Dewey Phillips – The Man that History Forgot
The rash of rock and roll films in the last year has brought in a new era of nostalgia to the rockers of the old. Queen, Elton John, and whatever other films that will appear in the next year due to Hollywood’s penchant for imitation, (especially when the box office produces massive results), are the first of a new crop to appear at the box office. Rock and Roll have undergone a massive change over the last few decades, and the music is no longer as dominant. But one thing is accurate, the older artists still capture the essence of Rock and Roll, It’s fervor and influence.
July 5th of this year will mark the anniversary of one of the single greatest moment in the history of Rock and roll. It will mark the 65th anniversary of the day that Elvis Presley stepped into Sun Studios and recorded “That’s All Right Mamma.” Changing the direction of music, our culture, and our history forever. The moment documented hundreds of times over the last 65 years was unique. But that moment was an accident that almost didn’t happen if not for a stroke of luck and the influence of a local Memphis disc jockey (DJ) that made it possible.
Imagine for a moment that you introduced one of the greatest products that the world had ever seen. In a blink of an eye, the world would change. From that point forward, nothing would ever be the same. Based entirely upon your recommendation and influence, a new generation would be ushered in and change the world. The product you introduced would take hold and eventually would influence millions and billions of people. Your discovery would affect generations, and as a result of what you had introduced, the world would never be the same.
Now imagine that after you introduced this new product, and the years rolled on, you were completely forgotten for your contribution. Instead of basking in the glow of Rock and Roll history, and declaring you a national hero, 65 years after this event, you have been forgotten, and your contribution would be virtually ignored. You would die alone, and penniless, leaving your family scrambling to get by. They would survive without you and then look back upon how you were treated. The genre of music you ushered in and promoted would turn its back upon you and leave you behind while your discovery made people rich beyond their wildest dream. The world had completely forgotten your existence.
For the legacy of Dewey Phillips and his family, this is a reality. The Rock and Roll Hall of fame, the cathedral of Rock History refuses to recognize his existence. Yet, without him, quite possibly, Rock and Roll may never have existed.
Mention the name Dewey Phillips, and quite possibly only true fans of Elvis Presley history would even remember his name. In some cases, he is confused with the producer and owner of Sun records because they share the same last name. Memphis, his home town, where he introduced the world to the future King of Rock and Roll has virtually forgotten his existence. 65 years after this great event, Dewey Phillips has been practically erased from Rock and Roll history. His influence on music and the culture that started it all – the musical revolution called Rock and Roll – died along with him. He died long before Rock and Roll became a mainstream force. Elvis is gone, having died 45 years ago. Sam Phillips (no relation), who produced the recording of Elvis Presley, died in 2003. There is no one left but the annals of history to remember his great contribution.
Yet, the Rock and Roll Hall Fame, the single place of tribute for those contributors; people who were key to the foundation of this genre of music, could care less if he ever received the recognition he richly deserves. Not even a single plaque describing his contribution exists there. No mention is made of his name. The Sun Studio’s museum in Memphis has a tribute to the Radio booth he worked in. This was recreated for posterity. It is possibly one of the on;y places that name Dewey Phillips and his contribution to Rock and Roll is mentioned. That radio booth is about all there is to remember him and his contribution to history, music and our culture. There should be more.
What exactly happened on the evening of July 6th? Dewey received a phone call from Sam Phillips, the owner and record producer at Sun Studios. Sam asked that Dewey stop by and listen to a recording he had made of a new artist. In 1954, Dewey literally owned the Memphis airwaves, more than 500,000 people a night would tune in to his Radio Show “Red Hot and Blue”. Dewey would broadcast from the “Mezzanine Level of the Chicsa hotel in downtown Memphis.” The music Dewey played was a mixture of country, hillbilly, and an up and coming genre known as Rhythm & Blues(R&B). R&B was called at the time “race music” because the music was played by black artists for predominantly black audiences. Dewey was one of the handfuls of White disc jockeys –and the only one in the south, to play and feature this type of music. The segregated south had a hard time accepting black artists, as well as their music and the fact that Dewey would play R&B regularly only contributed to his folklore. Dewey had grown from pushing records at a local department store to playing songs on the radio nightly. He was proud of his audience, and they knew that Dewey’s tastes mirrored their own.
