, largely unrecognized. WDIA's monumental achievement was all the more extraordinary as it occurred during a time of institutionalized racism.

When WDIA became Memphis, Tennessee’s sixth station in June 1947, radio was still America's primary medium for entertainment and news. There were barely 30 television stations yet established in the country. Most all programming was geared toward the nation's white audience. Women were rarely on air, except as characters in dramas, and with very few exceptions - such as Jack Cooper in Chicago and Sonny Boy Williamson in Helena, Arkansas - blacks were not on the air. Even ''Amos and Andy'' a ''Negro'' comedy show, was performed by whites.

Initially, WDIA broadcast country and western music, classical, light pop - like the other stations in town. But the listening audience didn't need another station like the rest, and WDIA was a failing enterprise. In a final act of desperation before closing, station owners John Pepper and Bert Ferguson hired local high school teacher and nationally syndicated columnist Nathaniel Dowd Williams, an African-American, to host a show. Though Memphis' population was 40% African-American, no major media addressed them in the late 1940s. When Nat D.'s ''Tan Town Jamboree'' first aired on October 25, 1948, the response was overwhelmingly positive - except for the requisite bomb threats by the threatened white segregationists. WDIA bought some blues records, and a loyal listenership quickly grew.

Nat D. Williams was a prominent figure on Beale Street, and he brought the street to the station. Rufus Thomas, who co-hosted the Palace Theater Amateur Night with Nat, began hosting the 15-minute Sepia Swing Club and soon had a 2-hour nighttime show called ''Hoot and Holler''. B. B. King, who'd begun making his name at the Amateur Night, knocked on the station's door one day in 1949 and impressed station personnel with his audition. B. B. went on the air promoting Pepticon, the station's cure-all, and his career as a recording artist, and as a product spokesperson, took off. He recorded his first single in the station’s studio during off hours.

Station owner John Pepper learned in early 1949 that WDIA, with partial black programming, had become the number 2 station in the city. By the Fall of 1949, WDIA was programmed entirely for an African-American audience. A. C. ''Moohah'' Williams, a biology teacher at Manassas High School, became the station's first full-time African-American employee when he was hired as promotions consultant. A. C., in addition to hosting shows and generally running things, instituted the Teen Town Singers, a choral group that was as much about camaraderie, discipline, and leadership as it was about singing. Among the early Teen-Towners were STAX ''Queen of Soul'' Carla Thomas and long time station personality Mark Stansbury. Oscar winner Isaac Hayes was a regular on the station's Big Star Talent Show, and the former president of MLGW Herman Morris played on one of several station sponsored little league baseball teams.

The station’s public face was African-American, but the offices were a model for integration. In addition to the white owners, other whites were integral behind the scenes. David James Mattis was the program director. A former member of the Army Air Forces during World War II, he ran a tight ship, insisting on a professionalism that allowed the on-air personnel’s looseness to seem easy. He also established the Duke record label, which recorded much of the early talent that came through station; he later sold Duke to Don Robey in Houston. Chris Spindel facilitated programming, helping to organize shows like “Brown America Speaks,” which gave a political voice to the station.

(Above) Blues singer and radio preacher Reverent Dwight ''Gatemouth'' Moore, once known as "Mister Beale Street'', was visiting Memphis in October 1957. He had traveled from Birmingham, Alabama, to help with a membership drive for the Beale Street Elks Lodge at 401 Beale Street. He was photographed in front of the Palace Theater, where he said he was the first winner of the Beale Street Amateur Contest.

The station’s first female African-American disc jockey was Willa Monroe, a society belle who hosted a program for homemakers. The advice program, for the lovelorn and mentally torn, was hosted by the matronly-voiced Aunt Carrie. The first gospel disc jockey was Reverend Dwight ''Gatemouth'' Moore, a former blues singer. ''My program was called ''Prayer Time'', Moore recollected, ''and my phone would ring and I've had white people to say, 'What is happening on that radio station? My maid is tearing up the house'''!

Such calls proved to the station that they were penetrating the black market. Advertisers, unaccustomed to reaching African-American shoppers, had to be coaxed, but the response was strong enough that those who bought ads quickly renewed. Society was still so segregated that WDIA had to alert their advertisers that they’d be getting visits from black shoppers - lots and lots of black shoppers.

With novice disc jockeys breaking all the broadcast rules - there were no dulcet toned jocks on WDIA, and very little restraint on the effusive personalities - the station assumed the mantle of top ranked in the city. It stayed there so solidly that other stations soon fought to be number 2 - because everyone knew the number 1 spot was taken. Martha Jean ''The Queen'' Steinberg became Princess Premium Stuff. Ernest Brazzell gave crop advice and Robert Thomas became a disc jockey named ''Honeyboy'' after he won a city-wide amateur competition. Among other notable personalities were Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert, Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade, and Ford Nelson, who remains an active gospel disc jockey on WDIA in 2003.

