In CMT’s new original TV series “Sun Records”, I am playing the role of “The Be-Bop Boy”, Joe Hill Louis. His record, “Gotta Let You Go” recorded in late July 1950 was the first record produced by Sam Phillips with the intention of selling to the regional market. He felt he had a hit and he was not alone. Along with his dear friend, eccentric WHPQ DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation), Sam put all of his heart and soul into making this record a sure-fire hit! When I was given the chance to re-create the sound of this record along with an original number I play in Joe Hill’s style, I jumped at the chance. Joe Hill Louis is an enigma in the transitionary period that connects country blues, R&B, Soul and Rock ‘N’ Roll. The audience for his music is small but the fans are all die-hards. I hope that this role will create awareness for Joe Hill Louis and showcase his place as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.
Joe Hill Louis was a one-man band who was a regular on Beale Street. He was a foundational musician in the music scenes of Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas in the 1940’s and 50’s. Born Lester Hill in 1921 in Whitehaven, on the outskirts of Memphis, he began hanging around W.C. Handy’s Park after running away from home as a young man. He was adopted by a wealthy white family, The Canales, who supported him as he grew up. He was known for his ability to fight which led him to be compared to the first black middle weight champion of the world, Joe Louis. The nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life.
It is at Handy’s Park that Joe first came across Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band who were in the last hurrah of their hey-day as the 1940’s gave way to new venues and new types of music. Willie Borum, a blues singer who was around at that time said,
“Joe Hill Louis used to watch the bands down in Handy’s Park. Before he turned to music he used to be a cook at the Peabody Hotel. Me and Will Shade taught him all he knew on guitar. He played before, but he never did get his guitar right earlier. That was right after the war. Me and Will Shade would play with him. All the country people used to come down to Beale; so we used to go down there and play for them. All the musicians in Memphis did. Then Joe got to play on WDIA—that really started him off.”
WDIA was the first black-controlled radio station in the United States and its importance cannot not be overemphasized. Among the artists’ whose careers were launched at the station were not only Joe Hill Louis but BB King, Bobby Bland, Roscoe Gordon and a novelty/ blues singer named Rufus Thomas who would have a career of hit records on his own with Stax Records a decade later. There is an amazing article on the formation of WDIA in the Oxford American Magazine worth checking out.
Let’s Put Him On The Air:
I also wrote briefly about the Memphis scene in the 1920’s in my article “Can You Blame Gus Cannon?”:
Through his new-found popularity, Joe Hill Louis began to expand his business to the neighboring towns of rural Tennessee. He also began to look across the Mississippi river into Arkansas. He got a DJ spot on KWEM in West Memphis alongside another musician/singer who would also end up recording for Sam Phillips. Mississippi born Chester Burnett who was known to the radio audiences across the South as The Howlin’ Wolf. West Memphis, Arkansas and the surrounding towns were rough working class black communities and there was always a need for the blues to be played every night. And the blues that the folks wanted was what the Wolf called the “way down in the woods” blues. Another blues singer Wilroy Sanders laid out the scene of those early days,
“I was just a kid when I saw Joe Hill Louis the first time. Me and some friends used to go to Moscow, Tennessee, from Germantown, to watch the bands and dance—we were actually too young to be admitted. I remember seeing Louis at Lula’s around 1948; he sure acted like a country boy! He tried to play all kinds of songs. He just asked for a request and then he tried to play it. He was good.”
This is where Sam Phillips enters the picture. When driving to one of Joe’s gigs in Moscow, he asked Sam what he was up to and Sam told him he was making a recording studio. The two men agreed to meet up again and make a record and a few weeks later they did. Why though? Why did Sam Phillips decide to do this? Jump across cultural lines to record black artists?
Having suffered from bouts of severe depression, Sam, at the doctor’s order, decided to use the studio as a means to relieve stress. Not one known to keep idle hands, Sam knew exactly what he wanted:
“I didn’t open the studio to record funerals and weddings and school day revues. I knew what I opened the studio for. I was looking for a higher ground, for what I knew existed in the soul of mankind. And especially at that time the black man’s spirit and his soul!”
