Chuck Stewart’s photography provided by Fireball Entertainment Group, courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photographs of John Coltrane, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Before Berry Gordy started Motown—before Russell Simmons and Suge Knight were even born—Don Robey epitomized what it meant to be a black music mogul. Working in Houston from the 1930s until his death in 1975, Robey discovered Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. His record company released the original version of “Hound Dog,” and he made Bobby “Blue” Bland a star. Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, and Little Richard were clients of his booking agency, and T-Bone Walker, “Big” Joe Turner, and Wynonie Harris all regularly graced the stage at his nightclub, where legendary after-parties saw the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe jamming with Big Bill Broonzy and Louis Jordan.
On the afternoon of April 9, 1987, a man stood outside the United States penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. He had been convicted of one count of willful failure to file an income tax return and sentenced to a year in prison. His orders from the court were to surrender himself to the institution before April 10. While an accomplice rolled videotape, the man outside the prison, who was both a literalist and something of a showman, held up the day’s newspaper and announced: “I surrender to the institution!”
Country music in the 1970s of my adolescence was music for the hopelessly uncool. It was Saturday afternoon television with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, outlandish in their rhinestones, extolling the virtues of their sponsor, Breeze detergent. It was “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit denouncing drugs, war protesters, and long hair. Country was Hee Haw, and what the football coach who taught Driver’s Ed—he of the short haircut, white polyester shirts, and fierce Texas twang—made us listen to when we drove with him, because it soothed his nerves.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on the other hand, was a country-rock group from Southern California, “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys,” as country patriarch Roy Acuff called them. But in August 1971 they made their way to Nashville, a little tentatively, to record the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a collaboration with an unlikely gathering of old-time country stars that instantly achieved classic status and has never gone out of print.
A conversation with Jean Shepard, Jan Howard, Jeanne Pruett, and Jeannie Seely from Winter 2013, the Tennessee Music Issue.
“One of my most cherished memories is with Minnie, just after her first breast surgery. She’d had surgery on Monday and she called me on Friday. She said, “What are you doing on Monday?” I said, “I don’t know, what are we doing?” She said, “Well, the doctor says I can’t drive but I can eat, so why don’t you pick me up and we’ll go to lunch at the club?” So I get to her house at 11 A.M., and for some reason that day she wanted to show me certain things about her house. She walked me through, telling me stories about everything. It was the greatest three hours that I’ve ever spent with someone who wasn’t family, but it was not with Minnie Pearl, it was with Sarah Ophelia Cannon.”
A story from Winter 2013, the Tennessee Music Issue.
She is a music student, slender, youthful, with the concentrated face of an alto in the chorus or a back-row violinist, frowning at her strings. Tonight, wearing black (de rigueur for her profession), she sits in a chair to the left of and slightly behind the pianist. She is invisible.
When I was a kid in 1970s Memphis, limousines were a rare sight, though two would occasionally appear in traffic. From the backseat of our family station wagon, we’d scream for Mother to pull up closer. We’d know whose it was by the license plate. Elvis Presley’s was not customized. Isaac Hayes’s read MOSES, referring to his nickname, Black Moses. He was leading people to the Promised Land.