Elvis Presley see the Newborn family band with Calvin Newborn and Phineas Newborn
Jr. at such local nightspots as the Flamingo Room at Hernando and Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee, and the Plantation Inn in West Memphis, Arkansas.
"He got rhythm from
my dad, he got boogie-woogie from my brother and he got his poise from me", assert Calvin Newborn. Of course there are dozens of musicians around Memphis who'll tell you just how much Elvis Presley got from them, but Calvin has a point. Back then, the youngest
Newborn was a wild man, famed for a stage act that included leaping into the air in mid-solo, a routine that earned him the nickname "Legs".
INN – Across the Mississippi Bridge in West Memphis, in the parking lot of Pancho's Mexican restaurant, is the site where the Plantation Inn Nite Club once stood. While there's no marker, plaque or sign noting that fact, the impact of the club,
the music it hosted and the musicians it fostered, can still be felt decades after its demise.
Today, a group of West Memphis civic and cultural interests, the city's
Blues and Rhythm Society, Public Library, Convention and Visitor's Bureau, and the Crittenden Arts Council, kicks off a two-day event celebrating the rich legacy of the Plantation Inn.
The festivities begin this morning at Southland Park Gaming & Camp; Racing with an educational symposium about the club. The panel includes ethnomusicologist Dr. David Evans; critic Robert Gordon; folk art specialist Dr. Mike Luster;
musicians Wayne Jackson, Calvin Newborn and Willie Mitchell; former club bouncer Raymond Vega; and Brenda Berger O'Brien, daughter of PI founder Morris Berger. A dance concert will follow tonight, featuring trumpeter Jackson and an all-star PI Blues Band.
A free amateur blues contest will be Saturday at Worthington Park.
"This event is part of a long-term project to really establish West Memphis' connection to the region's
music, which is pretty considerable," says Janine Earney, executive director of the Crittenden Arts Council. "A lot of time we're just a footnote to Memphis, but many of the musicians lived and worked here, and what happened in our clubs had a profound influence."
The Plantation Inn had a long and varied history. Once an actual plantation house, later it was a gambling hall, and then a roadhouse. Morris Berger launched it as the Plantation Inn in
1942, and it soon became the hottest destination in an area boasting a thriving nightlife.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, West Memphis provided a lax legal environment
that spawned a variety of musical venues, like the Cotton Club and Danny's. While those clubs catered mostly to country music, the Plantation Inn opened its stages to a host of great black acts: from the Newborn Family, father Phineas and sons Calvin and Phineas
Jr., to bandleaders like Ben Branch, Gene "Bowlegs" Miller and Willie Mitchell. Although it survived an early-1960s crackdown on local clubs, the Plantation Inn closed its doors in 1964, but not before playing a key role in shaping Memphis music.
Long before his trumpet would anchor the Memphis Horns and punctuate inimitable hits for the Stax label, the West Memphis-raised Wayne Jackson got his education in Southland Park Gaming
& Camp at the Plantation Inn. "When I was a kid I always heard about the Plantation Inn," says Jackson. "It was one of those places the adults went. They had linen tablecloths, good steaks and good music. Then as time went by, and we became teenagers we
would go and sit around and listen to the bands and the singing. They'd serve us a beer and look the other way. We thought we were big time. But we got to hear what was being played and fall in love with the music."
"There were times where I couldn't get in," recalls veteran musician/producer Jim Dickinson. "Like if I didn't have a phony I.D. or something. So many a night I just went over there and got drunk in the parking
lot, stayed in my car listening to the music, because you could hear it from outside."
Author Robert Gordon, who devoted a chapter to the Plantation Inn in his 1995 book
"It Came From Memphis," notes that the club provided a whole generation of white musicians, often underage, with their first serious dose of black music.
get into clubs more easily across the river, and the exposure to bands like Willie Mitchell's or Phineas Newborn's group, or the many others who came and went was crucial," says Gordon. "It provided those kids with a kind of primer for Southland Park Gaming
& Camp: for the rhythms and the repertoires and the unusual horn arrangements."
"Of course some of those same bands also played Memphis clubs, it was just much harder
to get into to see them," adds Gordon. "Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn (of Booker T. & the MGs) tell a story about going to the Flamingo Club on Beale Street and standing in the stairwell and listening to the music. But, because they were kids and were white,
they couldn't get in beyond that. But in West Memphis you could practically get on the stage."
Beyond just witnessing the groups, the sights and sounds of what went on
at the Plantation Inn had a visceral impact on those who would come to help define Memphis music throughout the 1960s and 1970s. "A lot of people say the origins of the 'Memphis Sound' began at the Plantation Inn, and I think there's a lot of truth to that,"
says Jackson. "We did get a lot of the ideas from those bands. We dressed up and shined our shoes and did steps, we got that idea from the Four Kings, who were Willie Mitchell's band. We just learned about rhythm and blues and what you had to do to make people
dance. So at Stax, we always played with that intention."
