Our Enviable Heritage

“When it comes to music, all roads led to Memphis,” said Jimmy Ogle, local historian and tour guide.

Handy published the Memphis Blues in 1912, as he explained, and that started us down a road that led to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Otis Redding.

We’re home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. You can visit Graceland, Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. At night, you can walk down Beale Street and listen to today’s Memphis music. “Elvis turns 80 this week and on the 21st we’ll host the International Blues Challenge. And soon the Blues Hall of Fame will open in Memphis. Our musical heritage is unmatched,” Ogle said.

But not only did we make the music America listens to, we also changed the way people listened to it, according to Ogle.

“In 1948 we had the first black radio station, WDIA. It was by African Americans and for African Americans. Rufus Thomas and B.B. King were DJs and influenced Elvis. And at WHBQ Dewey Philips played the first Elvis records from the Chisca hotel.

“And I have to ask you what other city in America has had two Tony award winning Broadway shows about its city?

“But we didn’t just break the race barrier in radio. In 1955 we broke the gender barrier with WHER, the first all women station,” Ogle said.

“Then in 1952 Kemmons Wilson changed the way people traveled with Holiday Inn. Before then there were only overnight lodges for people. Fred Smith has changed logistics with Fed Ex, too,” he said.

Ogle doesn’t overlook our innovations in medicine. “In 1890 Campbell Clinic was started. In 1923 LeBonheur started as a sewing circle. That’s why their logo today has a red thread. Then Danny Thomas started St. Jude in 1962. It was the first integrated hospital in the South.”

As for racial history, “Dr. King gave his last and most famous speech at the Mason Temple. His last moments were at the Lorraine Hotel here. Did you know,” he asked, “that in 1979 it was almost torn down? The city was ready to sell it, the Orpheum and the Peabody. We had bad times as a city. In 1979 we had more people in jail than residential population.

“MLGW wanted the Orpheum for more space and planned to tear it down. Prince Mongo wanted the Peabody and was outbid by the Belzes. All three were saved by about a million dollars. It started a revitalization and in 1982 Beale St. reopened and the Mud Island park, too. In 1986 we had the bridge lighting. In 1991 the Pyramid was built. You’ve got to have a downtown. It shows you how important civil planning is.”

In the past 30 years Memphis has only grown by 500 people, Ogle said. “We’ve got to get people to come back into the city rather than going to the suburbs. Crime and education are the top two problems we have right now. We’ve got to get them fixed.”

Ogle spoke to us for more than an hour. I couldn’t catch everything he said because the history flies out of him fast and furiously. He denied that he was interested in writing a book about what he knows; for now, the best way to preserve our heritage is to go on his tours and tell others about them.

He said he starts tours March 15th and they run until about Halloween. After that the cold and rain are too much of a detriment to handle. However, “once a month I give a free tour of the Courthouse. The next one is Thursday, January 15 and starts at noon. Meet at the Southwest Steps at Adams and Second.” Cameras are allowed, he said.

On Sunday, March 15 at 2 p.m. he will sponsor a walk across the Memphis and Arkansas bridge. Meet at Crump Park, Exit 12C on Metal Museum Drive.

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