Dewey and Elvis

Dewey and Elvis: The Life and Times of a Rock 'n' Roll Deejay

Louis Cantor
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1x74gz
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  • Book Info
    Dewey and Elvis
    Book Description:

    Beginning in 1949, while Elvis Presley and Sun Records were still virtually unknown--and two full years before Alan Freed famously "discovered" rock 'n' roll--Dewey Phillips brought rock 'n' roll to the Memphis airwaves by playing Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters on his nightly radio show Red, Hot and Blue. The mid-South's most popular white deejay, "Daddy-O-Dewey" is part of rock 'n' roll history for being the first major disc jockey to play Elvis Presley (and subsequently to conduct the first live, on-air interview with Elvis). This book illustrates Phillips's role in turning a huge white audience on to previously forbidden race music. His zeal for rhythm and blues legitimized the sound and set the stage for both Elvis's subsequent success and the rock 'n' roll revolution of the 1950s. Using personal interviews, documentary sources, and the oral history collections at the Center for Southern Folklore and the University of Memphis, Louis Cantor presents a very personal view of the disc jockey while arguing for his place as an essential part of rock 'n' roll history.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09073-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Dewey Phillips’s name is best associated with a single moment in the history of American popular culture. He is the disc jockey who introduced Elvis Presley to Memphis and the Mid-South by playing his first record and then conducting his first live on-the-air interview.¹ More important, however, if less well known is the contribution Dewey made to the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s by both turning on a huge southern white audience to the previously forbidden “race” music and by providing indispensable assistance to Elvis’s early career at a time when Elvis and his local record label, Sun,...

  5. 1 Programmed Chaos: Dewey Phillips on the Air
    (pp. 7-29)

    On the air, the real Dewey Phillips was always a bit stranger than any fictional radio character ever invented. The style was without precedent. He made no effort to imitate anyone on the airwaves or in the entertainment business. Most fans agree that they had never heard anything quite like him and no doubt ever will again. In essence, he did nothing less than deconstruct Memphis radio entertainment during the 1950s, and in the process he proclaimed a kind of Declaration of Radio Independence for all future programming. Like Elvis, his style not only violated a staid and conventional past...

  6. 2 Before the Storm: Dewey Arrives at the Five-and-Dime
    (pp. 30-44)

    Dewey Phillips was the Wolfman Jack of Memphis. He frequently had more listeners than all other Memphis stations put together.¹ Whether or not a new record got Dewey’s approval and subsequent promotion on his show would often determine the success or failure of that record. Under Dewey’s reign, Memphis had the reputation of being the predictor of whether a tune would hit nationally or not. “A record will hit No. 1 position here,” Robert Johnson of thePress-Scimitarwrote, “in most instances long before it catches on nationally.”² Frank Berretta, who worked at Memphis’s legendary Poplar (Pop) Tunes Record Shop...

  7. 3 The White Brother on Beale Street
    (pp. 45-63)

    “In 1948 and ‘49, Dewey Phillips would have been one of the rare white faces you’d see hanging out on Beale Street,” says longtime observer Charles Raiteri, who worked at WHBQ. “Dewey was already well known in the black community before he ever beganRed, Hot and Blue.”¹ Of course, other white faces were familiar on Beale Street in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but apart from a few musicians, most of the others, like Abe Schwab, Jake Salky, or the famous Lansky brothers, were merchants who ran stores there. They were there, that is, strictly for business, and...

  8. 4 The New Memphis Sound: The Birth of Black Programming
    (pp. 64-73)

    Before Dewey Phillips could become the Pied Piper of the new rhythm and blues hit parade, Mid-South radio fans would have to be shaken out of their traditional listening habits. That is precisely what happened only months beforeRed, Hot and Bluefirst aired. The breakthrough occurred late in 1948 when WDIA put the South’s first publicly recognized black disc jockey—Nat D. Williams—on the air. His immediate success was so overwhelming that it caused a shift in the station’s programming to an all-black format, something completed by the summer of 1949. By breaking the color barrier in the...