To Dickinson, it was Plantation Inn bandleader Ben Branch and his group the Largos who provided a key inspiration.
"They were the single most significant influence on what became the Memphis sound. All of what became soul music was derivative of what Ben Branch and Largos were doing," says Dickinson. "But overall, the PI itself developed a kind of sound. That had more
to do with the same musicians in different groups coming and going. It was sort of what continued happening in the recording studios in Memphis later on, how the same group of musicians developed a kind of interplay and a style''.
As part of the tribute event, Jackson will be playing in a band led by Marvell Thomas, a Plantation Inn veteran who was a member of "Bowlegs" Miller's group as a teen, that will include local notables like guitarist
Skip Pitts and saxman Jim Spake, among others.
The Plantation Inn Blues Band will be performing a set of standards from the club's heyday. "We'll be doing stuff from
the 1940s through the 1960s. Songs like ''Tennessee Waltz'', ''Missouri Waltz'', which were favorites of the Berger family'', says Jackson. "And songs by Bowlegs Miller like ''One More Time'', Willie Mitchell's ''20-75'', and a whole bunch of other things
from the era''.
As the Crittenden Arts Council's Janine Earney notes, the Plantation Inn event is just the first step in a larger effort to highlight West Memphis' contributions
to the region's musical history and heritage. "It's important that document our history because it's very valuable. B.B. King lived and worked here, as did Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin' Wolf. So there's a really rich wonderful musical tradition in West
Memphis, and the Plantation Inn is a very big part of that''.
CALVIN AND PHINEAS NEWBORN JR. - Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee,
his father Phineas Newborn Sr. was one of the most in-demand drummers on Beale Street, playing in most of the top bands. In 1949, Newborn Sr. formed with his sons, Calvin on guitar, and Phineas Jr. on piano, his own band. A few earlier the young Newborns made
their debut on Beale at the street's legendary amateur contest at the Palace Theater. Calvin says the Newborn family band had a particularly strong influence on a young white musician who often came by to see the group on local nightspots in Memphis.
In the early 1950s, Calvin and his family band helped B.B King make his first recordings in the studios of WDIA, and the family band appeared on many early Sun Records recordings. Phineas
junior continued playing his behind off. it was, in fact, that portion of his anatomy that caused him to alter the pronunciation of his first name. Phineas senior preferred the rather unorthodox "Fine-us", even spelling it phonetically on the family band's
equipment. But Calvin recalls that in high school groups of girls would follow his elder brother down the halls.
In the early 1950s, the Newborn family band was one of
the hottest acts on the Memphis club scene. Calvin's wild guitar playing and even wilder showmanship, and Phineas senior's rock solid rhythm. Phineas junior didn't want to just to play blues for a living and jazz after hours. A couple of years after the early
B.B. King sessions, the pianist, like so many Memphis jazzmen, left for the jazz capital of New York. Blessed with dazzling technique, an unerring sense of swing, and deep blues feeling, Newborn formed his own trio in 1955. He earned rave reviews for a 1956
appearance at New York's Club Basin Street.
In 1958, he teamed with bassist-composer Charles Mingus to provide the music for jazz-loving filmmaker John Cassavetes "Shadows".
A year later the pianist travelled to Europe with Jazz from Carnegie Hall tour. As always in the music business, talent alone wasn't enough to guarantee commercial success, and Newborn's genius proved too fragile. Problems with drugs and alcohol exacerbated
his already delicate emotional make-up, and the pianist was occasionally committed to mental hospitals during the sixties and seventies. In 1989, Newborn, weakened by drug and alcohol abuse, died of heart problems at fifty-seven.
Gladys Presley is forced to quit her job at St. Joseph's Hospital because, with her salary figured in, the
family is earning too much money to qualify for public housing. Vernon explain to the Housing Authority that he has hurt his back and been out of work for a while and that the family is "trying to pay ourselves out of debt. Bills are pressing and don't want
to be sued". As a result, The Presleys are permitted to sign a new lease at $43 per month.
Chess and the Biharis resolved their conflict in an agreement by which Chess kept Howlin' Wolf and the Biharis kept Roscoe Gordon from Sun Records. Chess released their second Wolf single immediately after the deal was struck. Nevertheless,
both Wolf and Roscoe would have to wait a number of years to recapture their initial success.