The station had been broadcasting with 250 watts at 730 on the AM dial, and in June 1954 they got permission to increase to 50,000 watts, which entailed a move to 1070 on the dial. With that strong signal beaming from Memphis down into the Mississippi Delta’s dense African-American population (the signal reached from the bootheel of Missouri to the Gulf coast), WDIA was able to reach 10% of the total African-American population in the United States. A boast like that brought a lot of advertising power, including many national clients.

WDIA hadn't set out to be the Goodwill Station, but community involvement was a natural outgrowth of its position in the city. Walking down the street in black neighborhoods, people could hear a song uninterrupted as WDIA emanated from each household. Early in the station's history, a woman came running into the offices saying she’d lost her child. She asked that the station announce a description; the child was found, and soon WDIA was making all sorts of community announcements: missing persons, church events, even lost false teeth. The program ''Workers Wanted'' announced job openings; ''Call For Action'' put people in touch with agencies to solve problems. WDIA was like a community bulletin board. They sponsored a talent show, put on a spelling bee at Tri State Fair (where they bought the championship hog), and on summer nights they set up a movie projector in different low-income housing projects, bringing free entertainment to the kids.

With all this talent and energy, and the connections with the record labels, it was also natural for WDIA to put on a show. Around Christmastime, the Goodwill Revue brought in the best gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and soul performers in the nation; the disc jockeys put on entertaining skits and many also performed. The Goodwill Revues were enormously successful (and spawned the Starlite Revue in the summer). None of the monies raised by these WDIA events went to the station's operating budget - it all went toward charitable causes. WDIA gave money and food to needy families, bought busses which transported disabled black children to school, set up the Goodwill Home for Black Children, and established a Little League for black children that grew to over 100 teams for 2000 kids.

WDIA's impact was enormous, not just in Memphis but in the whole USA. Radio stations from other cities sent representatives to study how WDIA worked, returning to establish African-American stations in their own cities. WDIA began to call itself ''the Mother Station of Negroes''. In Memphis, the second black station, WLOK, opened in 1954. WDIA was sold by its original owners in 1957, but for decades after that, its spirit has thrived. WDIA celebrated a people who’d known only insult, earning a prominent place in the history of American race relations - and entertainment. In May of 2013, WDIA will be inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.

© - Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame - ©

- DEWEY PHILLIPS WHBQ -
''RED HOT AND BLUE BROADCAST''

WHBQ RADIO (AM 560) - Founded by Gordon Lawhead and owner of Memphis radio station (telephone: Jackson 6-5456), located in Lobby of the Chisca Hotel at 272 South Main Street across Beale Street, is one of the city's key stations in the 1950s. The station's bestknown disc jockey, the manic Dewey Phillips, hosted the "Red Hot and Blue" show, essential listening for Memphis' first generation of rock and roll aspirants. On July 8, 1954, Sun Records' Sam Phillips handed Dewey (no relation) a test pressing of Elvis Presley's first single, "That's All Right". The disc jockey was so impressed he yelled, "Degawwhhh, it's a hit, it's a cotton pickin' hit!", right on air. Within minutes the switchboard was jammed, and he began playing the track over and over while desperately trying to get Elvis Presley in for an interview. Eventually the singer was found at a local Suzure II cinema and whisked into the studio.

Once Presley became a star, Dewey Phillips began calling everybody, including himself, Elvis - he'd even call up Atlantic Records VP Jerry Wexler and say, "Hi Elvis, this is Elvis". When Wexler and co-executive Ahmet Ertegun popped into the station one day in 1956 to plug records, Dewey told listeners he had a "couple of Yankee records thieves" with him. But after the show, he took the pair to meet Presley at a now-demolished club, where they unsuccessfully tried to buy out the future King's contract from Sun. Atlantic offered $30.000, which they could barely afford, but lost out to RCA Victor, which bid an extra $10.000. Elvis Presley didn't sing at the club that night, but Ertegun got up and did an impromptu version of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man", which won over a sceptical Dewey Phillips to Atlantic's cause and convinced him to play the labels' New York records on WHBQ radio.

From the moment Dewey's life was intertwined with the rising career of Elvis Presley. Elvis joined him on the air several times, though every appearance was fraught with security problems. Once Dewey announced that Elvis Presley and the band were tuning up inside the radio station. Soon a crowd of teenagers rushed through the hotel entrance and up the stairs to the radio station on the mezzanine floor. Only a glass wall separated the musicians from the excited crowd, and the police were called to restore order. Elvis Presley and the band had to escape through a back exit.

