Review

It Came From Memphis

by Robert Gordon



Based on its title, it's understandable that one might approach
this book with a big sigh. What the canon of Rock Lit definitely
does not need is another primer on the singular
contributions of Memphis, Tennessee to the world of music. We
already know the drill: Elvis. Beale Street. Sun Studios. Stax. Al
Green. Jerry Lee. Thankfully, author/filmmaker Gordon instead
concentrates on lesser-known lights of Memphis music and culture
--- and not just players but producers, deejays, and scenesters.
However, the rambling and eclectic approach is not only the book's
greatest strength but --- oddly enough --- its greatest weakness as
well.

"Memphis music is an approach to life, defined by geography, and
dignified by the bluesmen," Gordon writes early on. And indeed,
geography and the racial climate of the city have done more to
influence its music than any one player or recording facility.
Gordon --- who clearly knows and understands his turf ---
makes for a solid guide, floridly writing about the city to where
it is almost a character of its own.

Gordon provides many personality sketches of larger-than-life
characters in the story of Memphis music. Wild-man DJ Dewey
Phillips, bluesman Furry Lewis, cult figure Alex Chilton (whose
group Big Star is a longtime critic's darling), and soul-rock
pioneers the Mar-Keys are just a few. Some even have nothing to do
with music --- wrestler Sputnik Monroe is remembered for insisting
on integrated crowds at his hugely popular matches, laying the
groundwork for rock concerts to do the same. There are also
promoters, artists, writers, and even bikers hell-bent for leather
that Gordon weaves in and out of the narrative, who continue to
reappear as the pages turn. He also argues that it was a confluence
of changes and new thinking in Memphis art, theater, and
alternative lifestyles that in turn influenced the music from the
mid-'60s on.

Many of these chapters are interesting, but what hurts IT CAME FROM
MEMPHIS is the sheer locality of the subjects --- personalities,
producers, and songwriters only known to locals, and bands (Mud Boy
and the Neutrons, Moloch, the Counts, the Radiants) familiar only
to diehards and regional record collectors. And while there are two
companion CDs with music from many of these bands, they have to be
ordered separately --- if you can find them. Ultimately, Gordon's
heavy use of interviews and anecdotes often make the reader feel as
if they're a new face at a party of longtime friends reminiscing
about their time together. The stories are interesting, but you
have little frame of reference for the people and situations.

IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS deserves credit for its ambition and slant but
does not necessarily make for essential reading, like Robert
Palmer's DEEP BLUES, Stanley Booth's RHYTHM OIL, and Peter
Guralnick's books. And while it's not likely to be the last book on
Memphis music, it does carve its own distinct niche in an often
crowded field.

Reviewed by Bob Ruggiero on January 22, 2011

It Came From Memphis
by Robert Gordon

  • Publication Date: October 30, 2001
  • Genres: Music, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Atria
  • ISBN-10: 0743410459
  • ISBN-13: 9780743410458