"The first time I saw Howlin' Wolf", says Jim Dickinson on June 1990 in
Hernando, Mississippi, "I was still too young to know any better. It was the early 1950s. I was with my father at a warehouse in West Memphis, Arkansas. My father and the warehouse manager were counting cartons of clothes pins. Over the hum of the big band
built into the wall I could hear what sounded like jungle drums. I followed the pounding up wooden stairs to an office. Painted on the glass door was a lightning bolt and red letters KWEM RADIO. The door was open. Four negro men in unbleached work clothes
were playing music. One man - bigger than the others - was growling words I could not understand into a silver microphone.
I watched until my father found me. The music
stuck in my head and wouldn't go away. I found it later on the radio. KWEM - 1070 WDIA "The Black Spot On Your Dial" - WLOK 1340 with Hunky Dory - Dewey Phillips Red Hot And Blue on 56 WHBQ radio.
I had an older friend with a 78rpm copy of Wolf's "I Love My Baby". I listened to it over and over. Then one day in Ruben Cherry's "Home Of The Blues" record shop on Beale Street, I saw the grey album cover with the drawing of a lone wolf
howling to the moon. I took it to the check-out counter, and Ruben said, 'Boy, you got the blues there'. "I was hooked. In 1958 my high school combo was playing versions of "Evil" and "Killing Floor" to our white teenaged Memphis audience. By the mid-1960s
the Rolling Stones were playing Howlin' Wolf songs to the world.
I have heard Sam Phillips say that his discovery of Wolf was more significant than his discovery of Elvis
Presley. The Only artist to share the surreal darkness of Robert Johnson, Wolf brings out his band an ensemble counterpoint unlike anything else in the blues. His voice seems to hang in the air, and make the room rumble with echo. His singing is so powerful
that between the vocal lines the compressor-limiter through which the mono recordings were made sucks the sound of the drum and the French harp up into the hole in the audio mix. Notes blend together and merge into melody lines that are not being 'played'
by any one instrument. Wolf is not bound by the three-chord blues pattern, and often seems to crass the bar lines of western music. He is a Primitive-Modernist, using chants and modal harmonies of the dark ritualist past brought up from mother Africa and slavery
through electric amplifiers.
Like the unsolvable mystery of 'smokestack lightning', Howlin' Wolf contribution to the blues goes beyond musical phrases. The 'idea' of
Howlin' Wolf makes blues history somehow deeper and richer. Bloody but unbowed, Chester Burnett is forever frozen in the time - space of these first recordings made by Sam Phillips. Howlin' Wolf sings out his frustrations, never surrendering to the hopeless
situation of existence. The same giant pulled a plow like a man-mule in the Mississippi Delta, and lived to ride a Shriners' mini motorcycle on-stage at the Newport Folk Festival. He toured the world playing the blues, and would sit in his hotel room in his
boxer shorts and do-rag, and imitate Senator Everett Dirkson. His life is a legend. His legacy is a treasure as unique as the man himself. Share his vision of love, sex, death, and man's predicament in the Universe. Heed the call of the Wolf, the haunted cry
of an animal alone in the night. And that music, loved Elvis Presley".
Brenston and Ike Turner leave Sun Records for Chess Records in Chicago. Sam Phillips need to find new talent ever pressing, he turned to a precocious young piano player named Rosco Gordon. Eddie Hill leaves Memphis to work for WSM radio in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sam Phillips borrowed some money from Nashville record magnate Jim Bulleit to begin
his Sun Records operation. Sam learned a great deal from Bulleit. Bulleit's company provided another model for Sun Records. Sam Phillips reasoned he could duplicate its success in Memphis. "I thought I could maybe make a go of a company that just recorded
rhythm and blues numbers", Phillips
Elvis Presley returns to work at Loew's State Theater but is fired five weeks later after an altercation with another usher. Loew's State became notable for being the place where Elvis Presley got his first job, in 1948, as
an usher and later being fired, and then re-instated. The auditorium was built into an older warehouse which actually fronted Second Street. Second Street wasn't a suitable address for such a prestigious theater so Loew's acquired a single storefront on Main
Street which aligned with the warehouse/auditorium on 2nd. Unfortunately, there was an alley between the two buildings which the City of Memphis would not allow Loew's to close off. The solution? The storefront was gutted and turned into a lovely half-block-long
lobby which ended in a single grand stairway. This stairway rose to a level high enough to allow a bridge over the alley and entered the auditorium at balcony level. When the LS was not at peak capacity, the sign on the stairs said "downstairs closed" instead
of the usual "balcony closed" so familiar to those going to the movies in the 1960's.
The State had a vaudeville stage and pit. The hall was never renovated during its
life and so retained all it's Thomas Lamb "Loew's Adam" decor to the end. The first organ in the Loew's State was a Moller. It was replaced by a Wurlitzer in the mid-1920's. The 2 big Loew's theaters in downtown Memphis were under construction at the same