Memphis Fast Fiction Home

“Mister Shade! Mister Shade, sir!” The kid called out as Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band walked toward Beale to play a gig.

After two blocks, Shade had finally had enough.

“What the hell, boy? What do you want?” Shade barked out at what he could now see to be not a teenager, but a slight man in his early twenties.

“To play with you, sir, in your jug band.” He replied, sending the other three members of the of the band into a fit of hysterical laughter.

Shade shook his head and sighed. “Alright, then. What’d you play, kid?”

“Kazoo.” The kid said, without batting an eye.

“A ka-what? What the hell is that?” Shade asked with a confused look on his face.

To which the kid responded by pulling out a round thing a bit longer than a man’s finger. Then, without prompting, proceeded to buzz the entirety of “Beale Street Blues” through it.

Which caused them to laugh harder.

“That sounds like a fly with a terrible bit of gas.” Shade frowned.

The kid let out a bit of a whimper.

“But then, the jug sounds like a farting hippo. Let’s give you a shot.”

Memphis Note
In the 1920s, while the rest of the country was enamored with jazz, Memphis had a thing for jug bands, and none were bigger than Will Shade’s rotating group of musicians named the Memphis Jug Band. With a line up that changed daily, the Jug Band was known to busk in Church Park by day, then play high society parties at night. Before the jug band fad dissipated with the onset of the Great Depression, the Memphis Jug Band had recorded near a hundred songs and is considered the best example of the genre – even with the kazoo.

Joey Miller

Cheyenne was going at in the bathroom when he peeked his head around the corner. Hairspray was thick like a fog, and he coughed in spite of himself.

“Can I help you with somethin’?” She asked, not for a moment ceasing the cyclonic movement of spray can and hair pick. “You know it takes me at least two hours to get ready to go out to Denim and Diamonds. I don’t need your interruptions.”

“Now, baby, put down the spray for just a second, alright?”

“Dalton, if you make this hair fall like some bad soufflé, I will never forgive you.”

“Alls I want to know is if the chaps are too much…or just enough.”

He took a step out from behind the bathroom wall. The chaps were denim, and slightly darker than the jeans he wore under them. Above them he wore a black and purple western print shirt, pressed to perfection and off-set by a rattlesnake’s head bolo tie.

“Do a little twist.” Cheyenne said, spinning her index finger around in a circle. “Like you’re doin’ a line dance.”

She smacked her gum as he did the turn.

“Nah, just right. Makes your tush stand out.”

Memphis Note
Denim and Diamonds was a western-themed nightclub that opened up in the mid-90s to cater to the Garth Brooks line-dancing set. Catch was, it opened up in a neighborhood that was on the way out, and after not too long the white clientele they catered to were too scared to show up. Demin and Diamonds didn’t make it out of the 90s.

Will Freiman

My great grandfather’s funeral was a somber affair, the wake after was not.

Friends and family arrived to my grandparent’s house in droves, carrying armfuls of food and instruments. A makeshift band set up around the piano in the parlor, and an epic tug-of-war between jazz and blues broke out.

Toward the end of the day, my grandmother stopped me, a string-wrapped brown paper package in her hands.

“This was your my father’s – your great grandfather’s.” She said, holding it out. “It’s his journal, I found it when we were clearing out his things. He started writing it when he went to Chicago during the Depression. He always told everyone he did it for work. This says it was jazz that got him.”

With two hands, she gave me the book.

“There are a lot of truths in here. Most important of which was that he never forgot where he came from, or his family down here.”

She planted a quick kiss on my cheek and said, “Don’t you forget, now.”

As I ride the bus back to college in Chicago, the precious parcel riding beneath me in the cargo bay, I know I could never forget.

Memphis Note
After World War I, hundreds of thousands of African Americans began a slow and steady migration out of the South, into northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York. For those that left Memphis, the shipping, train and bus lines between Memphis and Chicago were both a source of employment, and method of transportation. And with those migrants came the blues, which forever shifted the sound Chicago jazz.

Memphis Max

They called him “The Hound”, or rather, that’s what he paid the doorman at the Chisca to tell everyone he was called. He claimed he got the name because his old lady said he was sniffing around for a record deal like a hound dog sniffed for a bone.

The Hound, who apparently came from money, had even financed the recording of his own single. Every record store refused to cary it after a single listen.

The Chisca was his haunt of choice because that’s where Dewey Phillips broadcast his wild radio show “Red Hot and Blue” from. Phillips, himself notorious drug addict and speed freak, had even once give him a shot on-air. But after a few disastrous minutes, Phillips cut the session short, declaring The Hound “the most onerous son-of-a-bitch” he’d ever met.

The Hound took that as a sign and picked that as the title of his next record. Which, in turn, caused a local church to decry The Hound’s inherently lewd and sexually provocative material as even more subversive than normal.

Ironically, this unexpected attention lead to The Hound’s only record sales.

He sold eighteen records.

Five of which were returned, unplayed.

Memphis Note
The Hound, sadly, isn’t real. But Dewey Phillips and his wild radio show, “Red Hot and Blue”, were. Phillips was an uncontrollable force of nature behind the mic, often fueled by amphetamines, that loved both white and black music. He was the first person to play an Elvis Presley record on the air, and helped to bring rock and roll to the masses.

Alpha Newberry

The band sets into it, and the crowd follows them along.

Well, everyone but me and that couple too busy making out to notice anything else.

What I see and hear turns my stomach. Privileged white kids freaking out to other privileged white kids badly covering old blues standards.

I’m done with them before they’re done with their first song.

“Not stickin’ around?” The doorman asks me as I break out into the cold night.

“Newspaper said they were blues. That ain’t blues.” I said with a growl.

“Sounds like it to me.” He replies, then quickly adds, “No refunds.”

I sigh, and turn to him, something inside me snapping.

“The blues is a duet between a man and his pain. A man’s fingers might be on the strings of a guitar, and the voice in his throat, but it’s the pain that’s makin’ the music.” I jab my finger toward the venue. “Those ain’t men, and they sure as hell ain’t never known pain, not any real pain.”

He stares at me blankly, obviously not expecting that kind of response. We shrug at each other as he goes back to checking IDs as I walk off into the dark.

Memphis Note
Every few years a group of middle class white kids will discover the blues and get some attention about how they’ve updated the genre for the modern audience. But none of them ever get it quite right, there’s always something missing. Which is why we still revere the name of Robert Johnson, but can’t remember the names of bands like this at all.