Who Inspired the Musical 'Memphis?' Dewey Phillips!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 03:55 AM Written by 
 
 
 

On the heels of the Million Dollar Quartet musical, covered by Sharon Eberson when it appeared here last fall, comes Memphis, centered around the character of eccentric, manic Memphis disc jockey Huey Calhoun, a fictionalized version of the real-life, larger-than-life  50's Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, best known as "Daddy-O" Dewey, a Memphis radio legend whose work and mix of R&B, country and rockabilly music left repercussions far beyond Memphis. In reality, his life began with unorthodox triumphs and ended in tragic decline.

While fictionalized, it's no secret that fictionalized reality sometimes comes closer to the truth. The touring show, and actor Bryan Fenkar's portrayal of Calhoun, earned the approval of Phillips's two sons, Randy and Jerry, who saw it in Memphis. The Phillips brothers' personal recollections, some segments of Dewey in action and their touching meeting with Fenkar after the show can be seen in this Memphis TV news story. .

The best way to describe Dewey, born in rural Crump, Tennessee in 1926, is as a whacked- out, otherworldly version of both our own Porky Chedwick and Johnstown native Alan Freed minus the payola. A white Memphis disc jockey in a segregated region, Phillips played black blues and R&B (and later, rockabilly) for listeners of both races.  He was as beloved by the blacks on Beale Street in Memphis as he was by white teenagers, all united by their love of his crazed persona and the music.

In October, 1949, over a year after Porky started playing R&B here in Pittsburgh, Dewey began hosting Red Hot & Blue on Memphis radio station WHBQ.  Alan Freed wouldn't begin doing that in Cleveland until 1951.  No one, however, had a style quite like Dewey, whose rapidfire delivery and bizarre patois made him a sort of proto-Wolfman Jack.

After returning from World War II Army service, he tried studying music, hoping to become a singer. He landed a job at the W.T. Grant five-and-ten, (a national version of G.C. Murphy's) in downtown Memphis and wound up managing the s record department. Commandeering the PA system, he attracted huge lunchtime crowds to Grant's with his blend of jive talk and music, selling more records than ever and creating a fan base for himself. That a lot of Grant's new record buyers were black didn't bother management.

While not sure what they were getting, WHBQ reluctantly took him on in 1949. Evenings, he inhabited the studio, located on the mezzanine floor (usually referred to by Dewey as the "magazine floor") of the Chisca Hotel in Memphis. His appeal went beyond race, success that didn't hurt WHBQ. The program brought the station gushers of ad bucks. There was even a waiting list for advertisers.

In 1950, he joined forces with former Memphis radio announcer Sam Phillips (no relation),  owner of the just-opened Memphis Recording Service, to form a short-lived record label. But Dewey had bigger problems in 1950. He nearly died in a violent car crash in Arkansas that killed two people, severely injuring his left leg.  Another vehicle accident in 1952 did more damage to the leg, this time leaving him in constant pain.

He was still recuperating from the 1952 accident at Kennedy Veterans' Hospital in Memphis, where he continued broadcasting Red Hot & Blue from his hospital bed. Like the earlier clip, this one comes from one of the hospital shows.  Note his "participation" in the records.  And check another funky live commercial for CV (Champagne Velvet) Beer, a regional brew.

1952 was the year Sam Phillips launched his groundbreaking Sun label. Sam's habit of slipping Dewey just-recorded Sun releases led to him becoming the first DJ to ever interview Elvis Presley in July, 1954, days after he made his first Sun recording. As he became a worldwide phenomenon, Elvis and Phillips remained pals and running buddies. But Dewey, who always shot from the lip, caused problems. In 1957 he accompanied Elvis to Hollywood while the King filmed Jailhouse Rock. According to Phillips biographer Louis Cantor, when introduced to Yul Brynner on the lot, Dewey flippantly remarked, "You're a short mother, ain't ya?"

If that wasn't embarrassing enough, Dewey was given an advance disc of Elvis's as-yet-unreleased recording of "Teddy Bear," not to be played on the air until RCA released it. He infuriated both Elvis and RCA by playing it anyway.  Elvis kept his distance for a while, but the two eventually mended fences.

This is Dewey at WHBQ, talking to himself and playing "There are Strange Things Happening Every Day" by gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a 1945 R&B hit that influenced Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and other rockers (and she's playing the hot guitar). Contrary to Dewey's remarks, Jerry Lee Lewis didn't record "Strange Things" (though he could have done it well).

WHBQ brought Dewey 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 and others.  For some reason, this clip omitted Lewis's actual performances.

In 1958 WHBQ, 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 Daddy-O Dewey became expendable, one small step on the road to the current horrors of Clear Channel and other current megabroadcasters.  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.

He found a home on another Memphis station, and in the fall of 1959 tried his hand as a singer, recording this single of "It Had to Be You" (A-side) and "Beg Your Pardon" (B-side) for the Memphis based Fernwood label. The November 9, 1959 issue of the music trade publication Billboard called it "a pleasant reading of the oldie.   Judge for yourself.  Both sides are here, and I think it proves as a singer, he was a great disc jockey.

As time passed, however, Phillips' life turned into an ongoing tragedy at odds with the wild, wired persona he projected on the air. As his leg pain grew in the 60's and he worked on radio stations in or near Memphis, he mixed his booze with increasing amounts of painkillers to anesthetize himself, having refused an amputation that would have ended the agony.  He racked up DUIs and slowly lost touch with reality, briefly hospitalized in psychiatric wards.  By the late 60's he was increasingly delusional. During his occasional periods of lucidity, he bemoaned his situation.  Remember, interventions just didn't happen back then.

Separated from long-suffering wife Dot, he saw his sons but resided with his mother when he died September 28, 1968. Elvis, who hadn't seen him for years (and would later die from his own drug problems) attended his old pal's funeral. Dewey was buried near his birthplace of Crump, Tennessee.  Sam Phillips, by then a wealthy man, had helped Dewey's family financially (as had Elvis). For the rest of Sam's life, he never hesitated to laud his friend's contributions to the success of Sun and its artists.

"Tell 'em Phillips sent-cha!" Dewey would exclaim.  "Freeze it and eat it!" he'd holler while plugging Falstaff Beer on the air.

Think about it. When was the last time you heard a disc jockey uncork stuff like that?  Call him Huey Calhoun or Daddy-O Dewey, the man deserves his own musical.  As Jerry Lee Lewis used to say, that's a guaranteed fact!

Sources/Further Reading:

Louis Cantor: Dewey and Elvis: The Life and Times of a Rock 'n Roll Deejay (University of Illinois Press, 2005).

Billboard, November 9, 1959, p. 49

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