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Dewey Phillips 60's

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Introduction

Dewey Phillips’s name is best associated with a single moment in the history of American popular culture. He is the disc jockey who introduced Elvis Presley to Memphis and the Mid-South by playing his first record and then conducting his first live on-the-air interview. 

 

More important, however, if less well known is the contribution Dewey made to the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s by both turning on a huge southern white audience to the previously forbidden “race” music and by providing indispensable assistance to Elvis’s early career.

Programmed Chaos: Dewey Phillips on the Air

On the air, the real Dewey Phillips was always a bit stranger than any fictional radio character ever invented. The style was without precedent. He made no effort to imitate anyone on the airwaves or in the entertainment business. Most fans agree that they had never heard anything quite like him and no doubt ever will again. In essence, he did nothing less than deconstruct Memphis radio entertainment during the 1950s, and in the process he proclaimed a kind of Declaration of Radio Independence for all future programming.

Before the Storm: Dewey Arrives at the Five-and-Dime

Dewey Phillips was the Wolfman Jack of Memphis. He frequently had more listeners than all other Memphis stations put together. Whether or not a new record got Dewey’s approval and subsequent promotion on his show would often determine the success or failure of that record. Under Dewey’s reign, Memphis had the reputation of being the predictor of whether a tune would hit nationally or not. “A record will hit No. 1 position here,” Robert Johnson of the Press-Scimitar wrote, “in most instances long before it catches on nationally.”

Hotel Chisca Memphis, Tn.

The White Brother on Beale Street

“In 1948 and ‘49, Dewey Phillips would have been one of the rare white faces you’d see hanging out on Beale Street,” says longtime observer Charles Raiteri, who worked at WHBQ. “Dewey was already well known in the black community before he ever began Red, Hot and Blue.” Of course, other white faces were familiar on Beale Street in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but apart from a few musicians, most of the others, like Abe Schwab, Jake Salky, or the famous Lansky brothers, were merchants who ran stores there.

The New Memphis Sound: The Birth of Black Programming

Before Dewey Phillips could become the Pied Piper of the new rhythm and blues hit parade, Mid-South radio fans would have to be shaken out of their traditional listening habits. That is precisely what happened only months before Red, Hot and Blue first aired. The breakthrough occurred late in 1948 when WDIA put the South’s first publicly recognized black disc jockey — Nat D. Williams — on the air. His immediate success was so overwhelming that it caused a shift in the station’s programming to an all-black format, something completed by the summer of 1949.

“What in the World Is That?” Is This Guy Black or White?

When Gordon Lawhead finally got around to hiring Dewey Phillips to work for WHBQ he got one of the planet’s greatest bargains. The man who would totally dominate Memphis radio entertainment in the early 1950s and whose commercial-laden show would almost single-handedly pull the station out of its ratings doldrums started work for the munificent sum of absolutely nothing. Strange as it now seems, Dewey received no actual salary when he began his radio career at WHBQ.

Red, Hot and Blue: The Hottest Cotton-Pickin’ Thang in the Country

If there was a center of the universe for the “what’s-happening-now” rock ‘n’ roll record scene in the 1950s it had to be the WHBQ studio on the mezzanine floor of the Chisca Hotel at 272 South Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, every week night between nine o’clock and midnight. That was where Red, Hot and Blue was erupting forth for the listening pleasure of Dewey Phillips’s local Memphis and Mid-South audience and being taped for later syndication in eleven cities around the country.

Dewey Phillips WHBQ poster.

Red Hot at First . . . Blue at the Very End”

When Dewey Phillips’s decline began sometime during the mid-1950s he was probably at the peak of his power. Before his descent, Red, Hot and Blue could not have been more red or more hot. Daddy-O-Dewey, whose local popularity continued to profit by Elvis’s growing fame, enjoyed mastery of the airwaves.