Dewey existed before the age of television, and radio was the place most people tuned to for their nightly entertainment. Many who would ultimately become Rock and Roll stars would be part of his listening audience. Out of this audience came a young upstart named Elvis Presley. Elvis would become the face and the sound of new music, and ultimately be crowned The King of Rock and Roll. It would be Dewey Phillips who would introduce the Elvis and the new music which would ultimately be called Rock and Roll to the world.
Dewey controlled all of the music that was played on his show, and he would play whatever suited him. 10 years later, this format was to disappear. The Payola scandal In the 1960’s a result of the bribery of DJ’s, by record producers and record labels had taken power away from the DJ and put it into the hands of station managers. Station Manger’s focus was on maximizing listeners and not discovering new music. Within ten years, DJ’s became just a voice over the radio, and their influence would disappear. But in 1954, Dewey would choose his nightly playlist, and on the night of July 8th, 1954, he would play “That’s All Right Mamma.” A moment later, the world had changed forever.
At his peak, Dewey’s fans trusted him. The songs he played were his favorites, and if Dewey did not like a song he was playing; his listeners would be greeted with the violent sound of the record ripped off of the turntable, and smashed against the walls. If Dewey liked a song, he would announce to his listeners, “It’s gonna be a hit!” Dewey was predictably right, as records based upon his recommendations were an instant hit.
On the evening of July 6th, Sam called Dewey to come over to his studio to listen to the record he had just produced; a young 19-year-old named Elvis Presley. Sam desperately needed some validation for what he thought was something that was revolutionary. Dewey’s insight would be important, and his influence could change this young man’s as well as both of their lives. Over the years, Sam and Dewey developed a mutual respect for one another built on their love of R&B music. They shared the admiration of a sound that they both felt was the future. But the recording that Sam played for him that night was not just R&B, it was something different, something very new.
Dewey was a revolutionary, which is why Sam Phillis looked to him for his opinion. Sam needed to figure out what to do with this new song, which at the time could be seen as quite provocative. Very few, in fact, possibly only one other DJ in Cleveland – Alan Freed who also began to play Rhythm & Blues music to white audiences – could know what effect this song could have. Sam knew that Dewey understood music, as well as his audience. Dewey understood what the world was looking for at the time. It was providence that Sam Phillips would discover Elvis and an even greater providence that Dewey Phillips was the Disk Jockey on the airwaves in Memphis at that moment. Without anyone who could interpret the music and account for its veracity, the song may well have gone into obscurity,
The greatness and possibility of this music notwithstanding, Sam Phillips knew how to produce great music, that would be proven over the years to be true. But, Dewey Phillips was one of the very few who could hear it for what it actually was – greatness. If he agreed to play this new music to the public, things would change.
“He was a genius,” said Sam Phillips, “and I don’t call many people geniuses.”
Within two days, Dewey Phillips would introduce the word to Elvis Presley and his first recording of “That’s All Right Mama.” The effect of that moment on music, especially Rock and Roll music, would be felt for generations. It would be an eruption that would alter the course of history.
In my soon to be released Book Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll, I make the following statement:
Elvis was about to go from obscurity to a possibility. His life from this moment forward would never be the same. The moment Dewey played the acetate given to him by Sam Phillips, Rock and Roll would be born. Elvis might not have been the first to record or release a Rock & Roll song, but he was the first to move the sound out of obscurity, and into the mainstream. At this moment in time, Elvis walked into a new life… So did Rock & Roll. July 5, 1954 (the date Elvis recorded “That’s All Right Mama”) was the moment lightning struck, and no one took notice. It would be three days later on July 8th that the fires would begin to take hold and days later when the fires would burn all around them. Month, years, and decades later, the fires would rage uncontrollably, and the world would never be the same – again.
