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How the Blues Affected Race Relations in the United States

Minstrel and Medicine shows

Early appreciation for black music
White interest in black music
Integration of Musicians
Covers & Dances
Integrated Radio
Blues & Rock
Works Consulted
Thank you

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Memphis was a forerunner in its integration of whites and blacks, which developed because of its wealth of black musicians, both resident and passing through. This section looks into the positive effect the city had on race relations by being a place where black music was enjoyed and its practitioners were highly regarded.

Robert Palmer, author of Deep Blues, describes Memphis in the 1950s:

A massive shift was taking place in the listening habits of young white Americans, and the shift was felt very early in and around Memphis. Whites in the area had been hiring black entertainers for their school dances, country club parties, plantation cookouts, and other festivities for decades, and by the beginning of the fifties, most of the jukeboxes in recreation parlors, soda fountains, swimming pool club rooms, and other spots frequented by white teenagers were stocked almost exclusively with records by black artists. Country and western music was for countrified, lower class kids. The teenagers who considered themselves sophisticates danced and drank and necked to a soundtrack of 'nigger music1.'

Judd Phillips, brother of Sam Phillips and lover of Memphis music says that around Memphis "the poor blacks and the poor whites were coming together as early as 1900, playing music." He describes the area within a hundred miles of Memphis as being full of sharecropper shacks. At night and on Sundays, the black workers would gather in their houses and play music. Their music attracted the nearby white sharecroppers who were working the same land. Phillips says the music was "mostly guitar, sometimes piano, maybe trumpet, heavy on the bass beat." Further east of Memphis stood big plantation houses and slave shacks resulting in a larger divide between whites and blacks. The character of Memphis was built up from the "poor white trash and poor black trash." Phillips said that "all these elements, all these people, came together in this area, and you won't find it anyplace else in the world2." He adds, "the only reason it happened in Memphis was that nobody cared here3."

The Palace Theater was a white-owned dance hall in Memphis that opened in 1907. It was one of the South's first Rufus Thomastheaters to allow blacks to enjoy the show from seats other than those in the far balcony. The Palace featured artists ranging from Bessie Smith to James Brown, but its major events were the Friday night "Midnight Rambles" and the Tuesday evening Amateur Night event hosted by Rufus Thomas. The "Midnight Rambles" consisted of the Palace's chorus girls performing a late show for interested whites and the Amateur Nights featured artists such as B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton at the onset of their careers4. The Palace was also the theater where Sam Phillips first heard B.B. King5.

Sam Phillips left Florence, Alabama, for Memphis in 1945. Growing up in the cotton fields, blues had always played in the background and was embedded as much into his life as it was any black man. He worked at the Peabody hotel as a WREC disc jockey and band promoter. He thoroughly enjoyed the recording Sun Studioduties his job entailed, so in 1950 he opened his own studio, Memphis Recording Service, intent on capturing the sounds he heard everyday from Beale Street coming from black bluesmen. At first he only recorded the sounds of artists such as B.B. King, Walter Houston, Jackie Brenston, and Howlin' Wolf for other labels, but after a couple of years he started his own label, Sun6.

The changing musical styles listened to by American teenagers was first evident in Memphis. Most of the jukeboxes found in Memphis hangouts during the early 50s were stocked with songs by black artists. Phillips says that "distributors, jukebox operators, and retailers knew that white teenagers were picking up on the feel of the black music. There, people liked the plays and the sales they were getting, but they were concerned: 'We're afraid our children might fall in love with black people.'" Phillips decided that he needed a white performer who had a natural feel for the blues to bridge the gap. Phillips found that performer in Elvis Presley7.

Elvis PresleyElvis Presley, a truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, made his first commercial recording in Sam Phillip's studio on July 5, 1954, with his version of a song he had heard Arthur Crudup perform on Beale Street called "That's All Right Mama8." This recording would change the face of popular music by combining country and blues into what became known as rockabilly. Armed with influences ranging from gospel to the Grand Ole Opry to blues artists like Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson9, Elvis brought the white listeners who had previously restricted themselves to white music closer to the black style. What made Elvis so important to the integration of musical styles and audiences was that his natural talent for rhythm and blues was able to gain him a strong black following10. Michael Bane recounts a story in his book, White Boy Singin' the Blues, of Elvis entertaining a black audience at Club Handy in Memphis when it was still against the law for a white to enter a black entertainment venue. The audience was skeptical at first, but Elvis soon won them over with his versions of "Milkcow Blues Boogie" by Sleepy John Estes and a song by Crudup, probably "That's All Right Mama11." His black audience must have appreciated Elvis's outspoken love of blues and respect for its practitioners. Michael Ward quotes Elvis as saying, "A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock 'n' roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people12."

1. Palmer, 223-224
2. Bane, 47-48
3. Bane, 126
4. Davis, 43
5. Palmer, 219
6. Bane, 112-113
7. Palmer, 223-224
8. Palmer, 241
9. Friedlander, 43-45
10. Bane, 136
11. Bane, 104-105
12. Ward, 136

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