Situated at the corner of Linden Avenue and South Main Street, the Hotel Chisca had two entrances. The disc jockey’s and musicians preferred to use the Linden Avenue, or side entrance, into the hotel lobby. They would walk up a flight of stairs to the mezzanine floor, turn left down the hallway, and walk through the two glass doors into the station. In the back left portion of the station was Dewey's small room, filled with records and the endangered equipment. The room usually was crowded during show time because of Dewey's large entourage. Visitors to Dewey's show would also gather at the gravel parking lot across Linden Avenue (now part of the Memphis Light Gas and Water Building).

Radio station WHBQ moved and now based in the suburbs to a new facility at 462 South Highland in 1962, the station features sports and talk, having abandoned music after disc jockey Rick Dees assaulted the pop world with his 1976 single, "Disco Duck". Today George Klein hosts his Elvis Hour radio show on WHBQ radio.

CHISCA HOTEL – Built in 1913 and located at 272 South Main Street, Memphis, across Beale Street, Sam Phillips delivered demos to key Memphis disc jockey’s: including Dewey Phillips at WHBQ radio. In 1954, the Chisca Hotel was home to radio station WHBQ and disc jockey Dewey Phillips' program "Red Hot And Blue". Phillips often played new releases from friend and business associate Sam Phillips' record label, Sun Records. On July 8, 1954, Dewey Phillips played SUN 209 over the airways, making him one of the first disc jockey’s to spin a professionally recorded Elvis Presley toward stardom. He was so impressed with Elvis Presley's sound that he played "That's All Right" and the flip side, "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", repeatedly throughout his show.

The response to Elvis Presley was overwhelmingly positive. Dewey Phillips wanted Elvis Presley to come in that night for his first radio interview. Sam Phillips called the Presley's at their Alabama Street apartment, but Elvis Presley was no where to be found.

Vernon Presley hunted him down, finding him hiding at the movie theater, Suzore II at 279 North Main Street, because he was too afraid to listen to himself on WHBQ radio. That night Elvis Presley went to the Chisca Hotel where he was interviewed by Dewey Phillips. During the interview Phillips asked Elvis Presley which high school he attended.

The racial climate at the time was so tense, and Elvis' sound so different from that of other white artists, that his racial background was unclear. Elvis Presley's response of "Humes High School, sir", affirmed to listeners that he was white.

Today, the stately Chisca Hotel still stands at the southwest corner of Main Street and Linden Avenue, and used as the headquarters of a church with the name "Church Of God In Christ", and is not open to the public.

On October 2012, the property appears to be on the verge of being saved. The private group has closed on the real estate contract purchasing the Hotel Chiska. It is expected renovation activity may begin during the summer of 2013.

On August 7, 2012, the Memphis City Council voted to conditionally provide $3-million toward the restoration of Hotel Chisca. An investment group reportedly now will proceed with the purchase. Thew group still must provide/obtain private funding for the purchase and millions in restoration costs.

DEWEY MILLS PHILLIPS - Memphis disc jockey for 56 WHBQ radio, located at 272 South Main, Memphis, Tennessee, who on his program "Red Hot and Blue", on July 8, 1954, first played an Elvis Presley song on radio.

(Dewey Phillips was not only one of the first disc jockey to play an Elvis Presley record, he was the first disc jockey to play a Sun Record, when on March 1, 1952, he aired the first record released commercially by Sun Records. The record was "Blues In My Condition"/ "Sellin' My Whisky", SUN 174 by Jackie Boy and Little Walter).

Born on May 13, 1926 in Crump, Tennessee, Dewey Phillips grew up in the small town of Adamsville, Tennessee, and moved to Memphis following a stint in the Army with nothing but a vague ambition to be a singer. A misfit at most jobs (he was fired from a bakery for convincing his co-workers to shape the loaves of bread like gingerbread men).

Lived at 1232 Rutland Avenue during the height of his popularity, Dewey Phillips found his element on Beale Street, the heart of the black community and proving grounds for dozens of rising blues and jazz artists. He was the rare white person who felt comfortable haunting those clubs in that area, but then, "Dewey had no colore", said Beale Street entertainer and Stax recording star Rufus Thomas.

In 1948, seeking an entree into the music business, Dewey Phillips got a job hawking recorded at Grant's, a department store in downtown Memphis. He immediately began blasting rhythm and blues through loudspeakers onto Main Street, then plugged a microphone onto the record player and started blasting himself. He soon had the hottest record department in the 500-store chain and had become his own brand of disc jockey. All he needed was a radio station.

At the same time, another breakthrough had occurred in Memphis. WDIA, a small, dawn to dusk radio station on the verge of bankruptcy, had gone to all-black programming. It was the first station in the country and it was a spectacular success. It was a new kind of radio. Instead of the polish and impeccable diction expected of radio announcers of the era, disc jockey’s like Rufus Thomas and B.B. King brought a style of entertaining honed not in announcing schools but on the stage of Beale Street and country minstrel shows. They sold jokes, one-upped each other of the air and even talked over the music, if only because the lyrics of so many blues records were considered too lewd for radio.

