CA: Elvis, Isaac, B.B. and Otis were card-carrying members of this venerable Memphis institution
Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and B.B. King were card-carrying members. So were vaudeville performers, accompanists to silent movies, rockabilly artists and makers of radio jingles.
They’re part of a musical lineage that traces to 1873, when Mississippi River showboat performers and others formed the forerunner of the Memphis Federation of Musicians.
It hit the bigtime in the 1960s, riding the popularity of Memphis-style soul music typified by Booker T. and the MGs, the Bar-Kays, Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett. A new union hall opened in Midtown’s Cooper-Young neighborhood in 1963, replacing an office in the Hotel Chisca, which had been a focal point of 1950s Memphis music.
Now the federation’s home of 54 years – a modest, 1960s-looking brick building at 944 Philadelphia at Young – has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its role in the heyday of Memphis music: Stax Recording Studio and the Memphis Sound.
The union hopes to parlay the historic designation into a higher public profile and fund-raising to fix up the deteriorating building. Officials believe it has potential to become a stop on music history tours, perhaps including memorabilia displays.
Officially known as Local 71 of the American Federation of Musicians, the Memphis office also is notable for having opened its doors to black musicians in 1949, more than a decade before some locals integrated. Johnson said it was a pragmatic business move that recognized the importance of African-American artists to popular music.
About half of today’s 121 dues-paying members are Memphis Symphony Orchestra musicians, and the rest are freelancers.
Karen Casey, a violist who joined the federation and the symphony in 1976, got the idea to pursue a historic designation while talking with her friend, Judith Johnson, a real estate agent, historic preservation consultant and former Memphis Heritage director.
“I’m hoping with this designation we can get some funding so we can rehabilitate the building. It’s got the original shag carpet. It needs some love, and this seems like a good way to get out the word that we exist and that we deserve some funding.”
Beyond shag: Building reflects modern style
Notable interior features include original linoleum floors, Formica countertops, wood paneling and such flourishes as abstract art depictions of musicians and a music-themed mural.
Filing cabinets and photos lining the walls hold a treasure trove of organizational history stretching from the late 1800s to the present.
Life insurance for a king: $1,250
Federation president John Sprott retrieved a membership file marked “Elvis Presley, Deceased 8/16/77,” which he said is kept under lock and key.
The contents include Presley’s membership application, dated July 30, 1954. Under “other trade or vocation,” Presley listed “Crown Elec. Co.,” where he drove a truck.
There also is a notarized copy of Presley’s death certificate and a letter from his father, Vernon Presley, making a claim for payment of the federation’s $1,250 death benefit.
Photos showcase performers famous and obscure: Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Alex Chilton, Charlie Rich, Slim Rhodes and his Mountaineers, the Swift Jewel Cowboys, and the Pee Wee Wamble Orchestra at the Plantation Inn. Also some symphony humor: heads of former leaders David Lobel and Alan Balter, superimposed on jump-suited Elvis bodies.
“All these people went through this building…”
Sprott, retired principal percussionist for the symphony, said the organization doesn’t have the budget to pay for maintenance and repair items such as a leaking roof, water-damaged ceiling tiles and crumbling concrete panels.
Officials hope to attract a for-profit partner to help with renovation in exchange for historic preservation tax credits that are available for National Register properties, Sprott said.
Laurie Pyatt, a retired symphony violinist who is secretary-treasurer, added, “If we get the building fixed up nice, it could be a good tourist destination. We might have enough stuff to do a museum upstairs.
“The union’s not such a big deal, but all these people went through this building,” Pyatt said.
Another key membership stream was musicians working on commercials for Pepper Sound Studios, an early syndicator of radio station jingles.
Rise and fall of the Memphis Sound
The building joins a list of historic properties with ties to Memphis music: the Mid-South Coliseum, Graceland and other Elvis homes on Audubon Drive and at Lauderdale Court, and Beale Street. The former church that’s regarded as the site of Johnny Cash’s first performance is nearby at Walker and Cooper.
Also in recent years, the Blues Foundation has opened a Blues Hall of Fame on South Main, and a Memphis Music Hall of Fame has opened in the upstairs of Hard Rock Cafe on Beale.
Johnson said the union hall is a window into the rise and fall of the Memphis Sound.