Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
Memphis is America’s musical Jerusalem. It’s a rough and tumble town set high on a bluff overlooking the wide, brown Mississippi river; the de facto capital of the southern Delta region that birthed blues, rock and soul music. As a passionate admirer of that canonical triptych, it’s a city that’s resided in my dreams and fantasies for as long as I’ve been alive to have them. Of course, when I finally visited Memphis just last week, I inevitably found a place far different from the one I’d conjured in my head.
The city had died and been reborn half a dozen times since B.B. King first rolled into town from Indianola, Mississippi, most traumatically in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. On a cold, January night — a dead-end weekday — I sat, heavy-lidded, sipping on absinthe on the second floor of what appeared to be a former brothel overlooking the neon-painted façade of Beale Street. I tried to imagine the figures and accouterment that lined the walls when Sleepy John Estes, W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, or Son House strode through this fiefdom all those years ago, but came up short. Fortunately, I had an appointment the next day with someone who could help me fill in the blanks of my suddenly fuzzy imagination.
I woke up early the next day, head a little sore, but filled with eager anticipation to learn from the feet of a master. I’d gotten his information from a friend, who obtained it from another friend and passed it along to me with an enthusiastic “Good luck!” I tried calling the provided number shortly after I landed, but got an “inbox full” message. As a last-ditch effort, I sent off a cold email request along with the promise of a free lunch. I wasn’t hopeful of receiving a response. Sure enough however, a few hours before I ended up in the Absinthe Room, I got a reply. “I’d be glad to speak with you.”
Stanley Booth has seen and done it all. “Nobody has been where I’ve been,” he said. “That’s why I’m in such bad shape now.” Though he grimaced when I referred to him as a rock writer — “I’m a writer” he corrected — Booth was one of the most eloquent music journalists to pioneer the field during the late 1960s. One of his earliest offerings, the one that put him on the map so to speak, was a piece about Elvis Presley, a sort of “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” style profile that captured the King in his court at Graceland that ran in Esquire in 1968.
When he calls Eric Clapton a “boring asshole,” it’s not because of the English guitarist’s penchant for lengthy solos, but his own personal experience kicking back and eating barbecue with “Slowhand” and Howlin Wolf during a recording session in London back in the day. He chopped it up with the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown while the latter was serving time in the 1980s. He was in the room when Otis Redding and Steve Cropper sat across from one another writing the immortal ballad “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” a few short days before Otis’s plane plunged into Lake Monona in Milwaukee, ending his all-too-brief life. He was also there that fateful evening at Altamont Speedway, watching from behind Keith Richards’s amp as a knife in the hand of a Hell’s Angel plunged into the body of a 19-year-old kid named Meredith Hunter, bringing an end to the so-called “sixties.”
Born in Waycross, Georgia in 1942, Booth has the same slight build as that deeply southern town’s most famous son and his one-time drinking buddy Gram Parsons. When I met him in the kitchen of his home on the east side of the city, he emerged from down the hallway wearing a sharp gray suit jacket, a wide-brimmed, blood-red hat, and clutching a cane with an alligator’s head for a handle. On his lapel was a button endorsing former President Harry S. Truman. Pointing down at his shoes, he noted that he picked out blue suede in my honor. I was humbled.