To its competitors, the only thing more shocking than WDIA's style were its profits, and they yearned for a piece of the action. Still unwilling to take the drastic step of hiring a black announcer, WHBQ radio decided to put on a rhythm and blues show called "Red Hot and Blue" as soon as WDIA radio went off the air at sunset hoping the music alone would draw the black audience. But hosted by a schooled, baritone-voiced announcer who knew nothing about the music he was playing, the show flopped.

Apprehensively, but aware of his success at Grant's, the station gave Dewey Phillips a shot at hosting in October, 1949, and in less than a year the show grew from 15 minutes to an hour; then two; then three. Broadcasting from the magazine level (i.e. mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel, his signature was a manic, machine-gun style of speaking that made few concessions to proper English. "Dreegaw", he would yelp, and no one cared what it meant. If the jocks at WDIA radio talked over records to disguise lewd lyrics, Dewey Phillips did it just because it was fun. If he mispronounced his sponsor's names, that was fine. The customers came, with Dewey Phillips' trademark on their lips: "Phillips sent me".

But while the local newspapers delighted in the story of the white disc jockey and his appeal to black listeners (they reported people even showing up at the hospital emergency room saying, "Phillips sent me"), something more was happening. White listeners were tuning in, too. One was a struggling record producer with the same passion for rhythm and blues: Sam Phillips. Although not related, the two struck up a fast and mutually beneficial friendship. Dewey Phillips had a "platinum ear", Sam Phillips thought, an uncanny knack for picking hits, and "Red Hot and Blue" became his personal test market, debuting the records of Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and other then-obscure artists Sam Phillips was recording in his small Memphis studio.

In July 1954, Sam Phillips showed up with a record unusual even by his standards. It wasn't rhythm and blues. It wasn't country. It wasn't pop. It was Elvis Presley. Dewey Phillips played "That's All Right" on his show, and the world has never been the same. Phillips was so taken by the record that he played "That's All Right" fourteen times during the show.

According to fellow WHBQ radio disc jockey, Wink Martindale, "Phillips played both sides of the 78rpm acetate, flipping it over the entire evening. Later that night, after receiving fourteen telegrams and forty-seven phone calls, Dewey Phillips interviewed Elvis, Elvis' first media interview. When Elvis Presley protested that he knew nothing about being interviewed, Dewey's simple advice was, "Just don't say nothing' dirty".

Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley, too, became fast friends. Dewey bought Elvis his first touring car, a $450 1941 Lincoln, but turned down an offer to manage him. His business of breaking new records was still not finished. It was Dewey Phillips who often "broke" Sam Phillips' latest releases over the air in Memphis. Dewey and Sam's friendship went back to 1950, when the two men launched their own record label, Phillips Records, billed as "The Hottest Thing In The Country". Singer Carl Perkins has said that Dewey may have been the first to use the expression, "Man, they're rockin' country music, they're rockabillies".

In the next few years, Dewey would debut dozens of historic recordings coming out of Sam Phillips' Sun Records, including Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (SUN 234), Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" (SUN 232), and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (SUN 267). Of course, it was Dewey Phillips who played the first Jerry Lee Lewis record over the air on WHBQ radio in 1956, when he played "Crazy Arms" (SUN 259).

Even more importantly, listening to Dewey Phillips had become almost a rite of passage for Memphis teenagers, black and white. The integrated bands who would make the hits at Stax, Hi and American studios in the 1960s and 1970s had their ears trained listening to Dewey Phillips in the 1950s, often in the parking lot of a supermarket, dancing in the headlights of their cars. Whenever you were, Dewey made it a party.

In 1956, WHBQ radio decided to try Dewey on television, initially following Lawrence Welk. "You better warn those Welk listeners to grab that dial quick", he said, "because if they don't, I'll be right there at 'em". With his sidekick, Harry Fritzius, an eccentric art student who did the show in a trench coat and gorilla mask, Dewey Phillips' "Pop Shop" was a huge success. It was simulcast with his radio show, and because radio and tv broke at different times for different commercials, Dewey was never sure if he was on one or the other or both. No matter, "You really couldn't make a mistake on the show", a crew member said, "The whole show was a series of mistakes".

Early in his career, WHBQ radio resorted to hiring "babysitters" for Dewey, just to protect their studio. "He was not physically well organized", a colleague remembered kindly. He dropped the needle on records and slobbered on the microphone. He eventually proved so abusive to the equipment that they gave him his own studio.

By the mid-1950s, though, the babysitter's main task was to protect Dewey from his fans. He had become as big a star as the musicians whose records he played, and his country hipster comments became instant slang in Memphis: "Anybody wanna buy a duck?". "If you can't drink it, Freeze it and eat it". "That'll get it. That'll flat get
it".