Sam wanted to give voice to the black people he saw everyday. Having grown up in Florence, Alabama, Sam had been exposed to black culture early on. Now as an adult, Sam made it his message to get the wealth of black music in Memphis on record and out there for others to hear. He was in his own way like many of the early folk song collectors, like Alan Lomax or John Wesley Work III. The difference was that Sam Phillips came with a business acumen. In THIS way, he was like the first A&R man of the record business Ralph Peer. Sam was a radio DJ and he felt that through his network of local radio stations, he could help turn the tide of what people heard on record. He knew the sounds that came from the jukebox speakers could do more than entertain. It could change people’s life and change their hearts. In a time where segregation and social disorder were commonplace, Sam knew in his mind that making these records would change the world!
With these ambitious ideas, Sam had started searching for the local talent around Memphis. Through Joe Hill Louis’ connections, Phillips made great recordings of some of the legends around Beale Street including Sleepy John Estes, Charlie Burse and Phineas J. Newman. Phillips would later even go across the river and speak with Howlin’ Wolf about recording. Phillips always believed that the Wolf was his greatest artist.
Sam listened to Joe Hill Louis and he truly loved the music. Yet beyond the music, Joe Hill Louis, the man himself interested him. He called him “a loner but not lonesome. He was his own person. I never saw him look defeated or unhappy about anything. Joe was a sweet guy. He was the kind of person to just drop in and say ‘hi’ and then keep out of the way. He was always well-dressed, sharp, a dapper man. He was well-organized and very personable. He was a treasure to me and I just thought, “This is a guy that deserves to be heard, even though I realized that it was basically a novelty thing.”
That day, Sam Phillips hit the record button and with a triumphant, “Let’s Go!” Joe Hill Louis cuts “Gotta Let You Go”, a record that unleashes what can only be called the most epic put-down on record! The hypnotic monotone guitar riff fixs in place and the story of a newly married man worried about his wife staying out all night long comes into focus. Joe Hill Louis is just going for it. He calls her out and doesn’t care who hears! He talks about how ragged she is out on the streets while he comes homes and brings home the bread. When one studies the other records that Joe Hill Louis made in his short career, there is not another song like this one. Joe pulls further into himself revealing the ancient sounds of the Beale Street Songster. One hears the deep tradition of Frank Stokes, W.C. Handy and the Memphis Jug Band all in one. One also hears that new Afro-American beat that would take over the youth of America! THAT’s why it sizzles off the needle and bursts from the speakers. The song itself likens to an older recording “Boogie Chillen” by blues artist John Lee Hooker. What sets Joe Hill Louis’ song apart from “Boogie Chillen” is the atmosphere of the actual record. Sam Phillips made a point to make sure each of his records were a true testament to the sound bouncing around in his head. To me, it sounds like an old-time “party” record. These gawdy, very adult-flavored records, have the same type of rawness. They give the “feel” of sitting in the club getting ready to hear the performer lay down his nastiest rap. Joe Hill Louis lays it out saying “I done told your mother, I done told your father, I done told your brother I gotta let you go.”
Sam Phillips was so inspired he sent the record to his new distributing partners, The Bihari Brothers, for release. They were not impressed. In a fit of protest, Sam and his partner Dewey Phillips decide to make their own label. As the top DJs in town they knew they could dominate the market with their music. They pressed 300 copies of the record with the label “It’s a Phillips” pronouncing on the label that it was “Hottest Thing In The Country”. While they put in a valiant effort they did not sell a thing and went flat broke. Sam had a lot to learn before he would truly begin to make hit records. He would never forget the power of that first record and the sound of Joe Hill Louis that inspired him. But what about Joe Hill Louis? What became of this rare flash in the pan?
In his book Memphis Blues, Bengt Olsson gives the final fate of Joe Hill Louis. Having looked through the city directories, Olsson found that Joe was originally married to a woman named Polly up until 1951 when he was listened as a musician for WDIA. Each year afterward starting in 1952, he was married to a woman named Dorothy Mae. As he recorded a record, “Dorothy Mae” for Checker Records in 1952 I can’t help but think that “Gotta Let You Go” was about his first wife Polly.
