Monday, September 14, 2015


Rock and Roll’s Birth

“And if you listen to the beat,
And hear what’s in your soul,
You’ll never let anyone
Steal your rock and roll.”


By Doc Lawrence

ATLANTA. The stunningly entertaining musical Memphis is much more than a grand stage production. The winner of the 2010 Tony Award for best musical revisits the tragedy of racial segregation while chronicling the journey towards racial justice through the power of music, specifically the blend of rhythm and blues, gospel and country into what became rock and roll.

Credit: Christopher Bartelski
While the Supreme Court condemned racial barriers, rock and roll shattered them. To have lived then deepens the appreciation how it was. In the fifties, Atlanta had few radio stations that would play black music, most notably WAOK and its white DJ the great Zenas “Daddy” Sears. Auburn Avenue was Atlanta’s version of Memphis’ Beale Street. Clubs like the Royal Peacock featured music greats like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Hank Ballard, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown and Ray Charles. Occasionally, daring young whites would save some cash and take in a show, often buying a cocktail.

Like fictional character Huey Calhoun in Memphis, those who entered the doors saw the light.

The music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan is an authentic step back into Saturday night in big Southern towns of the fifties.  Huey Calhoun, played masterfully by Travis Smith, is based on white DJ pioneer Dewey Phillips who played black music on white radio stations. The beat and harmony struck at the heart of racial barriers by gaining enormous popularity with young white listeners. Soon, others followed Phillips including Big John R and Hugh Baby Jarrett in Nashville.

Set in the west Tennessee home of Sun Records, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis Presley, Memphis, through the majesty of music and dance recreates the evolution of rock and roll that ran almost parallel to the social upheaval taking place in America. Acknowledging that he path has never been an easy one. Memphis has a message: violence and racial hatred yield under the force young love, particularly when powered by wonderful songs and terrific dancing.

Tightly directed by Tom Key, with musical direction under Ann-Carol Pence and flawless choreography by Waverly Lewis, Memphis accelerates like a V-8 engine. Huey portrayed by Travis Smith and Felicia performed by Atlanta actress (and FSU alum) Naima Carter Russell, never miss a beat, sharing love while enduring more than a little abuse.

Credit: Christopher Bartelski
The epicenter of Atlanta’s own struggle to toss off racial barriers was on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the Rialto Theatre. Introducing Memphis, Tom Key said that those in the audience who became “more heartened to walk through a forbidden door in obedience to the soul’s longing, or possess more courage to receive the enemy as friend . . . can once again be grateful for the gift of theatre to help us toward a better place to be.”

Today, America is a better place and music remains a vital catalyst that helped make this possible.

The show is a limited run. Take the family.; (678) 528.1500

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