But even as Dewey Phillips reached his peak, the future was closing in on him. Perhaps he had his first inkling when he saw Elvis Presley singing on the Steve Allen show in a tuxedo. "What are you doing in that monkey suit, boy? Where's your guitar?", he scolded. Rock and roll was here to stay, all the more reason but to leave it in the hands of outrageous, untamable disc jockey’s. The future was called Top 40, with its pre-ordained play lists handed down from on high.

Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley had a falling-out in 1956, when on a visit to Elvis' house Dewey picket up the test acetate of "Hound Dog", which RCA Records, Elvis' label, hand't yet released. Phillips proceeded to feature the unreleased song on his radio show and on his new TV show as "way beyond Ernie Kovacs" in terms of cuttingedge TV comedy. It would be years before Elvis Presley forgave Dewey for stealing the record.

In the late 1950s, Dewey's behavior became more and more erratic. Always an enthusiastic drinker, chronic pain from the car accidents led to an additional dependence on painkillers. The combination began to take its toll. When his partner, Fritzius, made lewd advances to a stage prop-a cardboard cutout of movie starlet Jayne Mansfield Dewey's tv show was canceled instantly. Within a few months, he lost his radio show as well. Thus began a tragic, 10-year odyssey during which he bounced from one station to another in Memphis and Little Rock, never staying at any of them for long, lived mostly with his friends and began to address nearly everyone as "Elvis". After Dewey and his wife separated Phillips became virtually homeless, staying with family members and
old friends. Most veterans of the Memphis music industry have a collection of Dewey-in-decline stories, of bailing him out of jail or picking him up in various hospitals, where he'd often go in futile attempts to obtain drugs.

His last job was in Millington, Tennessee, at a small station in a small Navy town a few miles north of Memphis. On a Saturday afternoon, Dewey Mills Phillips died of pneumonia on September 28, 1968, in bed at his mother's house in Memphis, at the age of forty-two. Elvis Presley attended Phillips' funeral, where he embarrassingly broke into a fit of nervous giggles.

The next day on September 29, 1968, the local newspaper published an article by James Kingsley about the death of Dewey Phillips with headliner: DEWEY PHILLIPS IS FOUND DEAD. Disc jockey who launched Presley, Cash Careers Was 42. One of the nation's most influential disc jockey’s who launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the 1950s, was found dead in his bed yesterday.

Dewey Mills Phillips lived of 3330 Macon Road, was discovered by his mother, Mrs. Odessa Phillips at 5 pm. He was 42. Cause of death had not been determined last night. Mr. Phillips had talked briefly with his mother yesterday morning. A saddened Elvis Presley last night said: "I am awfully hurt and feel very sorry about hearing of Dewey's death. We were very good friends and I have always appreciated everything he did for me in helping
me in my career in the early days".

Mr. Phillips' broadcast over radio station WHBQ was the "Red Hot and Blue Show", one of the biggest in the South and a major influence in launching careers of numerous recording stars. He played Elvis' first recording "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" one night in early 1954. Elvis had gone to a movie afraid to hear the recording on radio for the first time.

After the movie he raced to WHBQ radio studios to hear that the telephone lines to the studio had been jammed. The callers wanted the record played over hundreds of times. He gave his first interview to Mr. Phillips that
night.

''I was scared to death. I was shaking all over when I heard what had happened. I just couldn't believe it but Dewey kept telling me to 'cool it'. It was really happening", Elvis recalled last night.

"He was top dog", recalls Rufus Thomas. "There was none before him and there was none after. Dewey was the only white disc jockey doing black music. I believe he was doing it before". "He had the best ear for putting things together", Sam Phillips recall. "That type of thing had no format and that was the beauty of it. You never knew what to expect from Dewey. I am real careful about saying anything is unique. But Dewey was as close a thing to being unique in this profession as anybody". "Somebody like that guy Dewey Phillips comes along that is absolutely not supposed to make it in quote-unquote communications... He doesn't talk right; he doesn't do this right; he doesn't do that right; he's not conventional", Sam Phillips continued. "But, he makes it! And he makes it bigger than anybody who's ever been a disc jockey in this city. It's a damn fact!".

© - 706 UNION AVENUE SESSIONS - ©

- ''MEMPHIS DISC JOCKEY DEWEY PHILLIPS'' -
WITH JERRY LEE LEWIS 1957

WHBQ TV brought disc jockey Dewey Phillips to local TV in 1956, hosting an afternoon teen dance show titled ''Pop Shop''. This is a filmed bit of the show (minus music) from around 1957 with Jerry Lee Lewis. His remark about "Lansky's" refers to Lansky Brothers, the Memphis haberdasher beloved by the black community in Memphis and by Elvis Presley and others. For some reason, this clip omitted Lewis's actual performances.

