A Few More Of Us
November 22nd, 2019
(published in The Daily Memphian)
(photo: Booker T. and the M.G.'s)
Last week, I went from world-famous art to the world’s introduction to a new music form, then on to the first Holiday Inn in the world and the birth of modern franchising and branding.
And it only took three Memphians.
This week, I thought I’d talk about my phone’s ringtone – a song that some Memphis teenagers created that’s so famous you’ve heard it, no matter who you are, and when you hear it you have to move, whether or not you have any moves at all. Then I’ll move on to a local dentist who beat Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen, and everybody else, at golf. Then I’ll explore the idea that people will stand in line twice a day – four deep for 80-plus years – to watch ducks walk to a fountain. Then we’ll invent something called dry ribs so good that people will go through an alley – 70-plus years and counting – into a basement to eat.
And I’ll visit only a handful of Memphians to do all of that.
Anything written by me and published in the book “Memphians” is used here with the permission of Nautilus Publishing, although it may cost me a beer, and quite possibly lunch.
BOOKER T. & THE M.G.’S, The Hall of Fame House Band
They were the sound behind hundreds of hits. They had their very own chart buster before they even had a name. When you were listening to Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas – the original Stax stars and other legends to follow – you were listening to Booker T. Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on lead guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums. You were listening to the southern-soul-defining groove of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, or, as fan John Lennon called them, “Book a Table and the Maitre D's.” Setting styles and defying stereotypes, they were 50% black, 50% white, 100% soul, and 1,000% smooth. When you hear their monster instrumental hit “Green Onions,” you’re hearing something they just knocked out fooling around in the studio one day in 1962. Booker T. Jones was still in high school. The band they would call Booker T. & The M.G.’s (for Memphis Group) after that day was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
CARY MIDDLECOFF, The Drive-Drilling Dentist
Known for both the length of his drives and the length of time it took him to hit them, Cary “Doc” Middlecoff played his way into the World Golf Hall of Fame with 40 career victories on the PGA Tour when he retired in 1961, then eighth on the all-time list. As an amateur, he won the Memphis city championship and the Tennessee state amateur as a teenager, won a collegiate tournament by 29 strokes while playing for Ole Miss, and played in the final group with Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the 1945 North and South Open, beating them both to become the first amateur to win that tournament. And he almost never turned pro at all. His first profession was dentistry, and after serving as a dentist for 18 months of active duty in World War II, he decided he’d give his self-taught golf game a shot on tour. He gave himself two years to make it work. He never drilled another tooth, winning his first pro title in 1947 and winning at least one every year until he retired, including two U.S. Opens and a Masters. His playing style was – let’s just say – deliberate. Iconic sportswriter Dan Jenkins joked that Middlecoff gave up dentistry because his patients couldn’t hold their mouths open that long. Dr. Cary Middlecoff died in 1998.
JACK BELZ, The Real Deal In Memphis Real Estate
Following his father Phillip as patriarch to the Belz family, Jack Belz has led Belz Enterprises for decades, a company close to or at the top of Tennessee property owners for all that time. A quiet philanthropist and quiet pioneer in the concepts of city gateway centers and discount malls, Belz went very public with the world-class renovation and reopening of The Peabody in 1981, and the redevelopment of virtually everything around it. As surely as the ducks march to the lobby fountain in the South’s grand hotel, Jack Belz’s vision has led the march back downtown for people and businesses for almost 40 years. No one has meant more to the city’s central business district revitalization. The only one close is fellow visionary and downtown developer Henry Turley, and even at that, Turley has partnered with Belz in several successful ventures.
CHARLIE VERGOS, Father of the Dry Rib and The Rendezvous
Both gruff and gregarious, larger than life with a heart larger than that, Charlie Vergos started cooking ribs in 1948 that were so good, you’d walk through an alley, down a set of steep basement stairs and wade through more mismatched memorabilia than a mile-square flea market just to tear into them. People from all over the world – from presidents to rock stars, the most famous to the most infamous – have been doing just that since then, and the experience was and is unique enough to define something called “the dry rib.” Just as the wet and dry debate will continue, so will The Rendezvous, still in the basement off the alley, and still run by the Vergos family. After all, as their slogan states, “Not since Adam has a rib been this famous.”
Last week and this week were just a few examples of who we’ve been and who we are, colorful brush strokes on a large canvas.
I’m a Memphian, and there’s no limit to what we can paint.
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