The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades Of Memphis Music Photography
For fans of Memphis’ rich musical history, this collection of Ernest C. Withers photography is a real gift. In the 150 photographs here, the sounds of postwar R&B and soul are fleshed out and placed in a social context by images that are indelible in their own right. If you put on a collection of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s hits, and then gaze upon Withers’ late-’50s shot of Bland in action — sweaty, tuxedoed, swaying to the rhythm as he urges his guitarist to choke out one more bluesy lead — you can almost imagine you’re having a blast right there in the front row.
Withers honed his photography skills for the Army during World War II, and upon his discharge, he set up a commercial photography studio back home in Memphis. Business was slow at first, so in 1948 he jumped at the chance to earn a regular salary as one of the city’s first black police officers. Still, he made sure to hit the house parties and R&B clubs on the weekends, chronicling the high times of black Memphians out on the town — cool young men dressed to the nines on Beale Street, around-the-way girls smiling broadly over setups and pints of bourbon, anyone with a couple of bucks to preserve a memory in black and white.
Indeed, one specialty of Withers’ work is what it reveals about the essential role played by music in the life of a neighborhood. Members of a radio station Little League team posing with bluesmen B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Ivory Joe Hunter; a black string band performing at the grand opening of an Esso Servicenter; a long line of patrons waiting in the rain outside the Club Ebony; Stax Studios standing abandoned and dilapidated in the late ’70s — these images sing the highs and lows of a community.
And then there are the musicians themselves. Withers’ photography shows singers working the bandstand — one amazing shot of Solomon Burke suggests the Silver Surfer gliding through the cosmos — and also captures them out back during a break, such as the priceless photo of Louis Jordan posed proudly beside his father.
A few of Withers’ images, such as the one of grief-stricken fans crowding around Sam Cooke’s glass-covered coffin, are bound to haunt. But even at their grimmest, these photographs burst with life as it was lived in a particular time and place. As author Daniel Wolff puts it in his introduction, “Withers brings us…the constantly breaking news of people creating culture, making lasting beauty, and…having fun.”