In 1958 WHBQ TV, an ABC affiliate began broadcasting American Bandstand in the afternoon slot, foolishly moving ''Pop Shop'', renamed ''Night Beat'', to 11:30 PM. It didn't matter. Within a few days, the show was canceled after one of Dewey's screwball on-air sidekicks inappropriately groped a cardboard cutout of Jayne Mansfield on-camera.

What ended ''Red Hot & Blue'' was way more insidious: the rise of Top 40 radio. Even at WHBQ, owned by a New York corporation, independent jocks like Dewey Phillips became expendable, one small step on the road to the current horrors of Clear Channel and other current mega broadcasters. Unable to follow the tight, set Top 40 format, late in 1958, WHBQ parted ways with him. His fans literally wept in the streets of Memphis during his final broadcast.

DEWEY MILLS PHILLIPS - Memphis disc jockey for 56 WHBQ radio, located at 272 South Main, Memphis, Tennessee, who on his program "Red Hot and Blue", on July 7, 1954, first played an Elvis Presley song on radio. (Dewey Phillips was not only the first disc jockey to play an Elvis Presley record, he was the first disc jockey to play a Sun Record, when on March 1, 1952, he aired the first record released commercially by Sun Records. The record was "Blues In My Condition"/ "Sellin' My Whisky", SUN 174 by Jackie Boy and Little Walter).

Born on May 13, 1926 in Crump, Tennessee, Dewey Phillips grew up in the small town of Adamsville, Tennessee, and moved to Memphis following a stint in the Army with nothing but a vague ambition to be a singer. A misfit at most jobs (he was fired from a bakery for convincing his co-workers to shape the loaves of bread like gingerbread men).

Lived at 1232 Rutland Avenue during the height of his popularity, Dewey Phillips found his element on Beale Street, the heart of the black community and proving grounds for dozens of rising blues and jazz artists. He was the rare white person who felt comfortable haunting those clubs in that area, but then, "Dewey had no colore", said Beale Street entertainer and Stax recording star Rufus Thomas.

In 1948, seeking an entree into the music business, Dewey Phillips got a job hawking recorded at Grant's, a department store in downtown Memphis. He immediately began blasting rhythm and blues through loudspeakers onto Main Street, then plugged a microphone onto the record player and started blasting himself. He soon had the hottest record department in the 500-store chain and had become his own brand of disc jockey. All he needed was a radio station.

At the same time, another breakthrough had occurred in Memphis. WDIA, a small, dawn to dusk radio station on the verge of bankruptcy, had gone to all-black programming. It was the first station in the country and it was a spectacular success. It was a new kind of radio. Instead of the polish and impeccable diction expected of radio announcers of the era, disc jockey’s like Rufus Thomas and B.B. King brought a style of entertaining honed not in announcing schools but on the stage of Beale Street and country minstrel shows. They sold jokes, one-upped each other of the air and even talked over the music, if only because the lyrics of so many blues records were considered too lewd for radio.

To its competitors, the only thing more shocking than WDIA's style were its profits, and they yearned for a piece of the action. Still unwilling to take the drastic step of hiring a black announcer, WHBQ radio decided to put on a rhythm and blues show called "Red Hot and Blue" as soon as WDIA radio went off the air at sunset hoping the music alone would draw the black audience. But hosted by a schooled, baritone-voiced announcer who knew nothing about the music he was playing, the show flopped.

Apprehensively, but aware of his success at Grant's, the station gave Dewey Phillips a shot at hosting in October, 1949, and in less than a year the show grew from 15 minutes to an hour; then two; then three. Broadcasting from the magazine level (i.e. mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel, his signature was a manic, machine-gun style of speaking that made few concessions to proper English. "Dreegaw", he would yelp, and no one cared what it meant. If the jocks at WDIA radio talked over records to disguise lewd lyrics, Dewey Phillips did it just because it was fun. If he mispronounced his sponsor's names, that was fine. The customers came, with Dewey Phillips' trademark on their lips: "Phillips sent me".

But while the local newspapers delighted in the story of the white disc jockey and his appeal to black listeners (they reported people even showing up at the hospital emergency room saying, "Phillips sent me"), something more was happening. White listeners were tuning in, too. One was a struggling record producer with the same passion for rhythm and blues: Sam Phillips. Although not related, the two struck up a fast and mutually beneficial friendship. Dewey Phillips had a "platinum ear", Sam Phillips thought, an uncanny knack for picking hits, and "Red Hot and Blue" became his personal test market, debuting the records of Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and other then-obscure artists Sam Phillips was recording in his small Memphis studio.

In July 1954, Sam Phillips showed up with a record unusual even by his standards. It wasn't rhythm and blues. It wasn't country. It wasn't pop. It was Elvis Presley. Dewey Phillips played "That's All Right" on his show, and the world has never been the same. Phillips was so taken by the record that he played "That's All Right" fourteen times during the show.

