Today I talked to David A. Lees about his book Memphis Mayhem: A Story of the Music That Shook Up the World (ECW Press, 2020)
David Less has studied Memphis music for over 40 years, including work done for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Gibson Guitar Foundation. He’s been published in Rolling Stone and DownBeat, among other places.
This episode seizes first on three major events that happened in Memphis: the formal start of the blues (W.C. Handy 1909), the start of rock n’ roll (Elvis Presley 1954), and the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King (1968). Along the way, this episode explores everything from the impact of yellow fever epidemics on Memphis racial dynamics, including the rise of the South’s first (black) millionaire; and later the development of Beale Street into “Black America’s Main Street.” Other highlights include: the creation of America’s first all-female radio station (WHER, 1955) by Sam Phillips of Sun Studio fame; and the wealth of independent studios from Stax to Ardent that made Memphis the 3rd largest center for recording music in America for over a decade from the early 1960s onward.