by BRAD RHINES
The landmarks of Memphis’s musical history are well established: Sun Studios, Beale Street, Graceland. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find another layer. The contributions of Memphis music to American culture include a wild period of rock and pop from the 1970s, as documented in the film Nothing Can Hurt Me, a feature-length account of the band Big Star and the Memphis scene from which they emerged. For those interested in exploring the people and places of this other side of Memphis music, here’s a rough guide to get you started.
In 1966, John Fry moved Ardent Studios from his parents’ garage to National Street. The studio booked a lot of overflow work from Stax Records, recording classic soul artists like Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers. As the times changed, so did the Memphis sound. Big Star recorded all three of their albums at Ardent, starting with #1 Record in 1972. Years later, the Replacements would record Pleased to Meet Me here, which included the Big Star tribute song “Alex Chilton.” Big Star drummer Jody Stephens went to work at Ardent in 1987 and now serves as manager for the studio and record label.
Legendary musician and producer Jim Dickinson got his start as a session player with Atlantic Records’ house band the Dixie Flyers, appearing on records by Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Ronnie Hawkins and others. He played on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers in 1971, playing piano on “Wild Horses,” and recorded his first solo album of muddy Memphis soul rock, Dixie Fried, a year later. Dickinson produced Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers album at Ardent in 1974, and also produced the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. His sons Luther and Cody carry on the family tradition in their band North Mississippi Allstars.
Memphis artist William Eggleston gained critical acclaim for his still photography, which was marked by bright, saturated colors. He was one of the first color photographers to receive serious attention from the art world, and he got his first solo exhibition at MoMA in 1976. His photograph “The Red Ceiling” was used for the cover of Big Star’s Radio City in 1974. Eggleston spent much of 1973 with a portable video camera recording the Memphis party scene in all of its drug-and-booze addled glory. The result is Stranded in Canton, an art film stitched together from his collection of home movies —sometimes odd, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic. The film has plenty of musical moments, including sequences with bluesmen Johnny Adams and Furry Lewis, Sun recording artist Johnny McGill, and Jim Dickinson. There’s also a guy who bites the head off a chicken, and a girl who carries nunchucks in her purse.
An actor, artist and musician from Arkansas, Falco moved to Memphis in 1973. He and Alex Chilton formed Tav Falco and the Panther Burns in ’79, fusing Memphis rockabilly with New York City art punk. Falco was immersed in both scenes, appearing in the 1981 film Downtown 81, a thinly-veiled biopic of New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. During those years, Falco documented the Memphis scene as a photographer under the guidance of his mentor William Eggleston. In 2012, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans hosted an exhibition of his work called 50 Photos: The Iconography of Chance.
In 1969, Memphis voters passed an ordinance allowing the sale of “liquor by the drink,” which was a big boost to the city’s nightlife. Overton Square in midtown Memphis became the center of the scene, a raucous district of bars and nightclubs anchored by T.G.I. Friday’s, which opened in 1970 and was the first T.G.I. Friday’s to spin off from the original New York City location. The back cover of Big Star’s Radio City features a band photo shot by William Eggleston at T.G.I. Friday’s.