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.
Within a year he was on the air six nights a week, two hours a night, reaching a previously undreamt-of audience that seemingly rejected categories, musical or otherwise, as much as he did. Rock ‘n’ roll would not be acknowledged, or named for that matter, for another four or five years, but Dewey had discovered the new world as surely as Columbus (or someone) discovered America. Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train” might lead in to a hot gospel number by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a lowdown Muddy Waters blues could be followed by a pretty ballad from Nat “King” Cole or Larry Darnell, and it would scarcely come as a shock if a Hank Williams’ “heart song” were thrown in for good measure. The one constant, the one element that held it all together was Dewey’s impassioned advocacy, his mad, manic patter. “If you can’t drink it,” he extemporized, singing the praises of his sponsor, locally brewed Falstaff Beer, “freeze it and eat it. If you can’t do that, open up a cotton-picking rib and POUR it in.” Above all, he advised his listeners, whatever business they might be about, “Tell ‘em Phillips sentcha.” And they did, one even going so far as to deliver that message to a startled emergency-room staff at a local hospital.
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.’”
He carried Elvis to Beale Street, where he had long since taken out citizenship papers and where he vouched for this strange-looking young white boy to skeptical black clubowners and stars like Lowell Fulson, Calvin Newborn, and B.B. King. It was a curriculum, of course, that Elvis had already embarked upon and, together with Sam Phillips, Dewey helped complete Elvis’ musical education.
Dewey was courted by virtually every record label, the majors as well as the independents, not just because he played their records but because he imparted to their success a certain indefinable spirit. “Call Sam!” he shouted at each and every juncture, musical or otherwise. One evening, to conduct an unscientific survey of his own popularity, he urged his listeners to blow their horns at ten o’clock, and the entire city erupted in a cacophony of sound. When the police called to remind Dewey of Memphis’ antinoise ordinance, imploring him not to do it again, he announced on the air, “Well, good people, Chief Macdonald just called and said we can’t do that any more. Now I was going to have you do it at eleven o’clock, but the chief told me we couldn’t, so whatever you do, at eleven o’clock don’t blow your horns.” The results were predictable.
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.”
I was very pleased and honored to have the privilege to attend the announcements in Memphis yesterday. This is such a great honor for my dad, Dewey Phillips. This means a great deal to me and my family. Look forward to seeing everyone at the induction ceremony.
Jerry Phillips October 17, 2012
Where would the Elvis world be without the legendary Dewey Phillips. It was Dewey who first played ‘That’s Alright Mama’ to his unsuspecting audience and in doing so changed the world forever. He was also a great DJ playing music that the kids in the South loved and was such a larger than life personality. It’s a pity that there are not more like him now.
For years, have told folks about Dewey Phillips, have eaten in Red, Hot and Blue in the East and always wished there was a way to listen to him again. Once visited his radio control room with others. Happily, I found a site last night that has U-tube version of his 1952 program and also learned how the musical, “Memphis” came about.
Frank & All…
Fortunately, a developer is now renovating downtown Memphis’ historic Chisca Hotel. Phillip’s WHBQ show (and famous Elvis interview) took place on the mezzanine level of that hotel, and the developers are preserving those studios. A local doctor has also saved and preserved the radio equipment from those studios. Will be a great addition to the Memphis Music Pilgrimage in the future!
Pleased to note that in 2013 Dewey Phillips was inducted as a Legacy Member of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame. All of this recognition most deserved.
When I was in the 5th grade at Cherokee Elementary School, I got in trouble with teachers and the principle because I went around the school saying “Daa-Gaw.” I listened to Dewey Phillips and watched his show on TV and loved that phrase. The authorities at Cherokee thought it was some profane saying and chastised me handily. I am now 70 and still remember and love that time. Thanks to Dewey and his radio/tv shows, I learned to love the blues and was a dedicated fan of Elvis and Sun Studios.
Thank you for this. I currently have the honor to play the role of Huey Calhoun in “Memphis – The Musical,” based on Dewey Phillips. Such an interesting individual and this really helps me bring him to life as much as I can.
Loving how the writers, without copying verbatim, have written adaptations to his legend.
Dewey was my great-uncle, the brother of my Grandma Marjorie Barba. In my Grandpa’s house in Memphis, there was a photo of Dewey & Elvis. I don’t know where it ended up, but I’ll always remember seeing it when we visited. What a character he was.
Interesting subject matter , I’m writing a paper in my US History class at USD on Elvis And his Rock Roll.
I’m interested in Dewey Phillips contribution to the music scene of the middle south.
The CMT show, “Sun Records” got me interested in Dewey Phillips. I wish I could have heard him live on air! Next time I am in Memphis, I will be sure to visit the museum. Thanks!