This is the latest installment of our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author/rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues.
Grab a signed copy of Devi’s award-winning blues glossary The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Bluescentric.com. Also available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle.
Like its namesake in ancient Egypt, Memphis, Tennessee, is the gateway to a great river’s delta – the triangle-shaped piece of land formed when a river splits into smaller rivers before it flows into an ocean.
Memphis is where people from all over the Mississippi Delta gathered in the early-mid 1900s before heading south to find work in the ports of New Orleans or north to the stockyards and factories of Chicago and Detroit. In Memphis they heard each other’s music–and where people from different regions collide, new music is born.
“Memphis is arguably the most musical city on the planet,” Larry Nager wrote in Memphis Beat. It’s birthed the plain country blues of Memphis Minnie and Memphis Slim, the polished compositions of W.C. Handy, Elvis Presley’s rock ’n’ roll, Bobby Bland’s seductive soul, and the jazz of Phineas Newborn.
Memphis was also where people first realized that black music could be packaged and sold to white audiences.
In 1909, a young African American professor and minstrel musician named W.C. Handy moved to Memphis as the musical director of a band called the Knights of Pythias. His first blues-style composition was “Mr. Crump,” a campaign song for E.H. Crump, who was a mayoral candidate running on a reform platform.
Reworked as “Memphis Blues,” the song was Handy’s first hit, followed by “St. Louis Blues.” Before Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker did it, Handy took regional “race” music, polished it up, and sold it to black and white audiences nationwide.
Although the Delta blues musicians who moved north to Chicago kept their rough edges, even when they went electric, a smoother style developed in Memphis around the singing of Johnny Ace, Gatemouth Moore, Roscoe Gordon, B.B. King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
King and Bland nabbed their own show on WDIA in Memphis, where Riley B. King’s handle was “the Beale Street Blues Boy.” That was shortened to “Blues Boy,” and eventually B.B.
Johnny Ace joined up with B.B. King and the Beale Street Boys when he returned from serving in the navy during World War II. Ace took over their show when King and Bland moved on to pursue recording careers.
Ace had a string of hits on the Duke label and became one of the very first hard-partying teen idols to both black and white kids. He blew his head off Christmas Eve 1954 while indulging in one of his favorite games–scaring onlookers by playing Russian roulette with an empty revolver. Unfortunately, he had neglected to remove all the bullets from the gun.
Dead at 25, Ace had a huge posthumous hit with “Pledging My Love,” which is still in heavy rotation on today’s “oldies” stations. One of the first tragedies of the rock ’n’ roll era, Ace set the template that Elvis Presley would later follow for the wild life and tragic death of a Memphis favorite son.
PHOTO CAPTION: W.C. Handy poses with his trumpet at Hooks Brothers Portrait Studio in Memphis, circa 1930. © 1986 Delta Haze Corporation, all rights reserved, used by permission
To learn lots more, pick up a copy of The Language of the Blues today!
“Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town”- Bessie Smith
“North Memphis Blues”- Memphis Minnie
“South Memphis Blues”- Frank Stokes
“Wartime Blues”- Blind Lemon Jefferson (Lemon Jefferson)
Johnny Ace – “Pledging My Love”
Frank Stokes – “South Memphis Blues”