The Sounds of Memphis

The Memphis Grizzlies will be honoring the old Memphis Sounds for their Hardwood Classic games this season by wearing the Sounds’ red-and-white jerseys. Given that the Sounds were around in the early 1970s and were of the ABA, the jerseys are pretty slick and sweet. Even better is the logo of the Memphis Sounds. Just gorgeous:

sounds-grizz-merch-18Of course that name, the Sounds, is the most appropriate name ever given to a Memphis pro basketball team. The Tams and Pros of the ABA and the Grizzlies of the NBA don’t speak to the soul of that Tennessean city as well as the Sounds do.

The Mighty Mississippi passes by and gives Memphis a steady rhythm. The pastoral hinterlands stand by providing a certain patience to Memphis as well. The confluence of these geographic entities gives Memphis a unique feel, a particular sound, that deserves a little more exploration.

The Fields of Cotton

Harper’s Weekly print of the Memphis riot of 1866

To understand the Sounds you need to understand the music. And to understand the music you need to understand race and cotton. Memphis was founded in 1819, but for my money it’s defining event of the 19th century was a three-day orgy of violence in May 1866. During the Civil War, Memphis was a stronghold of the United States army and a place of refuge for the enslaved people seeking freedom from the surrounding cotton fields of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. By 1865, the black population had surged to 22,000 from just 3,000 in 1860.

Emancipation and the large black population didn’t sit well with whites of the city who for the most part remained ill-deposed toward the notions of black freedom and black power. Indeed, white power in the city was concentrated in the local police department, while blacks held onto their federal army positions. The two nodes of power finally collided on May 1, when a mob of white policemen and others attacked black army troops. Outnumbered the soldiers retreated to their barracks.

Unsatisfied with the minor bloodshed of this first skirmish, the white mob descended upon black communities in Memphis over the next two days. Order was restored when the US Army arrived with more soldiers able to quell the disturbance on May 3. When the smoke cleared, 46 black people had been killed, 16 black schools and churches were torched, as well as countless black homes. Two whites died in the violence. Black Memphians fled the city in the aftermath of the violence and by 1870 their population had fallen from 22,000 in 1865 to 15,000.

The riot along with others across the South convinced Congress that the Civil Rights of 1866 – which became law on April 9 a month before the riot – was not enough to protect the rights of black Americans. By 1868, the 14th Amendment ensconced in the Constitution many of the rights protected by the act of 1866. The Memphis Riot however served notice that white Southerners would by-and-large not respect those rights.

Indeed over the next century  Jim Crow, lynching, and the cotton fields kept blacks around the Memphis area as second class citizens. But it was in those fields of cotton, paced by the rise and fall of the sun, and the ebb and flow of the river, that black folk invented gospel and blues which beget R&B which beget soul. It would take a massive social justice movement and technological innovation to finally break black people away from cotton labor, but in their escape from cotton they didn’t forget the music.

Sounds of the City

Warner Theatre in downtown Memphis, circa 1963
Warner Theatre in downtown Memphis, circa 1963

What has made Memphis economically viable is its access to the Mississippi. The cotton plantations of Arkansas, Tennessee, and northern Mississippi sent their crops via railroad to Memphis where it could be processed or floated down river to New Orleans for export. Cotton was an intensely laborious crop and local laws conspired to ensure that black people could not easily escape its grasp – whether it be slavery before 1865 or sharecropping afterwards.

Many of the musicians who would provide the Memphis Sound of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s began their lives in this chained world. Isaac Hayes, for example, picked cotton in Shelby County. Wilson Pickett did the same in northern Alabama. The venerable Rufus Thomas was spared that fate only because his sharecropping family abandoned the cotton fields for the big city of Memphis.

What allowed for this escape from King Cotton’s grasp was increasing mechanization. With less need for black hands in the field, white plantation owners felt less compelled to compel blacks to stay in the fields. Increasingly, these persons – like Hayes, Pickett, and Thomas – settled in urban areas.

This didn’t mean that the racial strife had dissipated in cities like Memphis. In the 100 years since the horrific massacre of 1866, Memphis had yet to fully deal with its mistreatment of black residents. Unfortunately, it was the scene of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. MLK had been fighting alongside garbage workers to improve salaries and conditions in the face of the still-white and still-brutal police force in the city that seemed to have not changed one bit since their role in the 1866 riot.

