Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Walking in Memphis

Rock and roll all started with Elvis, some say. That’s not quite true, but let’s start there anyway. A number of famous musicians in Elvis’ home of Memphis, Tennessee, had the honour of working with the King of Rock and Roll. Of course, they were mainly famous for the sole reason that they worked with Elvis; however, blind country legend Ronnie Milsap, who played on From Elvis in Memphis as a session pianist in 1969, later became famous in his own right.

When Milsap released his debut, Ronnie Milsap, in 1971, legendary Memphis-based producer Jim Dickinson contributed extra keyboards. Dickinson worked with a lot of local artists, the most well-known of whom is Aretha Franklin, to whom he also lent his keyboard skills in 1970’s Spirit in the Dark. However, what makes Dickinson a legend is his work with cult power-pop group Big Star on their swan song, Third/Sister Lovers.

Future Blues Brother Steve Cropper also played on Third/Sister Lovers, and as guitarist for Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MG’s, he worked with pretty much every artist on the Memphis-based label, including soul legends Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett as well as bluesman Albert King. But the real star of Third/Sister Lovers is, of course, the frontman of Big Star (and the only member left in the band by then except drummer Jody Stephens), Alex Chilton.

Prior to joining Stephens and fellow band members Chris Bell and Andy Hummell, Chilton enjoyed the most success of his career as the teenage singer of The Box Tops, who are chiefly remembered for the single “The Letter”. Chilton was the only mainstay of the band throughout its brief lifetime, and was surrounded by a revolving cast of musicians.

One of these was keyboardist Rick Allen, not to be confused with the one-armed Def Leppard drummer of the same name. Allen was previously a member of the Gentrys, who are mainly remembered (if at all) for their hit single “Keep on Dancing”. Note that even if Chilton had never joined Big Star, that band can still be connected with the Gentrys: Ken Woodley played bass on Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos and was a member of the band Alamo with former Gentry Larry Raspberry.

Another member of the Gentrys was Jimmy Hart – yes, that Jimmy Hart, who became known to wrestling fans years later as “The Mouth of the South”. Besides yipping through a megaphone during his charges’ matches, Hart employed his musical skills behind the scenes by writing a staggering number of entrance themes for good guys and bad guys alike, and by distinguishing himself on The Wrestling Album with the now-dated but surprisingly not-bad “Eat Your Heart Out, Rick Springfield”.

In notable wrestling-related recordings with fellow Memphians, Hart (aka “The Colonel”) collaborated with Elvis impersonator/grappler Wayne “The Honky Tonk Man” Farris on the latter’s eponymous theme song, as well as “Honky Love” and “Cool Cocky Bad”, and with Farris’s cousin Jerry “The King” Lawler on the song “Stormy Weather”.

You can draw more direct connections through non-performing personnel (Chips Moman was engineer to The Gentrys and producer to Elvis), but the knob-twiddlers aren’t as fun. And you can go in surprising directions if you're willing to leave Memphis city limits. But as shown above, by playing six degrees of separation from musician to musician and without ever leaving the Memphis music scene, you can draw a path from the King of Rock and Roll to both the Greatest Intercontinental Champion of All Time and Memphis’ Other King.

2 Comments:

Blogger SamuraiFrog said...

The music posts always get me in the mood for some classics. But I still maintain that "Eat Your Heart Out, Rick Springfield" sounds pretty good only because it's surrounded by crap like "Real American" and the ludicrous "Grab Them Cakes." Ouch. Man, I haven't heard that album since about 1991.

Anyway, one of my favorite music in-jokes of all time is "Play it, Steve" -- Steve Cropper plays on both the Sam & Dave and the Blues Brothers versions of the song. Yes, I am a music geek.

10/05/2005 08:59:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

I didn't know that about "Play It, Steve". I wonder if he appreciated the shout-out or resented the direct order to play.

Two other pieces of trivia:

1. "Real American" was originally the theme of the US Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda), only to be snapped up by the Hulkster when they left the WWF. This is kind of like if the New Age Outlaws had quite and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin had scavenged their theme: It fits his personality fine, but it's kind of a weird thing to do. Also, if you thought Vince McMahon paid Rick Derringer top dollar to sing his champion's theme, think again. Nothing against Windham or Rotunda, but Derringer was obviously working cheaper than we all thought.

2. It's a little-known fact that Charles Manson lived with the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson for a while. But it's even littler known that Alex Chilton also lived with both of them briefly.

10/05/2005 09:44:00 AM  

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