His television show, Pop Shop, went on the air in 1957, an unsanitized version of American Bandstand, and for a time was the biggest thing going in Memphis. Then, four days after he had been forced into a late-night time slot by the network syndication of Bandstand, Dewey, according to the station manager, “embarrassed the station, and he embarrassed me personally,” when he encouraged his sidekick, a noted young abstract painter who dressed in an ape suit on the air, to fondle a life-size cut-out of Jayne Mansfield. That pretty much ended Dewey’s television career, and he lost his radio show a few months later due to the same combination of originality, impetuosity and unpredictability, that had first catapulted him to stardom.

The Final Descent: “If Dewey Couldn’t be Number One, He Didn’t Wanna Be”

Although the Phillips family still speaks of Dewey in positive, if not glowing, terms, none have any problem with openly discussing his terrible decline toward the end — when, as Dot Phillips sometimes puts it, “He was just a mess.” She, for example, is quick to emphasize that Dewey’s drug habit started as a desperate effort to relieve his suffering. Most people, she says, do not realize the severity of the damage done to his left leg; after the second accident he came very close to death. “He’d lost a lot of blood,” she recalls.

“Goodbye, Good People”

Dewey loved to joke about his problems in front of friends and strangers alike, but his flippant attitude often masked turmoil. Hopelessly confused by a bewildering reality and baffled by his continued tumble from stardom, he was already floundering badly when his last real hope for turning the corner toward stability finally collapsed. In 1963, after a great deal of soul-searching, his wife decided to leave him for good. Dot had been struggling for a number of years with the knowledge of how bad Dewey’s problem was. In 1959 she accidentally discovered his abuse of pain pills. 

The Legacy: The Next Generation and Beyond

Despite the enormous amount of media attention devoted to Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, and the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, the significant contribution Dewey Phillips made in helping launch Presley’s career and turning on the southern white audience to previously forbidden race music is hardly mentioned. Fortunately, however, that is beginning to change. Gradually, if belatedly, Dewey’s role is being acknowledged, best evidenced by his inclusion in a permanent exhibit of 1950s’ deejays in Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and in a display at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis.

Epilogue

Coming to terms with Dewey Phillips is not easy. He was neither monster nor angel, neither devil nor saint, but an unpretentious, kindhearted, self-absorbed, and, ultimately, self-destructive soul who wanted nothing more than to spread the gospel of the new rhythm and blues sound to a captivated audience. That he certainly did. For better or worse the music he helped so much to change has become a key part of the way people now live. 

Dewey and Elvis: The Life and Times of a Rock 'n' Roll Deejay by Louis Cantor

Ellis Auditorium North Hall February 6, 1955.
1956 July 4 Russwood with Dewey Phillips and

He lived another ten years.

He had other radio shows and called everyone “Elvis” long after he had ceased to see much of his one-time protegé. As his rapid-fire speech grew garbled to the point of impenetrability, it was said that he had simply burned out on pills and alcohol, but he never lost his love for the music.

“Dewey could convince you that if you missed what he did, you missed something good,” said Sam Phillips. “And [if you failed to stay with him], you were going to miss the best because the next record coming up was going to be even better than the last – and that was the best!” And yet, said Sam of a man he considered not just his closest friend but “a genius – and I don’t call many people geniuses – when he got off the air at night, there was something about Dewey that kind of left him a little bit, because of the actual feeling of spirituality that he put into his program. He never liked to see the clock say midnight and he had to play his theme and go off the air. Now can you imagine that, a man who for nearly ten years was on the air and never wished for a night off?”

There were black jocks, said Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, who grew up listening to Dewey’s show, who played black music for black people, “and white radio stations were playing white music for white people, but Dewey called his audience ‘good people’ – he was playing good music for good people. And it got across.”

Born: Dewey Phillips May 13, 1926 Crump, Tennessee

Died: September 28, 1968 Memphis, Tennessee

Hotel Chisca WHBQ with D.J. Dewey Phillips.
Hotel Chisca home of WHBQ Radio

Dewey Phillips' Betrayal Caused Elvis to Withdraw Behind Walls

Dewey Phillips is rightfully assigned an exalted place in Elvis history. As the first DJ to play a Presley record on the radio, Dewey can take a bit of the credit for launching Elvis’ career. However, a few years later, Phillips betrayed Elvis’ trust, and although the two men were able to put the incident behind them, the betrayal left a deep impression on the singer’s psyche. As a result, Elvis began building a wall to shield his personal life from the outside world.