Nonetheless, there were elements – black and white – that were working together and creating something special in Memphis. The black music of gospel and blues, and the white music of country and rockabilly were never as segregated as restrooms of the South. The musical stylings blended back and forth into each other. The musicians did the same. In Memphis this interracial interplay created a stunning melange of American sound.

Soulsville, U.S.A.


In the midst of the sea change occurring in civil rights and cotton production there began one of music’s greatest labels, Stax Records. From its inception the gritty R&B and hot buttered soul of Stax proved that blacks and whites, despite the history of terror and mistrust, could indeed work together positively. The name “Stax” is derived from Jim Stewart (“St”) and Estelle Axton (“ax”), the white brother and sister who founded the label. In 1960, a black father and daughter came to the rescue of the struggling Stax. Rufus Thomas (a famous local DJ and sometime recording artist) and his daughter Carla recorded a duet, “Cause I Love You”, that became the first hit (no matter how minor) Stax had enjoyed after putting out rockabilly, country, and R&B records with little fanfare. On the session were Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones, two musicians who would later be the interracial core of the Stax sound as members of Booker T. & the MG’s.

Things got even bigger in early 1961 when Carla Thomas wrote and sang “Gee Whiz”. The tune rocketed up the R&B (#5) and pop (#10) charts and put Stax permanently on the musical map. Over the ensuing years artists from the Memphis area (Donald Dunn & Al Jackson, Jr [the other half of Booker T. & the MG’s], William Bell, David Porter, Isaac Hayes); and beyond (Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam Moore and David Prater) came to Stax and recorded some of the most notable songs in American history.

“Soul Man”, “Who’s Making Love”, “Respect”, “Green Onions”, “In the Midnight Hour”, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, “Knock On Wood”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and “Hold On, I’m Coming”. All recorded at Stax.

Stax, of course, was not alone in creating and nurturing the Memphis Sound. Before Stax, there was Sun Records of Sam Phillips that recorded white rock and roll and rockabilly singers like Roy Orbison Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash; but also future Stax R&B artists Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and Little Milton.

Roy Orbison without his trademark glasses

There was Hi Records founded in 1957 that put out rockabilly and soul records from Willie Mitchell, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and most famously Al Green. Ardent Records recorded Big Star in the early 1970s, a group fronted by Alex Chilton formerly of the Box Tops – another Memphis-born group – that had scorched the charts with “The Letter” in the 1960s.

The musical competition between and inside the labels was intense. No better story exemplifies it than Otis Redding exclaiming, “I don’t ever want to see those two motherfuckers again.” The men in question were Sam & Dave. Redding was Stax’s typical final act during live shows. However, when Sam & Dave came on the scene their on-stage performances were so good that crowds were in a frenzy and Otis griped “they’re making me work harder than I ever did in my life” as he tried to keep the energy going from their incendiary show. Otis was friendly with Sam & Dave, but wanted no part anymore in trying to keep up with them at concerts.

As the 1970s dawned, competition of a different sort arrived in Memphis…

The ABA Comes to Town


The Memphis Pros arrived as the remnants of the New Orleans Buccaneers and their haphazard beginnings foreshadowed how the franchise’s Memphis existence would go. The Bucs-turned-Pros filed for and received permission for relocation so close to the start of the ABA’s 1970-71 season that the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis did not have enough available dates to accommodate all 42 home games for the Pros. So for 11 “home” games that season, the Pros played in gyms in Greenville and Jackson, Mississippi, as well as in Jackson, Tennessee.

Not an ideal schedule.

The team was actually not all that bad, though, finishing 41-43 on the season. The club boasted such formidable players as Jimmy Jones (19.6 PPG, 5.9 APG), Steve “Snapper” Jones (22.1 PPG), and Wendell Ladner (17.0 PPG, 11.4 RPG). They also had the stupendously named Harley “Skeeter” Swift. But the team lost $200,000 that year and owner P.L. Blake threw in the towel. The team was taken over by the league office and eventually sold to Charlie Finley in 1972.