It is said that on Thursday, July 8, 1954 – the music industry, with it the entire culture of the United States, and ultimately the world would be changed – forever. Dewey Philips delivered a new sound and a new look at our cultural world. After the delivery, nothing could go back to the way it was. The trajectory of history would be forever changed, as the firestorm from the night of July 5th began its effect upon the landscape of history.
Dewey’s recommendations were based solely upon what he felt his listeners would like. He made no money from playing music other than his small salary as a DJ. He loved music, he loved R&B, but he also fell in love with this new music called Rock and Roll. Dewey would never profit from his find. For a time Dewey would mentor Elvis’ musical education. Elvis was always grateful for Dewey and his contribution to his career. Silently, when Dewey fell on hard times, Elvis made sure Dewey survived. Dewey was too proud to ask for charity, so Elvis had to find other ways to help him, When Dewey’s life headed in the wrong direction after his addiction to pain killers and alcohol, Elvis would look out for his family in small indirect ways, until his death in 1977. At one point Dewey lived at Graceland for a time to dry out. When he relapsed, Elvis had no other choice but to let go., and Dewey left Graceland, never to return.
Dewey was not well liked at the end of his life. He had destroyed any goodwill he might have earned by his erratic behavior caused by his addictions. He spiraled and lost almost everything, and then he lost his life. Dewey did make the transfer from radio to television, but due to some erratic behavior by one of his cohosts, he was fired. At the same time, his radio show started to fade. As Television became popular, his show had less and less influence than it once did.. While Dewey made some good money during his years at the top, The jobs began to dry up his lifestyle took a hit too. Throughout it all, Dewey never cashed in on his influence to line his own pockets. He would never take payola. B
What needs to be said that unlike many DJ’s during that period, Dewey could not be bought. As Dewey’s son Jerry Phillips commented to me;
“If my daddy took part in Payola, he wouldn’t have been broke when he died, and he wouldn’t have lived the way he did. My daddy would never jeopardize his relationship with his fans, he respected them, and they knew when he said something was a hit that he meant it! That was just who he was.”
But in a matter of a few years, Dewey could no longer pick his own songs, as station managers took over selecting the music, in response to the scandals. Along with that priviledge went Dewey’s edge. As what happens far too often, the alcohol and the pain pills would take its toll. Dewey didn’t just want to spin records, he wanted to be the leader of the new music, he wanted to pick the hits. His pride could not allow him to take a back seat.
As Dewey would move into obscurity, his jobs dried up, and he turned to his vices to drown his sorrows. His wife Dotty, who loved him, needed to care for her children. They would split. But her love for him never stopped. His sons speak of him fondly, knowing who he really was inside, a kind man who cared. Ultimately his voice would be silenced forever.
In just two years based upon Dewey’s introduction of Elvis, music would be altered. It would become what is now known as Rock and Roll, and the whole world would be affected. The lives of millions and eventually, billions of people would shift. Based on Dewey’s introduction, the world would take a deep breath and would usher in a new era. It would change not only music but our entire culture and society, the world was never the same again. By September of 1956, Elvis would be crowned the King of Rock and Roll.
Within 14 years of that groundbreaking moment, Dewey Phillips would be dead, his contributions to Rock and Roll history would be forgotten. Dewey Phillips would become forgotten for his part in history, to become a relative footnote in time. The history books would barely mention his existence. In an instant, Dewey would go into the opposite direction from the career of Elvis. Dewey would move from influencing half of a million people a night to a nobody. Life is pretty rough, it throws people aside without prejudice. It seemed to happen overnight, and Dewey had a hard time adapting to the change, ultimately succumbing to his demons.
Dewey would go on to die penniless, as he could no longer find a job anywhere. Dewey would become bitter as the years progressed. Alienating his family and loved ones. As what almost always happens with addictions, he would die alone. Then the world forgot him, and no one would give him the credit he deserved for his discovery. The people who made millions even billions of dollars because of his discovery forgot his contribution. They could not spend a single moment of their time to memorialize what he did. Even though Dewey was an integral part of the creation of Rock and Roll, The Hall of Fame – the very place that should celebrate Dewey, would never acknowledge his contribution.
