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Robert Gordon


IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS (Faber & Faber) • Robert Gordon

This is a penetrating, bare knuckles portrait of a strange town in a fertile time, and the impact it had on American music. It's about R&B and soul, the birth of rock of roll, and the painful beginnings of integration (and some of its unlikely champions, like wrestling superstar Sputnik Monroe.)

Exploits of some of the bohemian and errant geniuses in and behind the scenes come to life in vivid detail. Some of them became famous in varying degrees, like Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, and Spooner Oldham. But the author doesn’t seem to lean any harder toward the personalities that eventually rose to greater prominence, which is very interesting. He's writing history, the picture of how it was, for the enthusiast who cares to venture beyond the highlight footage.

It's a twisted tale well told by an insider, and it gets you there. That's the really amazing thing about this volume. It's not just about the scene, it's from the scene. And a lot of craziness was going down. But like the San Francisco scene of the late 60's, there was an actual regional sound emerging, bubbling up from the street and out of the corner studios that were popping up all over town.

It was a thrill for this reader to hear the story of how Alex Chilton first met the other older members of the Box Tops. They were taken back by his ripped blue jeans, Bob Dylan type scarf and black t-shirt (they'd never seen one that wasn't white) who were looking for a white singer who could sing like a black singer (though that's not how it's put). The whole story of how the sixteen year old Chilton stepped up to the mic and cut "The Letter," which sold well over a million copies, is fascinating.

The book's not about Sun Records, or Stax Records, Sam Phillips or the King. They all figure in to the story, but the story itself is what went on behind the scenes. It Came From Memphis is about the coffee houses, the theaters, the communal flophouses, and the studios like Hi Records and the American Sound Studio. It goes on at the diners and dungeons where writers like Dan Penn and organist Spooner Oldham were hanging out after three day runs, and recounts the underground legends of bands like the Mar-Keys and Big Star. Robert Palmer, a very distinguished author on the subject of music appears as quite a musician and a character in the book, and Peter Guralnick, music chronicler par excellence, not only wrote the compelling foreword but is credited by the author as being instrumental in bringing it to light.

This revelatory work also marks the first and incandescent appearance of music historian Robert Gordon, whose recent biography of Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied," is sure to be featured in an upcoming book review here. Without question, It Came From Memphis is a must read, must have for all fans of the roots of rock and roll. Smashing. • FG

[Birdman Records is also offering two CDs of music to accompany this book. To find out more about It Came from Memphis Vol. 1 & 2, and to hear their remarkable clips, click here for that page at the Birdman site.]

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