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Dewey and Elvis

The Life and Times of a Rock 'n' Roll Deejay

Louis Cantor

Publication Year: 2010

Beginning in 1949, Dewey Phillips brought rock 'n' roll to the Memphis airwaves by playing Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters on his nightly radio show Red, Hot and Blue. The mid-South's most popular white deejay, "Daddy-O-Dewey" is part of rock 'n' roll history for being the first major disc jockey to play Elvis Presley (and subsequently to conduct the first live, on-air interview with Elvis). This book illustrates Phillips's role in turning a huge white audience on to previously forbidden race music. Using personal interviews, documentary sources, and the oral history collections at the Center for Southern Folklore and the University of Memphis, Louis Cantor presents a very personal view of the disc jockey while arguing for his place as an essential part of rock 'n' roll history.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

One of the pleasurable tasks in writing a book is giving thanks to the special people who provided invaluable assistance. I owe a unique debt to several folks in particular. Because Dewey left little important printed material, I had to rely primarily on oral accounts, especially from those closest to him. ...

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pp. 1-6

Dewey Phillips’s name is best associated with a single moment in the history of American popular culture. He is the disc jockey who introduced Elvis Presley to Memphis and the Mid-South by playing his first record and then conducting his first live on-the-air interview.1 ...

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1. Programmed Chaos: Dewey Phillips on the Air

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pp. 7-29

On the air, the real Dewey Phillips was always a bit stranger than any fictional radio character ever invented. The style was without precedent. He made no effort to imitate anyone on the airwaves or in the entertainment business. Most fans agree that they had never heard anything quite like him and no doubt ever will again. ...

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2. Before the Storm: Dewey Arrives at the Five-and-Dime

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pp. 30-44

Dewey Phillips was the Wolfman Jack of Memphis. He frequently had more listeners than all other Memphis stations put together.1 Whether or not a new record got Dewey’s approval and subsequent promotion on his show would often determine the success or failure of that record. ...

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3. The White Brother on Beale Street

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pp. 45-63

“In 1948 and ’49, Dewey Phillips would have been one of the rare white faces you’d see hanging out on Beale Street,” says longtime observer Charles Raiteri, who worked at WHBQ. “Dewey was already well known in the black community before he ever began Red, Hot and Blue.”1 ...

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4. The New Memphis Sound: The Birth of Black Programming

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pp. 64-73

Before Dewey Phillips could become the Pied Piper of the new rhythm and blues hit parade, Mid-South radio fans would have to be shaken out of their traditional listening habits. That is precisely what happened only months before Red, Hot and Blue first aired. ...

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5. "What in the World Is That?" Is This Guy Black or White?

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pp. 74-86

When Gordon Lawhead finally got around to hiring Dewey Phillips to work for WHBQ he got one of the planet’s greatest bargains. The man who would totally dominate Memphis radio entertainment in the early 1950s and whose commercial-laden show would almost single-handedly pull the station out of its ratings doldrums ...

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6. Racial Cross-Pollination: Black and White Together

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pp. 87-95

Getting Elvis and other white listeners to Herbert Brewster’s church wasn’t the only way Dewey Phillips brought the races closer together. Equally important was strengthening his bonds with the black community by continuing to maintain a strong physical presence in it. ...

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7. The Great Convergence: Pop Tuner' One-Stop

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pp. 96-105

It was an all-too-typical muggy Memphis summer day that July 11, 1946, when John Novarese and Joe Cuoghi spotted an ad in the Commercial Appeal that immediately caught their attention. A record store, Shirley’s Poplar Tunes at 306 Poplar Avenue, was for sale, so they went out “the very next day and bought it.”1 ...

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8. The Phillips Boys: Soul (Better than Blood) Brothers

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pp. 106-121

If there is a recognized patriarch of the Memphis musical explosion of the 1950s it is unquestionably Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, discoverer of Elvis Presley, godfather to the “million dollar quartet,” creator of the “rockabilly” sound, winner of a lifetime Grammy Award, and member of all four music halls of fame: rock ’n’ roll, country, blues, and rockabilly. ...

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9. Red, Hot and Blue: The Hottest Cotton-Pickin' Thang in the Country

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pp. 122-134

If there was a center of the universe for the “what’s-happening-now” rock ’n’ roll record scene in the 1950s it had to be the WHBQ studio on the mezzanine floor of the Chisca Hotel at 272 South Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, every week night between nine o’clock and midnight. ...

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10. Dewey and Elvis: The Synthesized Sound

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pp. 135-143

“If Elvis had consciously sought to synthesize and alchemize blues, gospel, R&B and white country music,” Newsweek magazine wrote on the twentieth anniversary of Presley’s death in 1997, “he couldn’t have chosen a better mentor than Sam Phillips.” Had Newsweek attempted to locate the precise origin of the magic sound ...

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11. Dewey Introduces Elvis to the World

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pp. 144-158

As unauthenticated stories surrounding the life and career of Elvis Presley continue to grow, so does the degree of difficulty in trying to sort truth from fiction. The notion, for example, of a young Elvis Presley hitting the night spots and juke joints of Beale Street shortly after arriving in Memphis in 1948 has become part of the Presley folklore. ...

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12. The King and His Court Jester: Men-Children in the Promised Land

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pp. 159-174

Elvis Presley would not be the only Sun Studio artist Dewey would help convert into a superstar, but he was one of the first, and Dewey took a fancy to him right away. But if he was attracted to Elvis immediately, it is also safe to say that Presley was even more enamored of Dewey. How could it have been otherwise? ...

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13. "Red Hot at First . . . Blue at the Very End"

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pp. 175-192

When Dewey Phillips’s decline began sometime during the mid-1950s he was probably at the peak of his power. Before his descent, Red, Hot and Blue could not have been more red or more hot. Daddy-O-Dewey, whose local popularity continued to profit by Elvis’s growing fame, enjoyed mastery of the airwaves. ...

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14. The Final Descent: "If Dewey Couldn't be Number One, He Didn''t Wanna Be"

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pp. 193-206

Although the Phillips family still speaks of Dewey in positive, if not glowing, terms, none have any problem with openly discussing his terrible decline toward the end—when, as Dot Phillips sometimes puts it, “He was just a mess.” She, for example, is quick to emphasize that Dewey’s drug habit started as a desperate effort to relieve his suffering. ...

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15. "Goodbye, Good People"

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pp. 207-221

Dewey loved to joke about his problems in front of friends and strangers alike, but his flippant attitude often masked turmoil. Hopelessly confused by a bewildering reality and baffled by his continued tumble from stardom, he was already floundering badly when his last real hope for turning the corner toward stability finally collapsed. ...

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16. The Legacy: The Next Generation and Beyond

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pp. 222-230

Despite the enormous amount of media attention devoted to Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, and the origins of rock ’n’ roll, the significant contribution Dewey Phillips made in helping launch Presley’s career and turning on the southern white audience to previously forbidden race music is hardly mentioned. ...

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pp. 231-234

Coming to terms with Dewey Phillips is not easy. He was neither monster nor angel, neither devil nor saint, but an unpretentious, kindhearted, self-absorbed, and, ultimately, self-destructive soul who wanted nothing more than to spread the gospel of the new rhythm and blues sound to a captivated audience. ...


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pp. 235-264


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pp. 265-276


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pp. 277-287

E-ISBN-13: 9780252090738
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252077326

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Music in American Life