After another season as the Pros –  and a 26-58 record including a terrible 3-27 stretch over the 1971-72 season’s final 30 games – Finley changed the Memphis team’s name to the Tams. That’s “Tams” as in Tennessee (T), Arkansas (A), and Mississippi (M). He also changed the team’s colors to white, green, and yellow to match that of his beloved MLB Oakland A’s. In terms of management he hired venerable basketball coach and GM Bob Bass whose career would span until 2004 in the NBA and ABA. On the other hand, to complement Bass’s professionalism, Finley hired Adolph Rupp – yes, that Adolph Rupp – as the Tams’ team president.

Rupp was a great basketball mind, but ABA player agent Ron Grinker’s opinion of Rupp sank into the abyss during a plane flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Memphis. Grinker recalled that the “first significant thing” Rupp said to him on the flight was that “the trouble with the ABA is that there are too many nigger boys in it now.” Grinker attended the Tams game that night with Rupp, but left after the first half because, he “couldn’t stand listening to him anymore.” The feeling was one Rupp shared with the Memphis team. After only a season as team president – a nominal position Finley hired him for just to get publicity – Rupp left.

There may have been a Civil Rights Movement, but Rupp didn’t pay much heed.

In any event, Rupp wasn’t necessary for ownership to take a dismal view of Memphis players. Charlie Williams – one of the few bright spots for the team in 1971-72 averaging 16 PPG – traveled to Chicago to meet with Finley and negotiate a contract. Williams suggested they have lunch as they discussed a new deal. Finley agreed and warmed up two cans of soup on a hot plate in his office. Williams recalled thinking, “Boy things must be tough with the team when he can’t even afford to go out for lunch.” Williams walked in wanting $30,000, but with the help of the hot plate scheme, Finley got him to accept $23,000 a year.

Pros/Tams owner Charlie Finley with the Tams hat, c/o the Memphis Flyer
Pros/Tams owner Charlie Finley with the Tams hat, c/o the Memphis Flyer

The 1972-73 Memphis Tams were no better than the previous year’s Pros finishing 24-60. Finley despite his antics had had enough. His NHL team – the Oakland Seals – were bleeding money in addition to the ABA mess he was in. He called up Bob Bass in April of ’73 and told him, “Disconnect all the phones and sell the furniture. We’re finished.” So for the summer of 1973 the Tams had no one officially on the payroll except trainer Don Sparks.

Finley backtracked somewhat and resumed operation for the 1973-74 season. He probably wished he hadn’t as Memphis trudged their way to a 21-63 record. Finley failed to make his financial commitments to the ABA and the league was practically running the team on his behalf by season’s end. Mike Storen actually stepped down as ABA Commissioner and officially took over the Memphis Tams from Finley. Storen figured the merger with the NBA was nearly complete (turns out he was a year too soon) and he could make a killing if he had a franchise to be bought out in the deal.

Folks tried to warn him to stay away from Memphis, but Storen said he had an investment group lined up and thus came the Memphis Sounds.

The Sounds

Memphis Sounds

Mike Storen’s time as owner of the newly-named Memphis Sounds got off to a ragged start. One of his investment partners was owner of Holiday Inn. The hotel chain’s stock promptly dropped and he backed out as an investor.

Storen then decided to pay a visit to another potential investor: Isaac Hayes.

No one was bigger in music in the early 1970s than Hayes. Having escaped the cotton fields as a child, Hayes cut his chops at Stax Records first as a session piano player and then as songwriter with his partner David Porter. The two penned the massively successful hits “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and “Soul Man” for Sam & Dave.

The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 temporarily derailed Hayes and altered the sound of Stax. Hayes remembered, “I went blank. I couldn’t write for about a year – I was filled with so much bitterness and anguish, till I couldn’t deal with it.”

Coming on the heels of the tragic death of Otis Redding and nearly all the members of Stax band the Bar-Kays in a plane crash in December 1967, King’s death was a dramatic blow. Donald “Duck” Dunn  of the MG’s recalled the racial tension as he and his wife June went to the Stax studios to pick up his bass guitar the day after MLK was assassinated:

“I got out, and June waited in the car while Isaac came over to talk to me. All of a sudden these cop cars pull up, cops jump out and pull out their guns. They thought these black guys were doing something to hurt us because we were white. Pulling them shotguns on Isaac…. I mean the cops jumped in because we were white. It makes you feel like shit.”

