November 2011 Archives

Writing in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, Texas raconteur Tumblewood Smith tells the made-in-Memphis backstory of Donnie Dunagan, a former child actor who worked with Boris Karloff and provided the voice and face of Walt Disney's 1942 "Bambi" before his family fell apart and he ended up in an orphanage. After a career in the Marine Corps including service in Vietnam and a stint as the youngest drill instructor in Corps history, Dunagan earned a PhD. in physics from Oxford and worked with the U.S. Department of Defense. Now in his 70s, Dunagan, who kept his "Bambi" fame a secret during his Marine career, is making the press rounds as a lost child star for the 70th anniversary BluRay release of "Bambi." From Smith's profile:

Donnie Dunagan grew up dirt-poor in Memphis, Tenn. He and his parents lived in a two-room flat above a hardware store. A few blocks from his house a man named Sam set up a crank victrola every day and danced to the music. People passing by would watch him for a while and drop a few pennies and nickels in front of him. In 1938, when Donnie was 4 years old, his mother took him to see the dancing man. Although Donnie was barefooted, he started mimicking the dancer. The man, who Donnie says was very courteous, asked Donnie's mother if her young son could join him. She agreed. The crowd loved it and Donnie spent the summer on that street corner with Sam. The pennies and nickels turned into dimes and sometimes even quarters.


Memphis had a talent show in a historic downtown theater and Sam convinced Donnie to enter. The prize was o$100, a fortune back then. Donnie danced, wearing a top hat and cane and won. The next day, Donnie and his parents walked to Sam's house and gave him $50. Sam nearly went into shock.

An RKO talent scout happened to be in the talent show audience. He was in Memphis visiting his mother. Within a couple of days, Donnie and his family were on a train bound for Hollywood. Donnie had never been to a movie. The movie studio put the family up in a nice hotel and gave them a car to use at their disposal. After a screen test, RKO loaned Donnie to Universal. His first film was "Mother Carey's Chickens," a story about a World War I orphanage. That launched his movie career and for the next two years, he was the family breadwinner. He was in "The Son of Frankenstein" and became friends with Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein. "He was a riot," said Donnie, at his home in San Angelo. "He taught me how to play checkers."

A Connecticut appeals court has upheld the 2009 conviction of casino cheat and former Memphian Richard Taylor, who is serving a 10-year sentence for a 2007 scam in which casino employees placed illegal bets on his behalf. To jog your memory:

Authorities say Taylor and his group were responsible for nearly $70,000 in losses at Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

Taylor dubbed himself "Mr. Casino," and was described in court records as a professional gambler who made his living through high-stakes gambling nationwide.

This blog covered the trial, conviction and subsequent appeal of "Mr. Casino" here, here and here

CNN chart shows Mid-South HIV, AIDS rates among highest in U.S.

111123061347-hiv-aids-united-states-map-county-level-data-story-top.jpg As Friday's observance of World AIDS Day approaches, CNN released this weekend this interactive map showing the prevalence of AIDS diagnoses per 100,000 in U.S. counties (above), alongside similar data for HIV, stroke, heart disease, obesity and life expectancy. Shelby County and surrounding areas in West Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas show some of the highest rates for all -- except life expectancy, for which those areas rate among the lowest.

With all the attention placed on fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS overseas, the HIV/AIDS crisis right here in the U.S. -- particularly the Southeast -- is being neglected, says Dr. Vincent Marconi of Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Center, one of the largest HIV/AIDS facilities in the country:

"A great amount of attention has been put overseas," said Marconi, who's also an associate professor at Emory University's School of Medicine. "Especially in these economically challenged times, we tend to be myopic in our efforts in our charitable giving. People say, 'I'm already giving towards the international HIV effort - I can't see two epidemics happening.' No one wants to believe that extreme poverty and neglect exist in such a rich and powerful nation as this one."

But exist they do. The problems have been getting worse in recent years, as CNN points out, and the Bluff City is among areas of concern:

In the southeast, the epidemic is growing faster than in any other region in the country. African-Americans constitute 12% of the population in the United States but account for approximately 45% of those newly infected with HIV, according to the CDC. And some of the South's biggest cities topped the CDC's list of diagnosis rates in 2008: Miami. Atlanta. Memphis, Tennessee. Orlando. New Orleans. Charlotte, North Carolina.