In history, it is as if Dewey never existed. One by one, the people who could vouch for his contribution have passed on. Sam Phillips, if he were alive would be clamoring for Dewey.’s induction. So would Elvis. But the only memory of his contribution are the few who truly understood what he did, and his family, who despite his flaws still love him and miss him. For 30 years, the Phillips family has petitioned for the Rock and Roll Hall of fame for their father to be acknowledged. They were not looking for money or any kind of remuneration. They are looking for a single thing – recognition of Dewey’s contribution. All they have asked for is that their father receives the proper recognition and place in history. It is a simple request, one that would not displace a single person, or cause anyone harm. It would not put Dewey above anyone. But it would be a moment of immense importance and pride for them. It would mean a recognition that their father, despite his faults, had contributed to history. It would mean the truth.
Time is not on their side, it has been 65 years, and that moment of recognition has not arrived, and it may never happen. It is sad that in the world of communication in which we live that this is allowed to happen. But it has, and you can change all of that.
On the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website. Sam Phillips one of the inaugural inductees, his Biography is memorialized in this way:
If Sam Phillips had discovered only Elvis Presley, he would have earned his rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sadly, Dewey Phillips is not a figment of anyone’s imagination. His introduction of Elvis Presley and Rock and Roll music should be the ONLY prerequisite necessary for his induction. Without Dewey Phillips the Memphis Disc Jockey who would introduce the world to Elvis Presley, there may never have been Rock and Roll.
While Elvis was the individual who would alter music, the culture and the future of the world, it was all started with a recommendation from Dewey Phillips. Because of that moment, thousands of people would hear a voice and a sound that changed music and the world in a single instant. Elvis’ voice would reverberate and change the course of history. Sixty-Five years ago, on July 8th, 1954, Dewey Phillips would introduce the world to the world a young man who possessed a different sound. A sound that he was convinced was, “gonna be a hit!” That sound became Rock and Roll.
Dewey’s son Jerry told me about Elvis ‘ kind words to him at Dewey’s funeral
“Elvis pulled me aside, he put his arms around my shoulder and said to me …
Son, I may have made it, but it would never have happened the way it did if it was not for your daddy. If not for him, I may never have been heard by so many people. I owe him so much.”
Dewey Phillips deserves to be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there is no doubt. If you believe this to be true, you need to make your voice heard. Call the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, write them, tweet them, place a message on their Facebook page. If you have heard of Dewey Phillips, then please, let your voices be heard. If you haven’t, do some research and investigate for yourself what I have presented. If this is true – join us. It is a travesty that for over 30 years since the inaugural induction, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the place for Rock and Roll history has never made amends for this grave error. They say time and again that they are looking into it. Year after year, they say the same thing. It is a shame that Dewey has Dewey’s not yet earned his rightful place in history. YOU can change that. Join the movement for him to be inducted!
Next year is not soon enough. Too much time has passed.
3 thoughts on “Dewey Phillips – The Man that History Forgot”
What a wonderful article on my dad. I thank you Frank for your research and hard work on this project. It is a story that needs to be told so the whole world is aware of his contribution to the history of Rock and Roll. My dads show Red Hot and Blue was the #1 radio show in the Midsouth for 10 years where it all began and has never ended. Help get Dewey Phillips Inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Frank my family thanks you.
I know Dewey’s son Jerry and have heard this story a lot of times. I never under stood how he was not given the credit he was due. His time is due!
Although there is no documentation anywhere that my family knew Dewey or his family, they lived in the same area and crossed paths with him and his family. My dad played trumpet for a religious program on WHBQ in Memphis in 1949, the same year and same station Dewey started his DJ career on “Red, Hot, & Blue”. Also, I have just recently discovered that Dewey and some of his family lived the last 8 years of his life (at least off and on) in a house just 2 doors from my grandparents. I would guess that my grandmother had spoken to the Phillips family at least a few times during those years, as she seemed to have known quite a few of the neighbors. At least there is a touring musical acknowledging Dewey’s life (“Memphis”), but I would very much be interested in more tributes to Dewey – more archives made public, biographies, Hall of Fame inductions, etc.