According to fellow WHBQ radio disc jockey, Wink Martindale, "Phillips played both sides of the 78rpm acetate, flipping it over the entire evening. Later that night, after receiving fourteen telegrams and forty-seven phone calls, Dewey Phillips interviewed Elvis, Elvis' first media interview. When Elvis Presley protested that he knew nothing about being interviewed, Dewey's simple advice was, "Just don't say nothing' dirty".

Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley, too, became fast friends. Dewey bought Elvis his first touring car, a $450 1941 Lincoln, but turned down an offer to manage him. His business of breaking new records was still not finished. It was Dewey Phillips who often "broke" Sam Phillips' latest releases over the air in Memphis. Dewey and Sam's friendship went back to 1950, when the two men launched their own record label, Phillips Records, billed as "The Hottest Thing In The Country". Singer Carl Perkins has said that Dewey may have been the first to use the expression, "Man, they're rockin' country music, they're rockabillies".

In the next few years, Dewey would debut dozens of historic recordings coming out of Sam Phillips' Sun Records, including Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (SUN 234), Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" (SUN 232), and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (SUN 267). Of course, it was Dewey Phillips who played the first Jerry Lee Lewis record over the air on WHBQ radio in 1956, when he played "Crazy Arms" (SUN 259).

Even more importantly, listening to Dewey Phillips had become almost a rite of passage for Memphis teenagers, black and white. The integrated bands who would make the hits at Stax, Hi and American studios in the 1960s and 1970s had their ears trained listening to Dewey Phillips in the 1950s, often in the parking lot of a supermarket, dancing in the headlights of their cars. Whenever you were, Dewey made it a party.

In 1956, WHBQ radio decided to try Dewey on television, initially following Lawrence Welk. "You better warn those Welk listeners to grab that dial quick", he said, "because if they don't, I'll be right there at 'em". With his sidekick, Harry Fritzius, an eccentric art student who did the show in a trench coat and gorilla mask, Dewey Phillips' "Pop Shop" was a huge success. It was simulcast with his radio show, and because radio and TV broke at different times for different commercials, Dewey was never sure if he was on one or the other or both. No matter, "You really couldn't make a mistake on the show", a crew member said, "The whole show was a series of mistakes".

Early in his career, WHBQ radio resorted to hiring "babysitters" for Dewey, just to protect their studio. "He was not physically well organized", a colleague remembered kindly. He dropped the needle on records and slobbered on the microphone. He eventually proved so abusive to the equipment that they gave him his own studio.

By the mid-1950s, though, the babysitter's main task was to protect Dewey from his fans. He had become as big a star as the musicians whose records he played, and his country hipster comments became instant slang in Memphis: "Anybody wanna buy a duck?". "If you can't drink it, Freeze it and eat it". "That'll get it. That'll flat get it".

But even as Dewey Phillips reached his peak, the future was closing in on him. Perhaps he had his first inkling when he saw Elvis Presley singing on the Steve Allen show in a tuxedo. "What are you doing in that monkey suit, boy? Where's your guitar?", he scolded. Rock and roll was here to stay, all the more reason but to leave it in the hands of outrageous, untamable disc jockey’s. The future was called Top 40, with its pre-ordained play lists handed down from on high.

Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley had a falling-out in 1956, when on a visit to Elvis' house Dewey picket up the test acetate of "Hound Dog", which RCA Records, Elvis' label, hand't yet released. Phillips proceeded to feature the unreleased song on his radio show and on his new TV show as "way beyond Ernie Kovacs" in terms of cuttingedge TV comedy. It would be years before Elvis Presley forgave Dewey for stealing the record.

In the late 1950s, Dewey's behavior became more and more erratic. Always an enthusiastic drinker, chronic pain from the car accidents led to an additional dependence on painkillers. The combination began to take its toll. When his partner, Fritzius, made lewd advances to a stage prop-a cardboard cutout of movie starlet Jayne Mansfield Dewey's TV show was canceled instantly. Within a few months, he lost his radio show as well. Thus began a tragic, 10-year odyssey during which he bounced from one station to another in Memphis and Little Rock, never staying at any of them for long, lived mostly with his friends and began to address nearly everyone as "Elvis". After Dewey and his wife separated Phillips became virtually homeless, staying with family members and
old friends. Most veterans of the Memphis music industry have a collection of Dewey-in-decline stories, of bailing him out of jail or picking him up in various hospitals, where he'd often go in futile attempts to obtain drugs.

His last job was in Millington, Tennessee, at a small station in a small Navy town a few miles north of Memphis. On a Saturday afternoon, Dewey Mills Phillips died of pneumonia on September 28, 1968, in bed at his mother's house in Memphis, at the age of forty-two. Elvis Presley attended Phillips' funeral, where he embarrassingly broke into a fit of nervous giggles.

