Ranting

A Few Of Us

November 15th, 2019

(published in The Daily Memphian)

(photo: "Historic Encounter between E.H. Crump and W.C. Handy on Beale St." Carroll Cloar, 1964)

When Neil White and his company, Nautilus Publishing in Oxford, decided to do a book called “Memphians” a while back, he asked some writers hereabouts to contribute some short bios and thoughts about folks to be included.

That’s how Neil and I met. Since, a few other books have grown out of that, and this column, and a friendship.

As the city’s 200th birthday year winds down, I thought I’d spend this week and next sharing some of those short pieces I wrote for “Memphians” – short bios about some special folks around here who did and do what other folks do, just in ways that set them apart, ways that start stories and give the city personality.

While these people may not seem to share much in common, they share Memphis – a place from which seemingly ordinary people send extraordinary things to the world.

Anything written by me and published in “Memphians” is used here with the permission of Nautilus Publishing, although it may cost me a beer, and quite possibly lunch.

CARROLL CLOAR, Magic Images

Artist Carroll Cloar was born and raised just outside Earle in Crittenden County, Arkansas, on a cotton farm. That simple sentence probably more clearly defines the source of his inspiration and the vision he shared than most of the scholarly descriptions of his prodigious body of work. Sometimes placed in the genre of “magic realism” his work did reflect that contradiction in terms, his images conjured from his childhood and his surroundings. Flat, sometimes whimsical figures in colorful, decorative landscapes. Both realist and surrealist. Both primitive and sophisticated. Uniquely Cloar. According to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Cloar himself called his images, “American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs … the last of old America that isn’t long for this earth.” He graduated from Southwestern (now Rhodes College), attended the Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art), studied in New York, and traveled and studied as the recipient of several fellowships, including a Guggenheim in 1946. A Life magazine story on Cloar in 1948, entitled “Backwoods Boyhood,” made him famous. Although that story was illustrated with his lithographs, he is better known for his later work in casein tempera and acrylic. His first one-man show was in Memphis in 1953 and he settled in the city in 1955, working from his home studio until his death in 1993.

W.C. HANDY, Father of the Blues

W.C. (William Christopher) Handy wasn’t the first musician to play the blues, but he is given credit for being the first to dress it up, take it out of the Mississippi Delta, push it through a horn, and show it off. He was both an educated musician and a music educator, and before bringing his band to Memphis and Beale Street in 1909, he had already toured the country at the head of various musical groups. Here he refined a uniquely American musical style, known only regionally, and took it from Memphis to New York to the world, and to fame and fortune. He died in New York in 1958. His first blues composition was for E.H. Crump’s 1909 Memphis mayoral campaign and then revised and released in 1912 as “Memphis Blues," one of the first published “blues” songs . Although he had a long and prolific career as iconic musician and publisher, that first composition and two others composed here, “St. Louis Blues” in 1914 and “Beale Street Blues” in 1916, were his most famous. In fact, before the release of “Beale Street Blues” and its subsequent popularity, the street was named Beale Avenue.

KEMMONS WILSON, The World’s Innkeeper

Memphis seems to have a habit of changing the world’s habits. Clarence Saunders changed the way we shop and Fred Smith changed the way we send things. W.C. Handy changed our music and 50 years later, Elvis did it again. Kemmons Wilson changed the way we travel and our expectations for the experience. He taught generations to expect a clean, comfortable, family-friendly room at a good value with a TV and a phone in it and a restaurant and a swimming pool on the property. As basic as that now seems, before Kemmons Wilson every single one of those things was a crap shoot on a road trip. After a miserable road trip with his wife and five kids, Wilson came home with an idea. He started Holiday Inns, named after the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire movie, in 1952. Before the first one went up on Summer Avenue, he told the sign company he didn’t much care what the sign looked like but he wanted to make sure nobody could miss it. Mission accomplished. By 1958, that sign was in front of 50 locations, 500 by 1964, 1,000 by 1968 and more than 1,400 worldwide when Kemmons Wilson was on the cover of Time in 1972. Because of his standardization, consistency, centralized services and innovation, he was also a force in modern franchising and branding, too, following in Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly footsteps. Like Saunders, before his death at 90, Kemmons Wilson saw an entire industry built and transformed on his model worldwide. And kids stay free.

I’m a Memphian, and let’s all remember, that’s no ordinary thing.

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