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 beautiful home with incredible landscaping—that's soon to belong to someone else. We're working on a new both ways; 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 old historic downtown Memphis.

For me, this is almost a completed circle. It's where all my dreams started, my first glimpse of a city, where I boarded my Pop's tow boat, "The Compass", that would take me on the river to mysterious places unknown, my first gig as a professional musician, and many, many other remarkable memories.

When I was a kid and coming of age on the other side of the river, Memphis was like Oz. It had Happy Hal's Toy Store, a zoo, Overton Park, Riverside Park, McDonalds, and anything else a kid could ever want — but for me, it was a far away, forbidden city.
When I turned 13, my buddies and I learned that for 25 cents we could catch a bus to cross the bridge and freely experience, without being tethered to a parent, all the magic that downtown Memphis had to offer. After a few weeks of begging my folks for release, they relented, and we were finally on our way to Main Street Memphis.
Main Street was our Mall; cool stores like Goldsmith's 123 Shop sold the new, "hip", clothes, music shops such as Berl Olswanger's and O.K. Hauck had the best guitars, record stores like the legendary Pop Tunes, 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, (Huey's today) and stuff as many 10 cent Krystal burgers down our throats as we could afford. And, flirt with big city girls, who no doubt shunned us.
This was the peak of Beatlemania and a DJ named George Klein, (Elvis' best friend) hosted a show on Saturday mornings called "The Place" and it was the place we all wanted to be. GK always had the best bands in town perform and showed cool movies like the Beatle's Hard Day's Night.
GK was, and I'm sure still is, a genuinely nice guy. He made our little country boy lives feel incredibly special one Saturday when he walked to the back rows, where we sat feeling shy and meek, and asked us if we wanted to come back stage to meet The Gentry's, who at the time had the hit record, "Keep on Dancing".
We were so shocked we could hardly talk. He walked us past all the hip Memphis kids who were so wondering why we were lucky enough to be following GK back stage. ( 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. 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 called 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.

Back to the kid part:
Riding that bus across the Mississippi River bridge to Memphis, you had to pass Beale Street. My Father had told me that it was okay to hang around Main Street, but said, "keep your butt away from Beale." Well, of course once there I made a beeline south to see what was on Beale. 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 before, an old store named A. Schwab's who's windows displayed things called hoodoo charms, and lots of honky-tonks.
What immediately caught my attention was the pawn shops. (I did stand out front of the juke 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 the blues.) In time, these pawn shops became museums for me, they were wall to wall guitars and not junk guitars. 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 so at the age of 13 and a little white kid from Arkansas, I worked up the grit to walk into a pawn shop on the notorious and mysterious Beale Street.

Beale Street above... Nathan Novick's Pawn Shop below

And Man! was I glad I did. Not only were these name brand guitars, they were amazing deals, even affordable enough for me. As I stood mesmerized, staring through the showroom windows, a gentleman outside of Nathan Novick's hock shop noticed me and said, "You can buy dem gitars fo haf whut dey axin. I know cuz I jus give'm mine for 20 dollars. 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 like the one I had seen Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones playing a few weeks earlier at the Mid South Coliseum.

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

Although elated, this created a seriously difficult dilemma for me. 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 hollered out, "You talk me down, then you walk out?! Get out of here. Don't come back!"
So I jumped on the bus back to West Memphis, ran home, and sheepishly fessed up to my Pop that I'd done what he told me not to do. I'd gone 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 ground me and never let me go back to Memphis, 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.
Pop was laughing out loud when he saw me walking out with that Firebird in hand and Mr. Raefield on my heels shaking his fist and yelling at me to never darken his door again. I'd talked Lou out of charging me tax which riled him even more. (Lou Raefield and I later became friends 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 this area flooded my mind with so many memories — bringin it all back.

We had drinks at the Green Beetle after looking at a friend's condo. 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 turned out some great bands there.  I remember the hookers working the corner of Lamar and South Parkway East would yell over the brick wall that surrounded the estate, "Y'all sounding good... wanna a date?

Wow... Have I dug up some memories or what? Seems 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 we may do some more stomping around down here.
There's something remarkable and mystical about Memphis. Some weird funk/mojo that Memphis' ever prevalent dysfunctional county vs city, black vs white culture has never been able to dispose of.
It's been beat up... but never beat down.
Kinda like the Green Beetle, after all the changes... it's still Memphis, through and through.

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

Once a Memphian, always a Memphian.



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


  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