Big Star, Johnny Cash on New Yorker's Thanksgiving playlist

More Memphis music for this holiday Friday evening ...

The New Yorker's Culture Desk compiled a little playlist of songs whose titles and lyrics make them appropriate listening for Thanksgiving. Included are two Memphis songs.

Big Star, "Thank You Friends" (1978)

The power-pop kings of Memphis included this on their moody third album, "Third/Sister Lovers," which was recorded in 1974 but not released until four years later. The song seems like a straightforward expression of thanks to the band's fans, though it sounds like something much stranger.

Then there's this old Sun Records side:

Johnny Cash, "Thanks A Lot" (1959)

Most songs of thanks aren't sarcastic. This one is.

Rufus Thomas: 'the most overlooked, under-appreciated' Stax artist

Rufus-Thomas.jpg In a review of the Stax Remastered Series deluxe reissue of Rufus Thomas' 1970 album Do the Funky Chicken, PopMatters writer Colin McGuire makes one bold statement:

Rufus Thomas is the most overlooked, under-appreciated artist to ever come from the Stax imprint. Period. Done. End of story. There isn't a single other artist who recorded at 926 East McLemore Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s that was as dismissed, discounted and disrespected as the man who gave Stax its first real hit with "Cause I Love You" in the '60s.

In addition to the album's 11 original tracks, the reissue, which came out in September in the U.S., includes a number of singles released from 1968 to 1974. McGuire says these sides "pop out of the stereo system here with a 24-bit remastering job, giving life to songs some casual fans may have already considered dead for decades."

PICTURED: Rufus Thomas performs in a photograph taken June 30, 1973. (By Fred Griffith/The Commercial Appeal files)

'VH1 Divas' to honor 'soul cities,' including Memphis

Via gossip maven Perez Hilton, announcing the lineup of performers for the upcoming "VH1 Divas" concert show, airing at 8 p.m. CST on Monday, Dec. 19:

This year, the show will honor the soul cities: Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia and London.

Here's more from the VH1 site:

Memphis provided the foundation of soul during a time when Memphis served as the backdrop to the struggle for civil rights. Booker T. & The MGs epitomize the house band as it's known today, while Otis Redding and Al Green set an unsurpassable standard for soul magic. Today, Memphis continues to spawn a fusion of music based entirely on its soulful trailblazing.

Dyer's of Memphis named top spot for fried burgers on Serious Eats


In a rundown of hamburger and cheeseburger styles, the "A Hamburger Today" department of the online foodie community Serious Eats mentions one variant whose top exponent resides right here in Memphis -- deep-fried, of course:

Just what it sounds like, folks. Forget the griddle, throw water on the
grill. The patties of these burgers take a dunk in hot, hot oil. Dyer's Burgers in Memphis is perhaps the most famous deep-fried burger emporium, thanks largely to George Motz's Hamburger America spot on them ... (video below).

NPR: Tea party, Occupy Memphis dialogue 'notable'

NPR's news blog The Two-Way picks up on The Associated Press' coverage of last night's Mid-South Tea Party meeting in Bartlett in which Occupy Memphis activists addressed and debated their counterparts on the right. As the AP report said, the two groups seemed to find common ground on some issues.

"It sounds to me that y'all ought to be joining us," said Jerry Rains, a 64-year-old computer programmer and tea party member. "You have a lot of the same goals we have, which is to take our country back."

By way of introducing a poll question -- "Do you think the Occupy and Tea Party movements have more in common than most people think?" -- NPR blogger Mark Memmott writes:

Reaching at least some consensus is notable given the suspicions before the meeting. The Mid-South Tea Party's website, for example, prominently displays side-by-side photos of Tea Party and Occupy rallies that note the many American flags at one (the Tea Partiers') and absence of them at the other.

Praise from Sam Phillips inspired Chris Isaak's tribute to Sun Records

Touring behind his Sun Records-inspired and Sun Studio-recorded album Beyond the Sun, roots singer-songwriter Chris Isaak tells The Kansas City Star how the tribute set came about:

"My dad had records from Sun Studio," he told The Star recently. "I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Later on, I remember being 14 or 15, and I was at a secondhand store with my mother, and you could get a stack of records for a dime. I remember finding a 45 (rpm) of 'I'll Never Let You Go,' and that record knocked me out."