  9. 5 “What in the World Is That?” Is This Guy Black or White?
    (pp. 74-86)

    When Gordon Lawhead finally got around to hiring Dewey Phillips to work for WHBQ he got one of the planet’s greatest bargains. The man who would totally dominate Memphis radio entertainment in the early 1950s and whose commercial-laden show would almost single-handedly pull the station out of its ratings doldrums started work for the munificent sum of absolutely nothing. Strange as it now seems, Dewey received no actual salary when he began his radio career at WHBQ.

    The bargain was struck only because both sides were happy with the arrangement. Indeed, it was Dewey who helped orchestrate it.¹ After worrying...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 Racial Cross-Pollination: Black and White Together
    (pp. 87-95)

    Getting Elvis and other white listeners to Herbert Brewster’s church wasn’t the only way Dewey Phillips brought the races closer together. Equally important was strengthening his bonds with the black community by continuing to maintain a strong physical presence in it. Whether appearing at a black baseball league game or attending a musical show on Beale Street (he even liked to leap onstage occasionally at the Hippodrome to introduce an act), Memphis’s most popular deejay continued to firm up his following among African Americans by demonstrating that he enjoyed nothing more than being seen on Beale.¹ “Dewey would walk down...

  12. 7 The Great Convergence: Pop Tunes’ One-Stop
    (pp. 96-105)

    It was an all-too-typical muggy Memphis summer day that July 11, 1946, when John Novarese and Joe Cuoghi spotted an ad in theCommercial Appealthat immediately caught their attention. A record store, Shirley’s Poplar Tunes at 306 Poplar Avenue, was for sale, so they went out “the very next day and bought it.”¹

    It was a fateful decision. What John and Joe renamed the Poplar Tunes Record Store (almost immediately abbreviated by Memphis fans to “Pop Tunes”) would soon become cozily ensconced in the Memphis pantheon of musical history. It acquired that unique distinction because from its beginning it...

  13. 8 The Phillips Boys: Soul (Better than Blood) Brothers
    (pp. 106-121)

    If there is a recognized patriarch of the Memphis musical explosion of the 1950s it is unquestionably Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, discoverer of Elvis Presley, godfather to the “million dollar quartet,” creator of the “rockabilly” sound, winner of a lifetime Grammy Award, and member of all four music halls of fame: rock ‘n’ roll, country, blues, and rockabilly.

    And if one happened to be in the listening range of Sam’s bombastic oratory when he was holding forth it was difficult not to be either intimidated or mesmerized. Once Sam Phillips walked into a room, Jim Dickinson says, “the...

  14. 9 Red, Hot and Blue: The Hottest Cotton-Pickin’ Thang in the Country
    (pp. 122-134)

    If there was a center of the universe for the “what’s-happening-now” rock ‘n’ roll record scene in the 1950s it had to be the WHBQ studio on the mezzanine floor of the Chisca Hotel at 272 South Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, every week night between nine o’clock and midnight. That was whereRed, Hot and Bluewas erupting forth for the listening pleasure of Dewey Phillips’s local Memphis and Mid-South audience and being taped for later syndication in eleven cities around the country.¹

    Above all, Dewey’s tiny, specially constructed control room was the unofficial headquarters for the record industry’s...

  15. 10 Dewey and Elvis: The Synthesized Sound
    (pp. 135-143)

    “If Elvis had consciously sought to synthesize and alchemize blues, gospel, R & B and white country music,”Newsweekmagazine wrote on the twentieth anniversary of Presley’s death in 1997, “he couldn’t have chosen a better mentor than Sam Phillips.” HadNewsweekattempted to locate the precise origin of the magic sound that Sam so successfully synthesized it would have included among Elvis’s mentors Memphis’s other musically famous Phillips. Without question Dewey was as responsible as Sam for laying down the dizzying array of musical sources the young Elvis heard, absorbed, and passed along to much of the world.Newsweekdid,...

