A Scene Not My Own

Playing for a Piece of the Door : A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975.

Shangri-La Projects, 2001.

As my own “Rock Gods” writing exercises suggest, I’m a sucker for local band lore. So much so that I don’t care where they’re local to. Whenever I find myself in a strange city, I make an attempt to search out a local-band anthology or two. That’s where real music history lies. I know this from having grown up in Boston in the 1970s and 1980s—the city may have been represented far and wide by Aerosmith, J. Geils Band, The Cars and—ugh!—Boston, but the real scene was beholden to bands like The Real Kids, The Lyres, Orchestra Luna and the majestic Willie “Loco” Alexander.

Some cities are lucky enough to have not just useful CD anthologies of their best local bands, but actual books itemizing key musical figures of the area. (The one for Boston is The Sound of Our Town by Brett Milano)

I found the scene-stirring volume on Kindle for ten bucks. Ron Hall loving chronicles a well-chosen 15-year chunk of Memphis music history. Rock was still developing then, so while local acts were often derivative of national or international ones (The Gants were so consumed by the British Invasion they apparently spoke in English accents and were presumed to be from abroad; other Brit-struck bands included The Peers of Carnaby and British Sterling), all the clichés hadn’t quite settled yet. There are tales of painfully nervous singers whose inability to look at the audience was misinterpreted as Brando-esque coolth, and the most fascinating fashion choices. “Tab-collared shirts were just out, so we all got them,” says a member of Tommy Jay & the Escorts (whose died-young leader is one of the most lauded local legends in the book). “The only problem was that all they had was medium and large, and they hung off us. They were banana colored, and we wore these burgundy ties with glitter on them.” Then there were The Robins, conceptualized by Ardent producer Jim Dickinson to cash in on the Batman TV show before that camp masterpiece even aired. Jim Gaston, a member of their back-up band The Avengers relates that The Robins “were Jim’s wife, Mary Lindsay Dickinson, and two of her debutante friends, Carol Johnson and Lucia Burch. … I think Dickinson briefly saw the Robins as becoming another Ronettes. They wore bat masks and designer outfits and were quite attractive and easy on the eyes, but alas, they couldn’t carry a tune and faded away quickly.”

There are many, many misfires like the Robins in Memphis rock history, and Hall (an avid record dealer and collector who runs the Shangri-La shop for like-minded music mavens) immortalizes these adventures as glowingly as he does the tales of bands who did in fact hit it big, a varied list of chart-toppers which includes Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, The Box Tops, The Gentrys (“Keep On Dancing”), The Hombres (“Let It all Hang Out”), The Mar-Keys (“Last Night”),

And the Knowbody Else (better known after they moved to California and changed their name to Black Oak Arkansas).  Ardent Studios, of course, was also the birthing grounds of Big Star—named for the grocery store across the street. How local-pride can you get? Big Star never had a hit, though a ferocious worldwide cult grew around them. Hall mentions plenty of bands which may have only dented the national charts (such as The Short Kuts with “Your Eyes May Shine” and “Born on the Bayou”) but were longtime superstars in the Memphis frat-party scene.

Hall narrows his survey to only bands which managed to release something on vinyl. In some scenes, that would be a high cut-off point; lots of extraordinary bands never made it into a studio, or did but had little to show for the experience. But for Memphis, the rule fits, since besides Ardent the city boasted the Stax (and its all-star session players led by Steve Cropper), plus numerous other worthwhile studios besides. If you were a popular Memphis band and didn’t release a record, you just weren’t trying. At the same time, it’s amazing that so many bands who gigged so frequently, which simultaneously attending high or college, working day jobs and/or starting families, were able to save enough money and time to cut records besides.

As Hall plows alphabetically through the dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians, the stories tend to become repetitive—appearing on the big local TV dance party show, playing  at the ribbon-cuttings of new department stores, opening for national acts, breaking up when members went to college or got married. But the enthusiasm, the sheer wonderment of living through that era of teen rock, is consistent no matter who’s talking. This is a book of wild-eyed wonder, exciting memories and hometown pride—on the stage, behind it, deep in the throng of fans, and decades onward in the heart of a nostalgic record dealer.

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