An inspiration to record his new album came to Isaak unexpectedly more than 10 years ago as he was reading a magazine article.

"I was reading the 'Oxford American,' a great, great music magazine," he said. "It's like getting four years of 'Rolling Stone' all in the same magazine. I was reading an article about Sam Phillips, and toward the end, someone asked him what he was listening to. And he said some very nice things. He said he listened to me, and he really liked my music. It brought a tear to my eye.

"It's about as good as it gets. Sam Phillips is one of the reasons I went into music."

Of course, it's nothing new for national and even international acts to record or mix their albums in Memphis, where they can get a certain vibe or presence they can't find in state-of-the-art studios of Los Angeles or Nashville. But Isaak, despite his vintage style and sound, wasn't initially sold on the idea, he says:

"I'm not much of a touchy-feely guy," he said. "I'm pragmatic. When I go into a studio, I usually blow out the candles and turn on the lights. At first I thought, 'Why record at Sun Studio? I have a microphone at my house.'

"But I went into that room and went, 'This is a great-sounding room.' You can sing in there and it sounds beautiful. The kind of music it was built for, three- or four-piece bands, really sounds wonderful. It sounds bigger than any place I've ever recorded."

The headline on a piece that ran over the weekend on DC.StreetsBlog shows that some observers are already impressed with Memphis' progress in implementing more sustainable transportation policies: "Who Knew? Memphis on Track to Add 55 Miles of Bike Lanes in Just Two Years." The article itself continues the theme, and gives a lot of the credit to the city's current administration:

It seems nowadays you aren't truly a bike-friendly city until you've had your first civic dust-up over bike lanes. And by that standard, Memphis, Tennessee has arrived.

Last month, this mid-sized Southern city fought back challenges by business owners to install a bike lane on one of its main major commercial thoroughfares, Madison Avenue. That street was just the latest in Mayor A C Wharton's ambitious plan to add 55 miles of bike lanes in just two years.


Wharton issued his 55-mile challenge in the summer of 2010, saying the plan "is critical to the livability and health of our city." Since that time, the city has been making laudable strides toward that goal. According to its bike planner, the city now has 30 miles of bike lanes, 70 miles of shared roadways and 40 miles of multi-use paths.

A transportation amenity introduced during the tenure of Mayor Willie Herenton gets a tip of the hat on Twin Cities Daily Planet, in a piece advocating a closer look at streetcars for public transit in North Minneapolis.

Lest we dismiss Toronto's system as a byproduct of the desire to get away from the insane cold and/or Celine Dion music, we can head south to Memphis, Tennessee.  In 1993 they started with a 2.5-mile line downtown.  Since then, another 4.5 miles were added and ridership has gone from 500,000 in 1993 to 1.5 million in 2004.  In Memphis ridership was a mix of workers and recreational users, but contrary to common perceptions about mass transit, ridership was heaviest on Saturdays.  Surveys showed that almost half of the riders could have made the trip by car, but chose streetcars "for the experience."  Eighty-three percent of riders said they did not ordinarily use public transit.  In an interesting contrast to Minneapolis, Memphis streetcars paved the way for a light rail system.

Spin magazine: 'Don Trip is a rapper out of time' spotlights Memphis rapper Don Trip, whose "Letter to My Son," the lament of a single father involved in a custody battle, bubbled up into a viral-video smash over the past two years. In another step in Trip's successful hustle, the song has been re-released in a new version with a hook provided by Cee-Lo. Here's some of what's Brandon Soderberg had to say:

Don Trip is a rapper out of time. Although his imminent hit did begin as a quasi-viral video, and he's ridiculously prolific in a way that caters to the blogs, he can't be bothered with rap's prevailing trends. He wears basketball shorts and, like, button-downs from Target, not streetwear. His approach to rapping is that of a work-a-day hustler, and in-studio videos often show him gripping a notepad (and more recently an iPad), or staring off-camera at a piece of paper taped to the wall with lyrics scrawled on it. It's a subtle way of rejecting the noxious, post-Jay-Z myth that "good" MCs don't need to write their raps down.
On The Wall Street Journal's MarketBeat blog, reporter Jonathan Cheng passes along a sampling of quotes from American investment professionals flummoxed by the U.S. markets' being held in thrall to the European debt crisis. Among those quoted is David Waddell, president and chief investment strategist at Waddell & Associates in Memphis:

"My economics degree and analytical background is useless in a political environment, where so much of this is about handicapping whether Europe comes up with a plan or not." While ruminating on the markets during a recent morning jog, it struck Mr. Waddell that success in the stock market required a money manager to be part market historian, part global economist, part stock analyst, part China expert, part political scientist and part psychologist."I should have stayed in school."
Back in May, on the Monday after a storm-truncated Beale Street Music Festival, as the waters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries continued to rise ominously, I checked out a show at the Hi-Tone Cafe by the acclaimed jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and his instrumental quartet. The weather was atrocious -- chilly, with scattered deluges of rain and swirling gusts of wind -- but inside the club was warm and cozy, packed with jazz fans on the first Monday in May, usually a dead night for live music.

The laconic Frisell, who plays facing the back of the stage and rarely addresses the audience, mentioned several times the severe weather outside and wished Memphis good luck amid the historic flooding. He also included a lilting arrangement of Memphis favorite "Ol' Man River" and a few other tunes appropriate for the occasion, like Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." Somehow, this offbeat guitar player and his band had captured the moment perfectly in their impressionistic renditions.

About a week later, I ran into Joe Restivo, guitarist for Memphis soul-jazz combo The City Champs. He told me that he had seen Frisell the day after the show in a coffee shop and struck up a conversation. It turns out, as I tweeted that day, that the Hi-Tone show was something of a coincidence: Frisell happened to have been contributing the score to a documentary film about the Great Flood of 1927, which seemed to be replaying itself more than 80 years later. What better time and place to try out some of the new material?

Now that film, Bill Morrison's "The Great Flood," is showing around the country, and  Frisell and his band are providing live musical accompaniment. From The Dartmouth:

When composing the film's score, Frisell tried to create music that evoked similar emotional reactions to those evoked by the flood.

During a tour of the Mississippi floodplain this spring, Frisell and Morrison found themselves in the midst of another great flood similar to the 1927 flood.

"Being in that part of the country and the river was flooding ... it had a huge impact on what we felt," Morrison said. "It was also the same time of year, it was just uncanny."

The effects of the 1927 flood outlasted the river's crest, and helped shape much of the cultural landscape of the 20th century, The Dartmouth explains:

In the flood's aftermath, the poor sharecroppers whose livelihoods were destroyed moved from the South to the North. Many farmers were musicians, and the evolution of acoustic blues was an outgrowth of the challenges they faced while adapting to their new industrial surroundings. The blues gestated in cities like Detroit, Nashville and Memphis until eventually developing into jazz, rock and R&B.

UPDATE: More on "The Great Flood" from Carnegie Hall's blog.

When Memphis jookin' master Lil Buck last appeared on this blog, he was the star of a viral video in which he demonstrated the distinctively elegant form of street dancing to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns' "The Swan," accompanied by cello virtuoso Yo Yo Ma. Since then, Lil Buck has continued to move jookin' beyond the realm of parking-lot battles and underground DVDs, most recently with an appearance at this week's Fall for Dance Festival in New York. From a review of the Fall for Dance Festival that ran in Friday's The New York Times:

Live music -- onstage -- also accompanied the Memphis jookin' of Lil Buck to "The Swan" by Saint-Saëns. Here, however, the playing of Joshua Roman (cello) and Riza Hequibal Printup (harp) and the famous "Swan" music itself paled beside Lil Buck's astonishing, improvisational dance virtuosity. A YouTube video of him performing this piece this year, to Yo-Yo Ma's cello playing, has become celebrated, but to see it live is far more exciting.

Lil Buck, in sneakers, rose onto point; or let a single foot, working through its length like a snake, carry him briskly across the stage as he held a position; or passed dazzling ripples along his arms and through his shoulders; and ended by folding himself into an extraordinary knot. The audience rightly gasped and gasped again; so did I. Too bad its charmingly show-off quality has so little to do with swans or this music. Still, Lil Buck has rare grace; I'd do much to see him apply his brilliance to the right score.

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