  16. 11 Dewey Introduces Elvis to the World
    (pp. 144-158)

    As unauthenticated stories surrounding the life and career of Elvis Presley continue to grow, so does the degree of difficulty in trying to sort truth from fiction. The notion, for example, of a young Elvis Presley hitting the night spots and juke joints of Beale Street shortly after arriving in Memphis in 1948 has become part of the Presley folklore. The concept, however, like much of the Presley legend, is impossible to verify from reliable sources. More important, in this instance at least, it strikes most knowledgeable Memphians as well as more recent serious scholars as being totally unrealistic.¹

    It...

  17. 12 The King and His Court Jester: Men-Children in the Promised Land
    (pp. 159-174)

    Elvis Presley would not be the only Sun Studio artist Dewey would help convert into a superstar, but he was one of the first, and Dewey took a fancy to him right away. But if he was attracted to Elvis immediately, it is also safe to say that Presley was even more enamored of Dewey. How could it have been otherwise? Presley may have been stereotyped as an explosive, swivel-hipped rocker, but close friends well knew that personally he was the quiet boy next door. In reality, Elvis was always shy and reserved. Dewey, however, was nothing if not a...

  18. 13 “Red Hot at First . . . Blue at the Very End”
    (pp. 175-192)

    When Dewey Phillips’s decline began sometime during the mid-1950s he was probably at the peak of his power. Before his descent,Red, Hot and Bluecould not have been more red or more hot. Daddy-O-Dewey, whose local popularity continued to profit by Elvis’s growing fame, enjoyed mastery of the airwaves.

    Exhilarated by their lion’s share of a rapidly growing youth market now turned on to the new rhythm and blues sound, station management decided to strike while Dewey’s iron was hot. Not only was their superstar receiving attractive offers from other stations but there was also talk of going national...

  19. 14 The Final Descent: “If Dewey Couldn’t be Number One, He Didn’t Wanna Be”
    (pp. 193-206)

    Although the Phillips family still speaks of Dewey in positive, if not glowing, terms, none have any problem with openly discussing his terrible decline toward the end—when, as Dot Phillips sometimes puts it, “He was just a mess.” She, for example, is quick to emphasize that Dewey’s drug habit started as a desperate effort to relieve his suffering. Most people, she says, do not realize the severity of the damage done to his left leg; after the second accident he came very close to death. “He’d lost a lot of blood,” she recalls. “The whole six hours they were...

  20. 15 “Goodbye, Good People”
    (pp. 207-221)

    Dewey loved to joke about his problems in front of friends and strangers alike, but his flippant attitude often masked turmoil. Hopelessly confused by a bewildering reality and baffled by his continued tumble from stardom, he was already floundering badly when his last real hope for turning the corner toward stability finally collapsed. In 1963, after a great deal of soul-searching, his wife decided to leave him for good.

    Dot had been struggling for a number of years with the knowledge of how bad Dewey’s problem was. In 1959 she accidentally discovered his abuse of pain pills. After her own...

  21. 16 The Legacy: The Next Generation and Beyond
    (pp. 222-230)

    Despite the enormous amount of media attention devoted to Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, and the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, the significant contribution Dewey Phillips made in helping launch Presley’s career and turning on the southern white audience to previously forbidden race music is hardly mentioned. Fortunately, however, that is beginning to change. Gradually, if belatedly, Dewey’s role is being acknowledged, best evidenced by his inclusion in a permanent exhibit of 1950s’ deejays in Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame, in a display at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis, and in a televised biography of Sam Phillips....

  22. Epilogue
    (pp. 231-234)

    Coming to terms with Dewey Phillips is not easy. He was neither monster nor angel, neither devil nor saint, but an unpretentious, kindhearted, self-absorbed, and, ultimately, self-destructive soul who wanted nothing more than to spread the gospel of the new rhythm and blues sound to a captivated audience. That he certainly did. For better or worse the music he helped so much to change has become a key part of the way people now live. A great part of that change is reflected in the huge transformation that took place in popular culture during the last half of the twentieth...

  23. Notes
    (pp. 235-264)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-276)
  25. Index
    (pp. 277-288)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-296)