Dewey Phillips was a 28-year-old disc jockey at WHBQ radio station in Memphis on July 5, 1954. On that day 19-year-old Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” at Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service. Two days later Sam played an acetate of Elvis’ record for Dewey, who loved the recording and promised to play it on his “Red Hot & Blue” program the following evening.

WHBQ ad 1949.
Dewey Phillips prominent WHBQ Deejay.

The events on the night of July 8, 1954, are well documented in Presley lore. After Phillips played the acetate of “That’s All Right,” the switchboard lit up and the DJ played the song several more times. Meanwhile, Dewey called Elvis’ parents to get Elvis to come to the studio for an interview. Gladys and Vernon rushed to the Suzore theater, where their nervous son had gone that evening, and sent him to WHBQ’s downtown studio. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was the beginning of a close friendship between Elvis and Dewey. The DJ continued to spin Elvis’ Sun Records releases and helped with personal appearances as Elvis’ notoriety built slowly in the South. Even after Elvis’ career took off in 1956, he didn’t forgot Dewey’s role in helping to launch his career.

Joe Petruccio Elvis art.

Dewey Phillips goes to Hollywood

And so in May 1957, when Elvis went out to Hollywood to work on Jailhouse Rock, he invited Dewey to come out for a California vacation, all expenses paid by Elvis. It was to be both an eventful and fateful holiday for both men. Elvis set Dewey up in a hotel suite and planned a number of activities for his guest. From the very beginning, things went awry. Later that summer, writer Robert Johnson reported on the string of unfortunate events in the Memphis Press-Scimitar.

According to Johnson, Elvis most wanted Dewey to watch him work at MGM. But after only 15 minutes at the studio the first day, Phillips got “nervous and bored” and left. Later he explained to Johnson his reasons for leaving the studio. “I went out to Hollywood on vacation, and I wanted to have some fun. I didn’t want to stay in the studio all day. I wanted to see a little of the town. I’ve got a lot of friends out there — some of them I just know by talking to them on the phone — and I wanted to see them.”

 

In Hollywood, though, Elvis had other plans for Dewey’s time. He took Phillips to the dentist and paid $400 to have fancy caps put on his teeth. He took Dewey on a tour of the stars’ homes and various studios. On another visit to MGM, Dewey tried to take some pictures, but studio security men stopped him.

“At the Moulin Rouge,” explained Johnson, “the management asked Elvis if he would acknowledge an introduction. Elvis said he would. They threw the spotlight on him, and Dewey got up, stood in front of him and started taking bows. Elvis was embarrassed.” Dewey explained his side to Johnson. “At the Moulin Rouge, I was just feeling good, playing around. They put the spotlight on Elvis, and I just jumped up and waved my hand. Just feeling good. I was on vacation.”

Dewey Phillips met Yul “shortie” Brynner

Later Elvis introduced Phillips to Yul Brynner. Reports out of California had Dewey saying something like, “You sure are a shortie, Mother.” Elvis reportedly went back later and apologized to Brynner. Dewey’s version: “I didn’t realize I was embarrassing anyone. Elvis introduced us, and I said, ‘How you getting along, old buddy,’ just like I would to anyone. Then I said, ‘My gosh, you look shorter than you do in pictures.’ It was just that he wasn’t near as big as I thought of him. He said, ‘That’s how they put the cameras, Phillips,’ and that’s all there was to it.”

To that point, all of troubling events involving Dewey could be explained by allowing that he was just a good ’ol boy from Memphis. Johnson’s Hollywood source explained, “Part of the trouble was that those people in Hollywood just didn’t understand Phillips.” However, before leaving for home, Dewey seriously breached Elvis’ trust.

Jailhouse Rock 1957 movie set with forme

It started when Elvis let Dewey listen to a recording of “Teddy Bear,” scheduled to be released in June as Elvis’ new single. Presley warned Phillips not to take one of his few sample discs, but Dewey secretly stuck one in his suitcase. When he got back to Memphis, Dewey played the record on the air, jumping RCA’s release date. The label was livid, as were local distributors, who were getting early demands from retailers that they couldn’t meet.

