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Memphis Blasts British Beat Bullies

In 1964, as the nation’s record charts were awash with British product ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the Memphis recording scene was hanging in there. When you look at the Billboard chart from April 4, 1964, The Beatles had the top five songs in the US. The following week, the 11th, 14 of the 100 spots were taken up with Beatle songs released on five different labels. But a closer look at that chart brings up some old familiar names.

Early Sun Records staple Jerry Lee Lewis, now on the Smash label, was at number 98 with “I’m On Fire.” From Stax Records, Rufus Thomas sat at number 91 with “Somebody Stole My Dog.” At number 90 with at bullet sat Sun Records alum Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over.” That one would go on to the top 10. Otis Redding was still searching for that first real breakthrough hit, but he held the number 88 slot with “Come To Me.” At number 84 we find “Soul Serenade” by a guy with tangential Memphis ties. King Curtis would see this tune covered by Hi Record’s Willie Mitchell a couple of years on down the road, and Curtis himself would pay tribute to the Bluff City music scene with his 1967 hit, “Memphis Soul Stew.” Elvis Presley had a presence on the chart that week, with “Kissin’ Cousins” at number 34, and “It Hurts Me” at number 41. Major Lance, from Winterville, Mississippi (down in the delta) had a number-32-and-rising with “The Matador.“ And Bobby Bland from up in Rosemark rose to number 20 with “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do.”

All this to say that in the face of the British Invasion, Memphis and the Mid-south had not sent up a flag of surrender.

One of the bands to take the if-you-can’t-beat-’em’-join-’em attitude was the Bill Black Combo. As we recall, Bill Black’s bottom end was the bedrock of the original Elvis sound, and though health matters kept him from touring , his Combo was chosen by name to open for the Beatle’s first American tour. Hi records continued to hit the chart for years with materials from the Combo, solo tracks from it’s sax player, Ace Cannon, and a one-hit wonder from Bill Black’s vocalist Gene Simmons.

When I say Gene Simmons, of course, listeners of a certain age picture the flame-breathing blood-spitting bass player for the band which brought Kabuki theater to rock, KISS. The Hi Records Gene Simmons was not this guy. Matter of fact, the KISS guy, Chaim Weitz, changed his name to Gene Klein when he moved to Brooklyn from Haifa, Israel as a kid, and adopted his professional name as a tribute to Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, the one from the Bill Black Combo. The original Simmons, like Elvis, came from Tupelo, and like Elvis, got his start on Sun Records.

Simmons’ one-hit wonderment began with a quirky novelty record from 1958, “Haunted House” by Johnny Fuller. In Memphis in 1964, Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs recorded a cover version with hopes for release on Hi Records. Sam came to loggerheads with the label over the song, but performed his take on George Klein’s channel 13 Talent Party show. Gene Simmons saw Sam on TV, and thought he could do the song justice, and teamed with producer Stan Kesler to commit this song to vinyl. The Hi release hit number 11 in 1964.

Sam The Sham was a bit put out that his version was passed over, but his comeuppance was just over the horizon, about as quick as he could count to four.

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.