There’s a whole new sound coming out of Memphis

There’s a whole new sound coming out of Memphis

Tony Award-winner ‘Memphis’ comes to the Schuster

By Brian P. Sharp

Photo: The Victoria Theatre Association presents “Memphis” April 8-11 at the Schuster Center; photo: Jeremy Daniel

Memphis disc jockey, the late Dewey Phillips – also known as “Daddy-O-Dewey” – is thought by many musical historians to be the person most responsible for integrating American radio from 1948 to 1958. His struggle to integrate American music and popular culture in the City of Memphis was the inspiration for the Tony Award-winning musical, “Memphis.”

In 1950’s Memphis, Dewey Phillips’ nightly radio show, “Red Hot and Blue” had a format that integrated the airways with rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and country music. He was primarily known for playing Elvis Presley singing “That’s All Right” and for doing Elvis’ first radio interview in 1954. By showcasing both black and white musicians, he was instrumental in integrating musical tastes and promoting wider acceptance of black artists, allowing in turn rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll to emerge as national trends. By 1954, his shows were popular throughout the mid-South among both white and black audiences.

During the years of his “Red Hot and Blue” broadcasts on WHBQ, he had the No. 1 show with a biracial teen audience. His disc jockey style was that of the now-stereotypical character of the hyperactive, fast-talking, crazy-acting disc jockey. Unfortunately, Dewey Phillips had some serious mental issues that would end his career.

But he ruled the Memphis airwaves for 10 years, until he was fired by WHBQ in 1958 for refusing to go along with the station’s new Top 40 format. With a major drug problem, he moved from one small station to the next for the last ten years of his life. Phillips died in 1968 from heart failure at the age of 42.

“Memphis” is the kind of show that reminds us of a time when things that were different or new were viewed as wrong … hmmm, sounds like today! It wasn’t that long ago when it was not acceptable for a white man to fall in love with a black woman. It wasn’t that long ago when it was not acceptable to play black music on a white radio station.

“Memphis” reminds us sometimes it only takes one person to make a change – one mind at a time. For Felicia and Huey, the characters in “Memphis,” those changes don’t come quick enough. I had the opportunity to learn what Jasmin Richardson thinks about her role as Felicia in “Memphis.”

“The opening song, ‘Underground’ has this grittiness that sets up the rhythm of the show,” Richardson said. “So, it’s definitely one of my favorite songs to perform, it also gives me the chance to establish who Felicia is in relationship to the other characters on Beale Street.”

Felicia seems to have it together and stay strong no matter what the circumstances. “She is the pillar of strength in the show, so to portray such a strong woman is enriching,” Richardson said. “She avidly pursues her dreams and aspirations. I love that she says what’s on her mind, which during that time was huge for an African American woman, especially in the 1950s. And I get to wear some incredible costumes, so what more can a girl ask for?”

I couldn’t help but ask if Richardson felt any comparisons to Felicia in her personal life. “I relate to her strength,” Richardson responded. “She’s very much about protecting those who aren’t always able to protect themselves. She is passionate about her dreams and she never gives up even when the odds are against her.”

This is truly a powerful story – there has to be something that keeps you going in a role that takes it all out of you.

“Telling this story every night is an honor,” Richardson said, “but doing it with people I love and respect is icing on the cake. This story is just so necessary to tell – it makes you laugh and slightly uncomfortable, but above all else it makes you think.”

The songs seem to be one more powerful than the next. “Singing this music is like eating warm apple pie with a scoop of ice cream,” Richardson continued. “It’s just good for the soul – especially as Felicia; all of her songs are powerhouses, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

I asked Richardson to talk about the message of the show and what she hopes the audience will take away. “The show gives me hope that when you fight for what you believe in, there is nothing you can’t accomplish,” she replied. “It also reminds me the rights we fight for now affect future generations, so we must stay diligent about the decisions we make. It only takes one person to spark change and to possibly change the course of history. I want them to leave inspired because the story is relatable even in today’s society with fighting for equality for all.”

The Victoria Theatre Association presents “Memphis,” a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book) at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 8 through Friday, April 11 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. Additional showtimes include 2 p.m and 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 12 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 13. For more information, please call 937.228.7591 or visit victoriatheatre.com.

Reach DCP theatre critic Brian P. Sharp at Theatre@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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