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A Year-End Musical Road Trip With 'Memphis Rent Party' Writer Robert Gordon


Let's take a year-end road trip to a city that helped shape American music - Memphis, Tenn. Journalist and author Robert Gordon is our tour guide for the sounds of his hometown.

ROBERT GORDON: My deep interest is in what's in the shadows and not in the spotlight.

ELLIOTT: So unlike a typical Memphis music pilgrimage, we're going to skip Graceland, Elvis Presley's home, and drive right past Sam Phillips' Sun Records studio where some say rock 'n' roll was born. Instead, Gordon steers his 1987 Caprice Classic by the old YMCA where B.B. King recorded his first No. 1 R&B hit - "3 O'Clock Blues."

GORDON: There it is, like an unassuming corner across the street from a church next to a really rundown apartment building. And, you know, that's not on the maps, and it's kind of interesting.

ELLIOTT: Just around the corner is another spot you won't find on the Memphis music maps - the block where the late bluesman Furry Lewis used to live.

GORDON: And Furry Lewis was a bottleneck blues guitar player, meaning a slide guitar player.


FURRY LEWIS: (Singing) Pearlee, why don't you come home?

ELLIOTT: Lewis recorded in the 1920s on Victor records, then worked as a street sweeper for the city of Memphis. Later, he gained attention as part of the folk and blues revival of the 50s' and 60s.' Gordon first encountered him as a young teen when he heard Lewis open for the Rolling Stones.

GORDON: And I had my back to the stage and heard this sound and was like - you know, they talk about adolescent lightning strikes. That was my lightning strike. I was like, what is that?


LEWIS: (Singing) I been worried all day, worried all night long.

GORDON: I think I knew about the blues then, but I - never had occurred to me that it was a living kind of music.

ELLIOTT: And he wanted to learn more, so he got Furry Lewis' phone number.

GORDON: I call him up, and he invited me over, and I said, can I bring anything? He said, you can bring me a pint of Ten High, which is a kind of a cheap bourbon, and you can bring me a raw Wendy's hamburger.

ELLIOTT: With a little help from a fake ID, Gordon, a lanky white kid from the suburbs, had his entree into the Memphis music scene.

GORDON: He was so hospitable and warm and so welcoming and was obviously, like, a popular guy on his block. And he pulled back the veil of the underground for me and invited me in.

ELLIOTT: Gordon writes about his relationship with Lewis and other lesser-known Memphis music legends in his latest book, "Memphis Rent Party." It's a collection of essays and has a companion soundtrack...


MOSE VINSON: All right. Let me see.

ELLIOTT: ...With recordings like this of boogie-woogie piano man Mose Vinson.


ELLIOTT: Gordon first saw Vinson's rollicking piano playing in the late '70s.

GORDON: And he would just do this barrelhouse thing, man. It felt like you were in 1920s Beale Street.

ELLIOTT: Beale Street was the heart of African-American culture then, and today is a tourist draw much like Bourbon Street in New Orleans.


VINSON: (Singing unintelligibly).

ELLIOTT: Gordon's early experiences laid the foundation for his career as a music journalist and filmmaker. He's done liner notes, penned articles for Rolling Stone and Playboy and has written several books, including "It Came From Memphis" and "Respect Yourself: Stax Records And The Soul Explosion." In "Memphis Rent Party," he reflects on what makes his hometown an incubator for American music. Gordon writes that Memphis has become a musical verb.

GORDON: Memphis-ing (ph) - all the things that people associate with Memphis are sui generis. There was not something like them before that.

ELLIOTT: Think Elvis, B.B. King, Memphis Minnie, Booker T. & the M.G.'s or Tav Falco's Panther Burns.


PANTHER BURNS: (Singing, unintelligible) Throw your mask away.

ELLIOTT: Gordon credits the geography. Memphis sits atop a bluff on the Mississippi River, the main port of commerce in a vast agricultural landscape. Come harvest time, planters and field hands alike came to the city to trade.

GORDON: So the streets here were black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban. And that sound of all these shoulders rubbing on street that were so different, that's what created the difference in Memphis.

ELLIOTT: All manner of genres took root - jazz, blues, the new rock 'n' roll, gospel, funk, soul and later punk.

GORDON: Everything was possible in Memphis.


BIG STAR: (Singing) Why don't you let me walk you home from school? Why don't you let me meet you at the pool?

ELLIOTT: That's Alex Chilton, who was the lead singer for The Box Tops in the 1960s and later was part of the band Big Star. Gordon calls Chilton one of the godfathers of the Memphis underground, musicians who valued independence more than pleasing record labels.

GORDON: We're not a hit factory, you know? This town is not about the hits. This town is about the art and about making the work that will survive a long time and be relevant in a long time. And if you don't believe me, ask Furry Lewis. He made his records in 1927. They're still playing them.

ELLIOTT: "Memphis Rent Party" takes its title from the tradition of throwing a house party to raise money to pay your rent. Robert Gordon says his collection of essays tries to capture that struggle and that spirit.


LUTHER DICKINSON: (Singing) Well, I'll buy you a Chevrolet. I'll buy you a Chevrolet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.