Monday, April 2, 2012

Downtown, my old stomping ground...

As posted earlier, Crew Istaboa is seriously searching for a new dirt dwelling.
And, yes I know, there are those who feel there could be no better life than full time living aboard our boat, but we've been doing the cruising thing for many years and we like to think of the boat life as a dream being realized, but sometimes, for us anyway, it's fun to hop on the bus and say... there's no place like home — and our dream remains floating somewhere awaiting our return.

We're fortunate to have it both ways.

Both ways was once our boat, 'Istaboa',  and a great house in the woods—that's soon to belong to someone else. We're working on a less complicated lifestyle; a space we can just lock up and walk away from when we're ready to return to the boat and the dream.

So... we've been looking in funky old downtown Memphis.

For me, this is almost a completed circle. As a kid,  downtown was where all my dreams started, my first glimpse of a city, where I boarded my Pop's tow boat, "The Compass", my first gig as a professional musician, and many, many other momentous recollections.

When I was a just kid and coming of age on the other side of the river, Memphis was like Oz to me. It had Happy Hal's Toy Store, a zoo, Overton Park, Riverside Park, McDonalds, and anything else a young boy could ever want — but for me anyway, it was a far away, forbidden city.
When I turned 13, rushing from the bliss of youth into the fog of adolescence, my buddies and I learned that for 25 cents we could catch a bus and cross the bridge where we could freely experience, without being tethered to a parent, the faraway magic that downtown Memphis had an abundance of. After a few weeks of begging my folks for a release, they relented, and we were finally on our way to Main Street.
Main Street was our Mall. Cool stores like Goldsmith's 123 Shop sold the new, "Mod", clothes, music shops such as Berl Olswanger's and O.K. Hauck had the best guitars and amps, record stores like the legendary Pop Tunes would let you listen to any record you wanted, The Magic Shop, theaters with 1st run movies, and just before boarding the bus back home we'd always stop at the old Krystal on Union and stuff down as many 10 cent Krystal burgers as we could afford. And, flirt with the fascinating big city girls, who, of course, shunned us.
This was 1964/65, a wonderful time in Memphis and the peak of Beatlemania. A DJ named George Klein, (Elvis' best friend) hosted a show on Saturday mornings called "The Place"; it was the place we all wanted to be. GK always booked the best bands in town and showed cool movies like the Beatle's Hard Day's Night. George Klein was and I'm sure still is, a genuinely nice guy.
One Saturday, making our small town lives feel a little bit bigger, GK walked to the back rows where we always sat and asked us if we'd like to come back stage to meet The Gentry's, who at the time had the hit record, "Keep on Dancing".
We were so stunned we could hardly talk. Single file we followed him as he walked us past all the hip Memphis kids who were so wondering who we were and why were we lucky enough to be following GK backstage. ( In later years I played bass for the Gentrys and Larry Raspberry who sang that hit. Yep, I was a Gentry and a Highstepper for a while and still friends with Larry Raspberry and Jimmy Hart. Rock and Roll will make you Rant and Rave)

In those days the venue was called the Malco, but it's original name was the Orpheum and it's once again The Orpheum. It's a grand old theater that was built back in 1928 when good acoustics still meant something and today it remains an amazing room for concerts. Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, and Taz Mahal are some of the acts we've seen there in recent years.

But I digress, back to the kid part:
Riding that bus across the Mississippi River bridge to Memphis, you had to cross Beale Street and at the corner of 3rd and Beale Street was Capitol Loans. The display windows there were full of guitars and every time we crossed Beale I'd zoom in on those windows. Before our first trip, my Father sat me down and told me that it was okay to hang around Main Street, but he said, "keep your butt away from Beale Street." Well, of course once there I made a beeline south to see what was down there. What was there at the time was a mashed-up array of pawn shops, clothing stores with clothes the likes of I had never seen, an old store named A. Schwab's who's windows displayed things called hoodoo charms, and several beer joints.
What immediately caught my attention was, the pawn shops. (Occasionally I would stand out front of the beer joints to listen to the music that was blaring out from the juke boxes inside. It was music I'd never heard before, I later figured out it was R&B and the blues.) In time, these pawn shops became museums for me, they were wall to wall guitars and some of them were fine instruments. Even at an early age I knew what guitars the pros used and could spot a Gipson, Gretch, or a Fender a mile away; these shops were full of them.
Then one Saturday, at the young age of 13, just a little white kid from Arkansas, I worked up the grit to walk into a pawn shop on the notorious and mysterious Beale Street.