Elvis was furious as hell. On his return to Memphis, Dewey apologized, and their friendship was reportedly repaired during an evening they spent together. According to Johnson, though, the rift was far from closed. “Elvis didn’t go down to visit Dewey’s show as he had of yore,” Johnson noted, “and Dewey began to think that Elvis didn’t really like him any more. So, according to this much-gossiped version of the story, Dewey went out at 3 o’clock one morning, was turned down at the gate, climbed the fence and went in and roused the household shouting: ‘I’m thru with you, Elvis.’ Elvis is said to have doubled him in spades.”

"I wasn’t drunk. Just wanted my camera back”

Dewey’s version of the early morning encounter was a bit different: “I didn’t go over the fence. I walked right thru the cotton-pickin’ gate. The guard left it open. It was only about 1 a.m. I’d just finished my work, and Barbara Pittman (singer) and a couple of other girls who wanted to see Elvis were with me. I’d had two or three beers, but I wasn’t drunk. What I really went out there for was for my Polaroid camera that Sam Phillips gave me for Christmas. I let Elvis have it, and I wanted it because I was going to take the rest of my vacation at Pickwick and I would need the camera. It wasn’t really late for Elvis. He stays up late almost every night. You know, we just live that way. They wouldn’t let me in and I still haven’t got my camera. I said some things I shouldn’t have said.”

 

Johnson reported that the two men didn’t speak with each other for weeks after the incident at Graceland. “A nationally famous friendship has recently been real cool,” noted Johnson, “and a tragedy of personal relations based on trifles has developed.”

Elvis’s never expressed his feelings about the breakup in public, but Dewey was obviously saddened by it. “I still love that boy like a brother,” he told Johnson. “It’s not true that I quit playing his records. I played five of them last night. There was nothing wrong when I left Hollywood. When we said goodbye, we even shed a few tears. I told him I’d never be able to repay him for all the nice things he had done for me.”

Soon after Johnson’s mid-summer article about the Elvis-Dewey breakup appeared in the Press-Scimitar, the two old friends buried the hatchet. Elvis took the initiative by dropping in on Phillips’s WHBQ radio broadcast one evening. After the program, the two went to Sam Phillips’s house to listen to and discuss records.

Elvis insiders forbidden to contact the press

Their personal friendship may have been restored, but the episode left a lasting emotional influence on Elvis. Phillips’s betrayal of Elvis’ trust, plus another highly public dust-up over the resignation of musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black, convinced Presley of the need to create a wall between him and the press. That wall would be manned by a phalanx of men sworn to absolute loyalty to Elvis. Those Presley admitted to his inner circle knew that giving any information about Elvis to the press was an unforgivable breach of allegiance.

Rex Mansfield, who became one of Elvis’ closest friends during their army years, recalls what happened when someone violated that directive.

“One thing I learned, even back in Fort Hood, was never to write any stories about Elvis to the press. If you ever did write a story, Elvis would drop you like a hot potato. Donald Pettit was a fairly good friend going back to Fort Hood . . . Pettit wrote a story after we got to Germany that appeared in a special release magazine called “Elvis in the Army.” After that article came out, Pettit was completely shunned and was never allowed to be part of the inside group again.”

By enforcing this code of silence among his entourage, Elvis was able to nurture a positive image for himself in the press for nearly two decades. It wasn’t until shortly before his death that Elvis suffered another betrayal (in his judgment) by a close friend. Red West, a long and loyal Presley companion, who, with two other bodyguards had been fired by Elvis in 1976, co-authored a tell-all book revealing the dark side of Presley’s personal life. The wall of loyalty Elvis had built around himself came tumbling down. In his mind Elvis had begun building that wall way back in 1957, when Dewey Phillips snuck a sample copy of “Teddy Bear” out of Hollywood.

 

— Alan Hanson | © September 2010

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The Elvis Files magazine

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