Probably because Elvis would have been 75 Friday, I picked up Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick. While Elvis is always an interesting subject, what jumped out at me the most so far (I’m less than 100 pages deep) is Guralnick’s description of the radio scene in Memphis in the late 40’s, early 50’s. In particular he says this is probably what Elvis listened to:
Memphis radio in 1950 was an Aladdin’s lamp of musical vistas and styles…In one typical 1951 segment he (Elvis) would have heard Rosco Gordon’s “Booted” (which had been recorded in Memphis, at Sam Phillips’ studio), Muddy Waters’ “She Moves Me,” “Lonesome Christmas” by Lowell Fulson, and Elmore James’ brand-new “Dust my broom,” all current hits, and all collector’s classics some 40 years later. “Rocket 88,” which has frequently been tagged the first rock n’ roll record, came out of Sam Phllips’ studio in 1951, too…
In the morning there was Bob Neal’s wake-up show on WMPS, hillbilly music and cornpone humor in a relaxed Arthur Godfrey style of presentation and at 12:30 p.m. Neal offered thirty minutes of gospel with the Blackwood Brother… The first half of the High Noon Round-Up featured country singer Eddie Hill, who along with the Louvin Brothers…was among Memphis’ biggest hillbilly stars.
If you changed the dial to WDIA, which since its switchover in 1949 to an all-black programming policy had billed itself as “The Mother Station of the Negroes, you could here not only local blues star B. B. King, deejaying and playing his own music live on the air, but also such genuine personalities as Professo Nat D. Williams…; comedic genius A. C. Moohah Williams; and the cosmopolitan Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert, not to mention the Spirit of Memphis Quartet…
The book goes on to also mention the Grand Old Opry and other perhaps more familiar southern sounds from that period.
I’m not a music expert. I don’t claim knowledge about all those artists. But that certainly seems like an amazing amount of musical diversity. There really isn’t that kind of new music scene these days. While college and internet radio provide a great deal of artistic freedom and musical variety, today’s less mainstream sounds lack the novelty such a mix would have had 60 years ago. Of course, radio was hardly Elvis’s only influence, but the rich musical history to which he was exposed on the radio seems to go a long way in explaining how he developed such a hybrid sound and style himself.
If only radio were this cool these days.