By Michael Corcoran
It’s the latest in a series of dead Friday nights on Beale St., and if 11-year-old “Little Momo” Tabron appears any more bored, you’ll be tempted to snap your fingers in front of his face.
This kid – who’s spent half his life playing drums for tips on Beale – looks as if he’d much rather be playing video games. And yet he never drops the beat.
His father, Moses Tabron, yelps the vocals and plays the trumpet as if this family trio (rounded out by wife/mother Laurie on keyboards) were a full-fledged R&B revue. Instead of headlining at the New Daisy Theatre, they’re playing on the sidewalk in front, where three drunken guys, one in a cowboy hat, smile and sway to the mobile soul music.
One of the three guys puts a dollar bill in the tip jar and whispers a request to Moses who gives him a “you must be kidding” glance.
“Ah, man,” says Moses, “you’re in Memphis.”
It’s anyone’s guess what song the man wanted to hear, but you can be sure that it wasn’t one of the thick, raw, gritty, soulful, greasy, heart-pumpin’ songs that Tennessee’s real music capital is known for. Just as they won’t serve you bland gumbo in New Orleans or a nine-ounce lobster in Maine, no Garth Brooks covers are allowed in the city that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll and sweet soul music.
The home of Elvis Presley – the fans still flock to his grave at Graceland in Memphis – Sun Records, B. B. King, Carla Thomas, Al Green, Hi Records, Booker T. & the MG’s, Junior Parker, Stax Records and Carl Perkins – Memphis is where straw-chewin’ country music belly-ed up to gritty R&B and where the down-and-dirty blues went to church and came out screaming about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Memphis is the mystical crossroads where the blacktop collides with the sky to create blessed percussion.
Those familiar with Memphis describe it as they might an exciting street corner, where intersecting ideas lean up against the lights and wait for something to happen . . . and it always does.
Perched on one of the Mississippi River’s highest bluffs, Memphis has long been a place that drew people. Before humans inhabited the area, animals flocked to the Chickasaw Bluff, on which Memphis is built. The main thoroughfare of Poplar Ave., in fact, was once a buffalo trail.
Producer Jim Dickinson, who’s worked with everyone from bluesman Furry Lewis to the Replacements, theorizes that the same force that makes people gravitate to Memphis makes its recording climate so special. “Recording is just magnetizing tape, so whatever pull there is in the air can have an effect in the studio,” he says.
Led Zeppelin used to record at Ardent Studios. ZZ Top still does. Even such alternative groups as the Replacements, Gin Blossoms, Tragically Hip, Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream and the Dallas band Spot have trekked to Memphis, hoping that some of the storied groove would rub off on them.
But even as Memphis earned a national reputation for creating thrilling sounds, the city fathers discouraged its image as a center of black music and culture, Dickinson says. Under the auspices of urban renewal, much of Beale St. was torn down in the ’70s. And the old converted theatre on East McLemore Ave. that housed the legendary studio and offices of Stax Records met with the wrecking ball in the late ’80s.
“It’s just a case of the city getting rid of black history,” Dickinson says. “They were always embarrassed that Beale St. had this wild reputation, so they tried to erase it. And the ironic thing about Stax being torn down is that it was done by the black church that owns the land.
“There were no plans to put up anything else, they just wanted it gone so they wouldn’t be reminded of the sinful music that came out of that building. It’s awful to think about just how much has been lost.”
Dickinson says that, in the past few years, the city leaders have tried to embrace the Memphis musical legacy, realizing that it’s the city’s No. 1 attraction to visitors. But it’s nostalgia that’s thriving, at the expense of contemporary sounds.
“Beale St. goes through spurts,” Moses Tabron says after his family’s last set, “but right now it’s sputtering. The people just ain’t comin’ out like they used to, and the feeling ain’t there.” He counts the night’s take – about $100 – while Little Momo breaks down his drum kit and Mom packs up her keyboards.
“Beale St.’s comin’ back,” he says, as if to convince himself. “There’s just too much history here, too many memories. You know, it’ll always keep comin’ back.”
Tabron looks over at his station wagon and gives the “on my way” signal to Momo, who drums the dashboard and shoots back an “any day now” look. He just wants to go home.