Irvin Salky, the renowned civil rights attorney and founder of the Beale Street Music Festival, is an incomparable figure both within the city of Memphis and this Hall of Fame. Unlike his fellow inductees, Mr. Salky was not a musician, a songwriter, a producer, or a studio owner.
Yet his contributions to Memphis music remain unequaled, and his spirit of generosity and selflessness remains an inspiration to the countless Memphians whom he touched during his lifetime.
Irvin was born in Memphis in 1941 to Molly and Herman Salky, who owned and operated a store on Beale Street. According to those who knew him best, these childhood experiences on Beale were deeply contributory to both his love for music and his dedication to social justice, which were guiding forces throughout his life.
“When he grew up, this was a segregated city. I think at an early age he saw discrimination. He knew it from his experiences on Beale Street, and from being Jewish,” said friend and protégé, U.S Rep. Steve Cohen. After graduating from Memphis State University, Salky completed his law degree at Vanderbilt University and then served in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Although he was highly sought out by law firms from around the country, Salky decided to remain in Memphis to join the city’s first integrated civil rights law firm.
In 1967, Salky became a member of the integrated firm of Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, Willis and Caldwell, where he quickly became a popular figure. “Irvin’s enthusiasm for practicing civil rights law, plus his involvement in the local music scene became infectious,” said fellow attorney Russell Sugarmon. Salky also gained a reputation for his fierce advocacy on behalf of his clients, many of whom who he provided pro bono aid. “He wanted no recognition or compensation. He never charged people like he should’ve, and never got paid like he could’ve,” said Rep. Steve Cohen. “Power, ambition, money - those things were never his ambition or driving force. It was always people, and doing right by them.”
“When he grew up, this was a segregated city. I think at an early age he saw discrimination. He knew it from his experiences on Beale Street, and from being Jewish.”
As Memphis’ only fully integrated law firm, Ratner, Sugamon, Lucas, Willis, and Caldwell often pursued civil rights causes that other firms refused to touch. As an attorney, Salky represented members of the Invaders, a local black militant group that had been accused of inciting violence during the 1968 sanitation strike, and on behalf of the family of Larry Payne, a teenager who was killed by Memphis police in the aftermath of the strike. Mr. Salky’s clients also included several iconic Memphis jazz and blues musicians, including fellow Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductees Phineas Newborn, Furry Lewis, and Memphis Slim.
In addition to providing these artists legal services, Salky also acted as their manager and de facto guardian. He also took an interest in the young punk rockers who had begun to appear around his beloved Midtown neighborhood, dedicating himself to helping them navigate through the notoriously thorny music business. “He was a sage and experienced advisor to lots of people,” said Memphis music historian Robert Gordon. “He had experience in the music industry and was aware of its many traps. He was generous, very generous, in helping keep people out of those traps, whether they were young punk rockers or old blues singers.”
“He had experience in the music industry and was aware of its many traps. He was generous, very generous, in helping keep people out of those traps, whether they were young punk rockers or old blues singers.”
In 1977, Irvin Salky both founded and funded the Beale Street Music Festival, which became a signature event during the city’s early Memphis in May International Festival. According to Lyman Aldrich, the president of Memphis in May at the time, simply getting the music festival approved was an uphill battle. “Remember, nothing was there in 1977. The Peabody was closed. The Orpheum was closed. But I looked at these 12 suits and one skirt (the Chamber of Commerce) and told them we were determined as young folks to reintroduce people to downtown.” He also credits Salky with helping to get the deal completed, telling Memphis Magazine, “Irvin knew a lot of these old musicians and saw an opportunity to bring them back.”
After the festival was approved, Salky began arranging a lineup that would include B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Little Milton, Sleepy John Estes, and Mud Boy & the Neutrons. In addition to being one of the first events that had an eye towards revitalizing Downtown Memphis, the Beale Street Music Festival also marked the first large-scale music festival in the city’s history.
“The crowd was the first cross section of Memphians young, old, black, white, panhandler and yuppie to ever party together in large numbers in Memphis,” writes John Elkington in his book Beale Street: Resurrecting the Home of the Blues. “Memphis in May had started the reconciliation process in Memphis (following the death of Dr. King). It was one of the first steps by young Memphians, black and white, who had gone through the turmoil of the 1960s to assume leadership.” Over the ensuing decades, the Beale Street Music Festival has grown into one of the region’s largest festivals and a crucial showcase for the city’s talent.
“Memphis in May had started the reconciliation process in Memphis. It was one of the first steps by young Memphians, black and white, who had gone through the turmoil of the 1960s to assume leadership.”
Despite his many diverse accomplishments, Irvin Salky’s greatest triumph might have been his ability to inspire and ennoble nearly everyone around him. “I don’t think there’s a person in Memphis that crossed racial, cultural, religious, and economic lines as freely as Irvin Salky,” U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen told The Commercial Appeal. “He was welcome wherever he went. He knew the entire city. He knew the problems of the city and spent his life trying to cure them.”
Later in life, Mr. Salky took on the role of a favorite Memphis archetype: the eclectic and suave bon vivant. Adorned with his signature dashing hats and slick sports cars, Salky was known to cruise around Midtown, taking in the sights and sounds of the city that he had helped find its heart. “He had flair… he had a fun life - loved music, loved concerts, he knew all about jazz. He was café society in Memphis,” said Cohen.
“There will be - indeed, there already have been - major statesmen, captains of industry, stars of stage and screen, inventors, wizards, and saints who come and go in this world without leaving the kind of imprint on their environment and on humanity that Irvin Salky did,” the editorial board of the Memphis Flyer wrote at the time of Salky’s death. It was clear then, as it is now, that Memphis had lost one of its greatest champions.
At the time of Salky’s death in May of 2017, it was clear that Memphis had made great strides towards fulfilling his hopeful vision for the city. Beale Street, which was derelict and deserted at the time of the first Music Festival, was now Tennessee’s top tourist attraction; artists whom he had represented had finally gained their proper recognition; and downtown Memphis was experiencing a resurgence not seen in decades. To a large degree, of course, Mr. Salky helped light the way.
“He had a flair...he had a fun life-loved music, loved concerts, he knew all about jazz. He was cafe society in Memphis.”