Nathan Novick's Pawn Shop

And Man! was I glad I did. Not only were these name brand guitars, they were deals, so cheap even I could afford one; with some help.
As I stood mesmerized, staring through the big display windows, a gentleman outside of Nathan Novick's pawn shop noticed me, walked over, and took the time to tell me that if I played my cards right I could get a guitar for cheap. He explained how pawn shops worked, that most folks took out a loan they couldn't pay back.  I'll never forget what he said, "I jus give'm mine for a 20 dollar front. Lost my damn ticket!"
That old fellow was right. After a half hour of negotiating with a man named Lou Raefield, I had a deal on a Gipson Firebird; just like the one I had seen Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones playing at the Mid South Coliseum.

 The late Brian Jones playing a version of my $75.00 guitar

I was so damn excited, however, this created a seriously difficult dilemma for me. First, I told Mr. Raefield I'd come back and buy the guitar that afternoon. He was so aggravated that he slammed his fist on the counter and actually yelled at me, "You talk me down, then you walk out?! Get out of here. Don't come back!" (He always put on a great show.) Next, I jumped on the bus back to West Memphis and ran home. Then, shamefaced, I fessed up to my Pop that I'd done what he told me not to do. I had walked down to Beale Street, but I'd found a $500.00 guitar that I could buy for $75.00.
His reaction was not what I had imagined. I expected him to be furious, ground me, and never let me go back to Memphis again. Instead, he just laughed and asked me where I was going to get $75.00. I pleaded, "Please Pop, I promise I'll pay you back." He chuckled under his breath like he always did when amused and said, "get in the car and don't tell your Mama." He loaned me the money, but sat in the car while I went in alone and closed the deal.
I could see through the window of that old Mercury, my Pop laughing out loud as I was walking out with that Firebird in hand; Mr. Raefield on my heels, waving me away from his shop, and yelling at me to never come back to his shop again. I'd talked Lou out of charging me tax which riled him even more. (Lou Raefield and I later became pretty good buddies and I bought many guitars from him.)

My Pop was a good man who not only found humor in my wily ways, he often financed them.

Yesterday, walking around downtown, my mind was swirling with memories — bringin it all back.

Mel and I had drinks at the Green Beetle after looking at a friend's condo and yes, another story.

The Green Beetle was the first speak-easy in Memphis and it hasn't changed much since it's official opening in 1939. Frank's Liquor was actually a liquor store in those days.

Back in the 70's, in a previous life, I rented the home of the original proprietor, the Infamous "Big" Frank Liberto. Not the one connected with the MLK assassination, but the Frank Liberto rumored to be Memphis' foremost bootlegger. He was a legend and still alive when I rented his estate, we spoke on the phone, but I never met him.
That house was my son's first home, though he didn't live there long; this is also where my first marriage ended. It was a great band house with a huge living room that was perfect for rehearsals. David Porter and Isaac Hayes were neighbors so late night jams weren't a problem. The neighborhood had a good feel and we put together some great bands there.  I can still see the hookers working the corner of Lamar and South Parkway East and remember them yelling over the brick wall that surrounded the estate, "Y'all soundin' good... wanna a date?

Wow... Have I dug up some memories or what? Seems my mind and my fingers just couldn't stop reminiscing, but I'll stop now, though I could go on for hours.
These are my old stomping grounds and it's looking like I may return to do some more stomping around down here.

There's something significantly mystical in Memphis. Some kind of weird funk/mojo that Memphis' ever prevalent dysfunctional county v. city, black v. white, have vs have not culture has never been able to dispose of.

The old town's been beat up... but never beat down.
Kinda like the Green Beetle, after the many years and all the changes, it's still there—still Memphis— through and through.

Once a Memphian, always a Memphian.



P.S. We promise a boat trip's in our near future.

So, we bought a place in the S. Main area. Now when here I walk around and relive things long forgotten. There's a story around every corner and down every alley.


  1. Wow, what great memories and we know exactly how you feel about the dual life thing - everytime we go home we immediately start talking about getting back to the boat and now at this time of the year we can hardly wait to get back home. See you again, as we head north after our Minnesota fix.

  2. Wow, a lotta famous names there! It sounds like you did very well as a musician, something very few actually achieve. Pam and I had a little bookstore in a small town. I put in a stage and bought some equipment and we had music on Friday nights. Musicians traveled many miles to play there. I was told it was because we were not a bar, and the audience actually listened.

    I enjoyed this post a lot. You need to continue this one.

  3. Wow! Great post.... I loved it! Hope to see y'all soon! Love to Radar and Muddy