PerformInk is Chicago's entertainment industry trade publication.
Pictured: Members of the MEMPHIS Band. Photo courtesy of Porchlight Music Theatre.
By Jermaine Hill with additional research by Maya Manilow, dramaturg for “Memphis.”
“Memphis in the 1950s. Where else on earth? Memphis was the place to be at that moment.” – Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson
When I first heard that David Bryan, a founding member of the rock group Bon Jovi, had written a Broadway show – and that the show won four Tony Awards in 2010 – I was intrigued. How was someone with no musical theater experience able to write a Tony Award-winning score, and did it accurately capture the varied musical soundscape of Memphis in the 1950s and 60s that the story would necessitate? What I found – and what our audiences will find – is that Mr. Bryan’s deft score demonstrates the excellence of his musical craftsmanship by recreating authentic rock n’ roll sounds that, with a skillful slight of hand, takes us on a historical journey of popular American music.
After World War II, many African Americans left the rural South for urban cities. Musicians like W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, and Muddy Waters made Beale Street the birthplace of Memphis Blues, which emphasized the danceable syncopated rhythms of jazz. With the advent of electric instruments and amplifiers, B.B. King, Ike Turner, and others, developed electric blues, recognized by its loud drumming, fierce vocals, and distorted guitar sounds. Jump bands added a small horn section from the big band tradition to the blues rhythm section, and was particularly popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Bryan’s score, which is orchestrated for rhythm section and four horns (based on the size of our venue, we have made an orchestral reduction to two), is a clear recreation of the jump bands that would have been playing in Memphis during the time our story takes place. (The show also won the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations.)
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, radio owners assumed that black music wouldn’t attract advertising dollars, but that perception changed, as African American affluence increased. In the late 1940s, radio stations were not only playing “race records,” they were actively looking for white musicians who appropriated the musical style to make it palatable for white audiences. “Blue Suede Shoes” songwriter Carl Perkins said, “….rockabilly music, or rock n’ roll…was a country man’s song with a black man’s rhythm. I just put a little speed into some of the slow blues licks.”
At the same time, owners also sought cheap on-air personalities to play those records. One of those DJs was Dewey Phillips. Though New York City DJ Alan Freed is often credited with “discovering” rock n’ roll, Phillips had been playing B.B. King and Muddy Waters nearly two years earlier on WHBQ in Memphis. Known for his hyperactive, fast-talking style, Phillips, who was poorly educated, often butchered the English language, talked over songs while they were playing, and ad-libbed commercial ads, often finishing by saying, “Aw, Phillips, you always messin’ things up.” He is most notably remembered for being the first DJ to play a song called “That’s All Right” on July 8, 1954. Submitted by record producer Sam Phillips (no relation) just two days after it was recorded at Sun Records, Dewey Phillips loved it so much that he played it 14 times in one show and introduced the world to a 19-year- old Elvis Presley. (The character Huey in Memphis is loosely based on Dewey Phillips.)
Mr. Bryan, who has sung and played keyboards on all of Bon Jovi’s albums, wasn’t initially drawn to writing for the Broadway stage. When he failed to sell his songs to cover artists and record companies, his publisher told him that there was a medium for 20 of his songs to be heard by audiences eight times a week…and a Broadway composer was born! He was immediately drawn to Joe DiPietro’s script. “I read it through and I immediately imagined what you see and hear onstage right now,” Mr. Bryan has said. He didn’t do any research on the story, but instead relied on the script and the characters, and wrote from there. “I feel. That’s all I do…in the song, you don’t just step out and talk about it…You actually journey the character so by the end of the song, even though you’re in the form of a rock song, that character goes somewhere.”
The songs in the show exhibit the best qualities of rock n’ roll and popular American music. Mr. Bryan used the same song form writing for “Memphis” as he has done over his 30-year career. Many songs in the show, like “Memphis Lives in Me,” employ the typical rock form –an intro, verse, a pre-chorus or bridge, and a final chorus. “Nothing But a Kiss” is built on the chord progressions that have been used in jazz and early blues for decades. Much like the Tin Pan Alley composers of the late 19 th and early 20 th century, Mr. Bryan insisted that each song needed a memorable hook. “Some of the great Broadway songs have refrains, and if people are singing the chorus on the way out of the show, you’ve got a hit,” Bryan said.
Each of the songs are catchy, easily hum-able, and great fun to sing. The variety of musical genres also makes each scene fresh and exciting – no two songs sound the same. Through the score, the opening “Underground” evokes early electric Memphis blues, “Scratch My Itch” reminds of us of Little Richard’s legendary wailing, “Make Me Stronger” bring us Southern black gospel, and “Someday” delights us with tight harmonies reminiscent of early Motown groups. Act Two opens with a bubblegum pop feel (think Hairspray), it features a contemporary power ballad that could easily have been on the radio in the 1960s, and ends with a rock n’ roll finale – a subtle but accurate tracing of the history of American popular music.
Pictured: MEMPHIS drummer Michael Gore. Photo courtesy of Porchlight Music Theatre.
A theatre friend of mine recently remarked how much he loved the score and how the tunes have been stuck in his head leading up to our show opening. I can testify that the entire cast and creative team have loved every moment of working on this score. We’ve been playing and singing our hearts out to this wonderful score, and I know that our audiences will leave the show toe-tapping and humming many of these great songs. We at Porchlight look forward to presenting this wonderful American music, Chicago style.
Jermaine Hill, originally from New York City, received his Bachelor of Music from Ithaca College and a Master of Music from the New England Conservatory. Recent Chicago credits include serving as musical director and piano/conductor for Ragtime (Griffin Theatre) and Madagascar (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), performing onstage in Breathe With Me (Erasing the Distance), and a recent guest spot on “Chicago Med.” Equally at home on theatrical and concert stages, he has appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Jordan Hall, Chicago’s Symphony Hall, The Lost Colony (NC), Rome Capitol Theatre (NY), and the Aldeburgh Festival in the U.K. He is an assistant professor and music director for the theatre department at Columbia College Chicago. He is a member of the Chicago Federation of Musicians and is proudly represented by Gray Talent Group.