One other blues singer, John “Red” Williams gave an illuminating description to Bengt Olsson:
“I met Louis in Arkansas in 1951. He had played there, and I asked him to drive me to Memphis for two dollars, he refused to do it, ‘cause he thought I’d been messing with his wife in the car while he was playing. But I caught a bus ride to Memphis for a dollar forty, and after that we were friends! The same year we both played at the Blue Light on Beale. That was a rough place…lots of cheatin’. I think Louis came from Mississippi. He died at Rainbow Lake in Mississippi. He mostly played in Arkansas and Mississippi, you know.”
Joe would do several more sessions with Sam but they never could get a hit. Sam always regretted that he could never get exactly what he was looking for with Joe Hill Louis. Joe Hill Louis died unceremoniously in 1957 from a thumb injury that gave him tetanus. It is believed that he suffered the injury while doing yard work for a girlfriend of his. He was thirty-five years old. When told that the treatment would have cost two dollars to have saved his life, Sam Phillips told Bengt Olsson that he would have gladly given it to him.
But the time for Joe Hill Louis’ music had run its course. His style was born in the open air markets of Beale Street and the bawdy backrooms of Eastern Arkansas. The style in Memphis moved more toward the smoother urbane sounds of BB King. And behind BB King the soul-blues singers who began to take over Memphis with the foundation of Stax Records had their day. The blues singers on both sides of the river would begin their migration up North to Chicago where another client of Sam’s, The Chess Brothers, were making a new sound for blues creating yet another style. But not everyone moved up North. The blues out of Arkansas began to move down river to Helena were the radio DJ culture continued with Rice Miller. Miller is known by the name he coopted from one of those famous “Chicago” blues harmonica players, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. As Sonny Boy Williamson II, Miller would make another dent in the history books with the sounds of his blues broadcasting on The King Biscuit Time Show on KFFA. The show still broadcasts to this day with a blues festival celebrating the history of the area.
Joe Hill Louis was a perfect conduit between the early music of the 1920’s in Memphis translated into the raucous sounds of early rock ‘n’ roll. Best part, is that he only one of the hundreds of musicians, white and black, that Sam Phillips recorded for Sun Records. It’s a reminder that all of this music doesn’t come from out of nowhere. These are the musicians that influenced Elvis Presley. The combination of Elvis growing up near the black community and Sam Phillips fanatical desire to elevate the Negro via recorded music is the combination that shook the nation and changed the world! It is a pleasure to be able to depict this seminal figure on the big screen and the little screen. Thanks to Chuck Mead for hiring me on. Thanks to Pokey LaFarge, who plays Hank Snow, for passing me the lead to make the connection. Congrats to all of the cast who did a bang up job!
Finally, I want to thank the wonderful folks over at Sun Records. While I was on the set, I decided to visit the site where these historic recordings were made. Not only did I take the tour but when I told them I was playing Joe Hill Louis in the show the guy went in the back and gave me a copy of an LP of Joe Hill Louis’ stuff. He personally thanked me for representing this obscure blues singer in the show. The respect that Sam Phillips had for Joe Hill Louis is still living in the current staff at Sun. As a result, I couldn’t help but take a picture holding my newly acquired LP in front the door where so many had walked before more than half a century ago. Sam Phillips was right! His music did change the world and I’ve got the picture to prove it! Here’s to you Joe Hill Louis! That’s my story! Hope you folks enjoy the show! Sun Records on CMT! Lets Go!
The American Songster
February 23, 2017
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll by Peter Guarlnick 2015
Memphis Blues- Bengt Olsson 1970
Head, Hands & Feet by Dave Harris 2012
Nothin’ But The Blues by Lawrence Cohn 1993
Oxford American no.83 Southern Music Issue 2013 articles “Let’s Put Him On The Air” and “Can You Blame the Gus Cannon?”
The Hound Blog: http://thehoundblog.blogspot.com/2010/08/joe-hill-louis.html 2010