Sunday, November 26, 2017

Dewey Phillips and The Box Tops - Hits of '67

"Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips loved music, particularly rhythm and blues. Not having that Elvis edge as a singer, Dewey broadcast the music he loved to a radio audience. WHBQ Radio in Memphis, Tennessee created the Red Hot and Blue radio show to reach a black audience because no one else was listening to their programming. While he couldn't enunciate properly (read that as he was often incomprehensible), read copy or cue a record without scratching it, Dewey was perfect for the job. He had an uncanny knack for knowing a hit when he heard it, live on the air, and, if it wasn't up to his muster, Daddy-O would smash the acetate on the studio floor. Who knows how many struggling artists were reduced to shards of black that was rarely swept up?  He had the knack, also, to say the most foolish things on the air, capturing a black audience, but mesmerizing young white suburban teens who hung on his every word. Without realizing, Dewey created in Memphis a new phenomenon, rock 'n' roll. Indeed, one of Dewey's white devotees would go on to record rhythm and blues songs in a sparse Memphis studio that AM may have mentioned, and with Dewey’s help, launch his career. That was Elvis Presley.

By the mid-50's, Dewey had parlayed his knowledge and love of hardcore rhythm 'n' blues into a forum from which he first inspired, not only Elvis, but Jerry Lee Lewis and The Boxtops; for that alone, Phillips undeniably earned his place as a Founding Father of Rock 'n' Roll. Despite Red Hot and Blue, Phillips was increasingly disenchanted with the comparatively meek, mild sounds of the 1960's, and unable to find a home for his particular strain of insanity as rock became big business, he died alone and broken in 1968 and to date wrongfully remains little more than a footnote in Elvis biographies.


One of this writers top ten singles is The Box Tops' "The Letter." The Box Tops were a ground breaking combo from Memphis who first charted in the summer of '67 with their biggest hit, which like most of their songs was recorded at Chips Moman's American Sound Studio and produced by Dan Penn. They were the first Memphis artists to record in Memphis and have a number one record. "The Letter" remained at the top of the Billboard charts for four weeks in 1967, selling over four million copies; their third single, "Cry Like A Baby," hit the number two position for two weeks in 1968. Both records went gold at initial release, with 'The Letter' selling over four million copies and 'Cry Like A Baby' over two million. No American group since the Righteous Brothers had looked whiter and sung blacker than The Box Tops on that sensational first single in 1967. 17-year old Alex Chilton's voice had more Memphis grit than was considered proper for a white gentleman. We often hear about Brian Epstein as a driving force behind The Beatles, or Colonel Parker as Elvis' heavy-handed mentor, but few ever talk about Daddy-O Dewey Phillips.

In the storied history of rock and roll, Dewey Phillips is an unsung hero. He scratched his way into his dream job at the same time a vast, young audience was searching for new entertainment and a new identity, yet he would enjoy success for only a few years. By the end of the 50s, he became one of the first casualties of drug addiction in the rock and roll era.  So many of the music personalities from Memphis of that time would achieve greater, lasting fame than Dewey Phillips. Yet all owe a debt for relentlessly promoting their product on his radio show.