The songs that made Memphis made us

Memphis, Tennessee. Home of Sun Records, where many of the greats – B B King, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash – got their start, and where rock’n’roll was born (allegedly!) And I was there, in virtual Memphis, at the Clocktower Centre, Moonee Ponds, believe it or not, on Saturday night, when a bunch of fine local musos performed their long-running show, Sun Rising: the songs that made Memphis.

They had me at the opening number, a grinding blues by Howlin’ Wolf and kept me swinging through the 1950s with lesser known songs by B B King (She’s Dynamite) and Elvis (Baby, let’s play house) to old favourites by Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On). There was certainly a lotta shakin’ goin’ down in the Clocktower that night, if not the sort that the song was originally banned for!

The show has been going for seven years and is tight, professional and fizzing with energy. The musos were clearly having as much fun as we were. As a one-time bass player, I was knocked out by the talent of the rhythm section. Drummer Adam Coad and bass player (upright and electric bass) Trent McKenzie are formidable players. The two superb guitarists (David Cosmo and Adrian Whyte) and virtuoso pianist (Damon Smith) took the vocal leads. Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were all there in spirit, not impersonated but recreated with a dash of individual spark.

Sun Records is still there, in Memphis. A friend in the US emails me excitedly to tell me about her trip there with her teenage son, many years ago. ‘There was a diner next door,’ she recalls, ‘where you could order Elvis’s favourite grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich (I passed).’ Another friend in the States agrees: that is ‘her kind of music, firmly fixed in the ‘50s and ‘60s’.

Music, the great uniter, our common heritage.

Sun Rising is a tribute not just to the stars, but to Sam Phillips, who discovered all these artists and gave them a break in his modest studio, launching them into the big time.

Thank you, Sam.

Hey, Mr Tambourine Man

The New York Times calls him Mr Dylan; Obama calls him Bob; we know him as Dylan. For those of us who grew up in the sixties, he was the one who shook us from our roots and made us question everything about our lives. He has kept the faith, in his own unpredictable way, and now has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. What a turn-up for the books!

Oh to be a fly on the wall when the Academy discussed the pros and cons of giving this modern-day troubadour the award. Is Dylan following the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks, like Homer and Sappho, as Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said when making the award announcement?

I was first ‘turned on’ to his music in England in 1965. For a week in August, I lay in bed, suffering from a bout of tonsillitis, listening to the latest songs on the radio. The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was top of the charts, ahead of The Beatles, Lulu, The Animals and Joan Baez. Then they played Dylan’s original version. As soon as Highway 61 Revisited was released later that month, I hurried to the record shop and handed over the cash, slightly embarrassed by my boldness, as if I were crossing a line.

After two weeks of silence, Bob Dylan has accepted the award. There were murmurings that he was rude and ungrateful, but he emerged into the world again, gracious and humbled by the honour. Maybe he had to take time to adjust to being less, or more, than a rebel.

Most of us adjust to being less rebellious in later life, but it’s good to know Dylan is still shaking things up, and being acknowledged for it.