At the same time, a nasty negotiation between Stax and Atlantic Records dragged on for months finally ending in mid-1968. The negotiations had revealed double-crossings, dirty details, racial tensions, jealousy, and good old-fashioned office politics that had lurked behind the scenes.

In 1969 Hayes successfully emerged from this morass and climbed the charts as a solo recording artist. He donned a huge black beard and had his head cleanly shaved. He performed on broadcast TV with dark sunglasses on. Later he would cover himself in gold chains and call himself Black Moses.  Most important of all was the music. He took soul from three-minute singles to 10-minute opuses.

There was something to be said in 1970 for a black man – any man for that matter – born in rural poverty who was now recording hit singles with the backing of symphonic orchestras while not losing an ounce of his authenticity and soul. Indeed, he became just the third black person to win an Academy Award – and the first in a non-acting category – when his title theme for the movie Shaft won for best original song in 1972.

Hayes’s astounding success had carried Stax to seemingly new heights of success and glory.


Isaac Hayes gold chains

Mike Storen’s meeting with Isaac Hayes was a good indicator for how the fortunes of Stax – the hub of the Memphis Sound – were truly  going by the mid-1970s. Storen recalls his memorable meeting with Hayes:

“On Sunday at nine, I went to his office, and it was beautiful. Everything was white – the furniture, the walls, the rugs. He answered the door wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a pistol shoved inside the belt holding up his jeans. He was a wonderful guy. We got along great and he wanted to be an ABA owner.”

And then?

“Then he handed me a bag full of money, I’d say about $50,000…. He didn’t want to write me a check. He said we’d talk about it later and we did, but he never did come across with a check. It was about that time when Hayes’s Stax Records empire started to crumble.”

And crumble it did. Since 1973, Stax and its principal executive Al Bell had been under investigation for tax fraud. In September 1975, Bell and banker Joseph Harwell were indicted for conspiracy to obtain millions of dollars in fraudulent bank loans. Bell was eventually acquitted while Harwell was convicted. Even though Bell was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, the mismanagement was fatal and Stax shuttered its doors in January 1976. Hayes himself filed for bankruptcy in December of ’76 and never regained his past glory.

The Memphis Sounds weren’t far behind.

Storen’s failure to secure investors was followed by a disastrous series of trades. The Sounds paid the Indiana Pacers $150,000 to take on Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, and Freddie Lewis. All great players but past their prime, hence why Indiana gladly traded them for the cash. The Sounds cobbled together 27 wins, which Storen called “a miracle.” Storen sold the Sounds after the 1975 season, where they then began a saga as the Baltimore Hustlers/Claws.

And thus professional basketball faded away at the same time that Stax demised in Memphis.

Rhythm of the River

The Memphis Sounds/Tams/Pros all sucked. There’s no getting around that. But they did leave behind a legacy of basketball that helped pave the way for a city that has now added basketball to its rich cultural identity.

Anfernee Hardaway, Elliot Perry, Lorenzen Wright, Qyntel Woods, Todd Day, and Thaddeus Young are just some of the Memphians to have bolstered the basketball culture of the city. And it would be remiss to not remember players like Bingo Smith and Rich Jones who were around in the 1970s.

The Memphis Grizzlies of more recent vintage have formed their grit n grind identity and players like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have rooted themselves in the city becoming as much a part of its fabric as the musical migrants – Al Green for example – who did so with Stax and the city’s other music labels.

When the Grizzlies toss on those old Sounds throwbacks, it of course will be opportunity for them to sell more merchandise, do more branding, and achieve other corporate goals.

However, you’ll never find a more fitting name than the Sounds to append to Memphis. It’s a name that speaks to the soul of the city and evokes the rhythm of the river that has always been its lifeblood. That musical sound has proven to be one of the more powerful unifiers in a city that has often struggled to bridge the divide between the sight of black and white.

Memphis isn’t always professional. It ain’t always grizzled. It can do without that clunky TAM acronym. But it always has a sound.

Oh lord, does it have a sound.

So, let’s listen to those motherfuckers even Otis Redding didn’t want to tangle with…

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