He got his first fifteen-minute radio slot in 1949, leaping into it from his job managing the record department at the W.T. Grant five-and-dime, where he spun an eclectic mix of the latest records – hillbilly and “race” music, sacred and profane, Frank Sinatra and Wynonie “Mr. Blues” Harris – over the store’s PA. From the start he drew an equally mixed, equally eclectic in-house audience – as many young as old, as many black as white – in a strictly segregated store, in strictly segregated Memphis, in the heart of the Deep South. His listeners were clearly drawn not just by the music but by the irrepressible enthusiasm of the twenty-three-year-old white man who was playing it, singing it, sometimes even competing with it, with a deliberately mangled range of verbal inventiveness that knew no race but was delivered in the rawest, most disarming of hillbilly accents.
The radio show was a hit from the start. It was called Red, Hot and Blue, and the name stuck, suggesting as much as anything the untrammeled feeling that Dewey Phillips brought to the music. There was no medium in Dewey’s world, no cool, everything was red-hot and rocking even when the music was blue, if only because, from Dewey Phillips’ point of view, with music this earthshakingly important, it was essential that every man stand up and be counted.
He captivated Memphis (“Dewey had no color,” said R&B singer Rufus Thomas admiringly), and he captivated Sam Phillips, who had just opened up a little studio at 706 Union Avenue to record some of the same sounds that Dewey was showcasing on the air. Recognizing from the start how much they had in common – not just the music but a belief, as Sam would articulate it, in individualism in the extreme – Sam persuaded Dewey to join him in a new record label which would be called The Phillips, in tribute to their mutual interests and shared last name.
The Phillips, billed a little optimistically as “The Hottest Thing in the Country,” lasted for only one release, but their friendship (they were, Sam said, closer than brothers) lasted until Dewey’s death in 1968 at the age of forty-two. Each man pursued his own path, with Dewey achieving the kind of regional celebrity and universal recognition (he was, said Sam, a genuine superstar) almost unimaginable in a present-day climate of monopoly, commodification, and international conglomeratization. Memphis may have been a small town, but it was perched right at the crossroads of history, and Dewey was in the thick of it, shouting, gesticulating, to all intents and purposes directing traffic for a world that had yet to settle on a handbook of musical rules and assumptions.
Sam, decidedly not a man given to reticence, was reticent about submitting “That’s All Right” to Dewey, because he was afraid he might not like it. As it turned out, Sam said, “he loved the damn record,” and the next night he played it over and over again on the air, as the phones lit up and he called in the nineteen-year-old singer himself for an interview. ”He said, ‘Mr. Phillips, I don’t know nothing about being interviewed.’ I told him, ‘Just don’t say nothing dirty.’”
His television show, Pop Shop, went on the air in 1957, an unsanitized version of American Bandstand, and for a time was the biggest thing going in Memphis. Then, four days after he had been forced into a late-night time slot by the network syndication of Bandstand, Dewey, according to the station manager, “embarrassed the station, and he embarrassed me personally,” when he encouraged his sidekick, a noted young abstract painter who dressed in an ape suit on the air, to fondle a life-size cut-out of Jayne Mansfield. That pretty much ended Dewey’s television career, and he lost his radio show a few months later due to the same combination of originality, impetuosity and unpredictability, that had first catapulted him to stardom.
He had other radio shows and called everyone “Elvis” long after he had ceased to see much of his one-time protegé. As his rapidfire speech grew garbled to the point of impenetrability, it was said that he had simply burned out on pills and alcohol, but he never lost his love for the music.
“Dewey could convince you that if you missed what he did, you missed something good,” said Sam Phillips. “And [if you failed to stay with him], you were going to miss the best because the next record coming up was going to be even better than the last – and that was the best!” And yet, said Sam of a man he considered not just his closest friend but “a genius – and I don’t call many people geniuses – when he got off the air at night, there was something about Dewey that kind of left him a little bit, because of the actual feeling of spirituality that he put into his program. He never liked to see the clock say midnight and he had to play his theme and go off the air. Now can you imagine that, a man who for nearly ten years was on the air and never wished for a night off?”
There were black jocks, said Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, who grew up listening to Dewey’s show, who played black music for black people, “and white radio stations were playing white music for white people, but Dewey called his audience ‘good people’ – he was playing good music for good people. And it got across.”