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
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.
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
''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!".
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