The next day on September 29, 1968, the local newspaper published an article by James Kingsley about the death of Dewey Phillips with headliner: DEWEY PHILLIPS IS FOUND DEAD. Disc jockey who launched Presley, Cash Careers Was 42. One of the nation's most influential disc jockey’s who launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the 1950s, was found dead in his bed yesterday.

Dewey Mills Phillips lived of 3330 Macon Road, was discovered by his mother, Mrs. Odessa Phillips at 5 pm. He was 42. Cause of death had not been determined last night. Mr. Phillips had talked briefly with his mother yesterday morning. A saddened Elvis Presley last night said: "I am awfully hurt and feel very sorry about hearing of Dewey's death. We were very good friends and I have always appreciated everything he did for me in helping me in my career in the early days".

Mr. Phillips' broadcast over radio station WHBQ was the "Red Hot and Blue Show", one of the biggest in the South and a major influence in launching careers of numerous recording stars. He played Elvis' first recording "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" one night in early 1954. Elvis had gone to a movie afraid to hear the recording on radio for the first time.

After the movie he raced to WHBQ radio studios to hear that the telephone lines to the studio had been jammed. The callers wanted the record played over hundreds of times. He gave his first interview to Mr. Phillips that night.

''I was scared to death. I was shaking all over when I heard what had happened. I just couldn't believe it but Dewey kept telling me to 'cool it'. It was really happening", Elvis recalled last night.

"He was top dog", recalls Rufus Thomas. "There was none before him and there was none after. Dewey was the only white disc jockey doing black music. I believe he was doing it before". "He had the best ear for putting things together", Sam Phillips recall. "That type of thing had no format and that was the beauty of it. You never knew what to expect from Dewey. I am real careful about saying anything is unique. But Dewey was as close a thing to being unique in this profession as anybody". "Somebody like that guy Dewey Phillips comes along that is absolutely not supposed to make it in quote-unquote communications... He doesn't talk right; he doesn't do this right; he doesn't do that right; he's not conventional", Sam Phillips continued. "But, he makes it! And he makes it bigger than anybody who's ever been a disc jockey in this city. It's a damn fact!".

© - 706 UNION AVENUE SESSIONS - ©

They Lives They Lived 2003
- SAM PHILLIPS BY THE LADIES OF WHER RADIO -

Is told by WHER disc jockeys
Becky Phillips, Marge Thrasher and Bettye Burger

TV Segment, Written and Directed by Roger Ross Williams for New York Times Television, 2003. Executive P roducer: William Abrams; Associate Producer: Anneliese Paull; Cinematography by John C. Kelleran; Film Editing by Jay Keuper and Jeremy Stulberg; Research Assistant: Pawel Grajnert.

WHER ALL-GIRL RADIO - Record producer and label owner Sam Phillips is probably best known for signing Elvis Presley to his first record contract and introducing him to the world. But he also founded and owned the country’s first ''All Girl Radio Station''.

Living in Memphis, Sam Phillips had long wanted to own a radio station. In 1955, the FCC awarded him the rights to 1430 AM. Phillips put together a group of investors to assemble the station, including Kemmon Wilson, who at the time had just begun his ''Holiday Inn'' hotel chain. The station was based in a Holiday Inn in Memphis. Phillips wife Becky had worked as an announcer on a local station and suggested the ''all-girl'' gimmick. At the time, most stations had a single female voice that might give the time or station identification and read some commercials. Phillips decided that women listeners might relate better to a station where all you heard were women’s voices: All the on-air personalities were women, women read the news and programmed the records. The station even employed all female salespersons and management.

Phillips promoted the angle relentlessly and he never missed a chance to point out the differences between his ''All-girl'' radio and the other male-dominated stations. Media coverage at the time reported that the disc jockeys were renamed ''jockettes'', the studio was called ''the doll's den'', the WHER stationary was perfumed and exit signs were replaced with ''Bye bye till next time''! While these affectations seem dated and downright condescending today, at the time they were seen as innovative and drove home the fact that this station was by, for and about women.

Programming was a mix of talk, jazz and easy listening. Women program directors screened new releases for inappropriate lyrics or suggestive content. The station proved popular with female listeners and advertisers alike, lasting for 11 years and spawning a handful of copy-cats, most of which duplicated the on-air female voices but didn’t follow through and employ women behind the scenes as producers, copywriters and salespeople, as WHER did.

Today, radio is still seen primary as a man’s business, with few women on air and even less behind the scenes, but for a brief period, women ran the show in Memphis. As Assistant Manager and Program Director Dorothy Abbott ( a.k.a ''Dot Holiday'') was quoted saying, ''We are not trying to prove that we can get along in a world without men. We are simply trying to prove that when a group of women make up their collective minds that they are going to do something successfully, no force on earth can keep them from it''.

© - 706 UNION AVENUE SESSIONS - ©

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

© - 706 UNION AVENUE SESSIONS - ©

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