Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In Memphis for TIDA. Paul Simon said he followed the river “To the cradle of the Civil War” but that was really a bit of poetic license on his part; the Civil War was rocked elsewhere, really. What was rocked in this town by the river was Rock itself, and I played hooky Thursday to go visit the nursery. Sun Studio (singular—there was only ever one studio on the premises) is a short trolley ride from downtown, in a neighborhood that is nothing much. My blood raced when I came upon it, looking just as it always has, and I got chills when I walked in.

Sam Phillips never owned the building, and he only leased the half where the studio shared space with his secretary’s office. The only air-conditioned part of the building was in the lunchroom next door, so that’s where Phillips worked. There is still a lunch counter there, and you can get a malt, or a Coke, but mostly it’s a souvenir stand now, with photographs and other memorabilia on the walls. The tour is $10 bucks, and worth every penny. In an upstairs room there are cases filled with icons and iconography, and the whole story is laid out for you. There is Phillips’ original single-track tape recorder. There is Sun’s first record lathe. For $3 bucks you could come in and record a song. If you had $4 bucks, you could record two songs. Who didn’t come in to record with Phillips back then? Howlin’ Wolf made some of his first recordings there. B.B. King. I had not known that “Rocket 88” had been recorded there—it was released on Chess, of course, and the fact that it went on to become a hit led Phillips to conclude that he needed to become a record label as well as a studio. Ike Turner and his band were on the way up from Mississippi to record it when their guitar amplifier fell off the roof of the car, tearing the speaker cone. They’d tried to fix it by stuffing the hole with newspaper. It gave the guitar sound a noisy buzzing sound, but Phillips liked it.

It probably isn’t completely accurate to say that rock’n’roll had a single inventor: as Calculus was invented independently by Leibniz and Isaac Newton, so too was rock’n’roll created by independent geniuses. The difference is only that the inventors of the Calculus were separated by geography: Elvis belted out “That’s All Right, Mama” in the same room—maybe the same exact spot as Turner and his band.
The studio is in almost the exact condition as it was then, as it was when Carl Perkins recorded “Blue Suede Shoes”—same as it ever was, with the acoustic tiles on the walls, baffled on the ceiling—the tiles that Phillips himself put up, based on an article that he’d read in Popular Science. There is a dent in the floor, said to have been created by Jerry Lee Lewis’s pounding on the piano recording “Whole Lot of Shaking Going On”. The microphone that Elvis used is there, and you can pose with it.

We didn’t really have time to do Graceland, although we made a stop on the way to the airport. “How long does the Graceland tour take?” we asked the cab driver. “Well,” he replied, in the Memphis patois that is the only thing in town that moves slower than the antique trolley cars, “There ain’t no single way to answer that question. “You could take the whole tour; that’s the house, and the cars, and the airplanes. Or, if you just wanted to see the cars, or just the airplanes, you could just go to see that part. Or if you wanted to see the airplanes and the house, or the house and the cars, or just the cars and the airplanes themselves, you could do that. It depends on what you want to see, but I can’t tell you what you want to see, because I’ve never been, and I don’t know what you care about.”

He told us that the house had been sold for $85 million dollars, and that Priscilla had gotten 15 % of that. I reflected on the $32,000 that Phillips had received for selling Elvis’ contract to RCA. Phillips has said that it was the smartest business decision he’d ever made, and I said that it seemed like everybody around Elvis made money from him. “Yes,” the driver said, “But he was a good man, too.” It didn’t take long at Graceland to realize that the experience there is a different one from Sun. “They’ve made a Jesus out of him,” I said, and I stand by it. The level of idolatry at Graceland is probably second only to the gift shop at the Vatican. We’d been on Beale Street the night before, and heard the living music—we left Memphis feeling like we’d seen what we came there for. Like all pilgrims, we found the road home longer. We were certainly not prepared for what we found by the time we arrived.

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