Dewey Phillips: The Midwife of Rock and Roll

Memphis in July of 1954 was the place for the introduction of Rock & Roll. Elvis Presley’s musical interpretation and Sam Phillips’ direction in the control booth on July 5th, 1954 would become the essential ingredients of Rock and Roll’s conception and birth. However, it was the local DJ, Dewey Phillips, who became the midwife to the delivery of Rock and Roll. 

On July 8th, 1954, Dewey Phillips ultimately delivered Elvis and Rock and Roll to the world.      

July 5th will mark one of the greatest moments in Rock and roll history. This marks the 65th anniversary of the day that Elvis Presley stepped into Memphis Recording Studio and recorded “That’s All Right Mamma.”  The moment documented and memorialized was a unique flash in history.  An accident that almost didn’t happen was for a stroke of luck and the influence of a local disc jockey that made it all possible. That Disc Jockey all but forgotten in history was Dewy Phillips. 

Dewey introduced the world to one of the greatest products the world had ever seen. In the blink of an eye, the world & culture would be altered forever. From 1950 until 1958 Dewey Philips owned the airwaves in Memphis.  TV was in its infancy, and the internet was not even a pipe dream.  Dewey was the pied piper for a musical sound called Rhythm &Blues (R&B), which would morph into a new sound called Rock and Roll.  Radio became the single most important medium that people received during that time.  It was Dewey Phillips who was at the center of a revolution that was about to happen called Rock and Roll. 

Dewey played music and influenced the future, with music that was beyond controversial.  In the early 1950’s Dewey Phillips played black music to a predominantly white audience in Memphis.  He began educating an audience in R&B sounds that were solely played by black artists at the time.  The music he played influenced both Elvis, after his arrival as a young teen in Memphis, and a young man from Lubbock Texas (almost 800 miles west) named Buddy Holly to name a few. 

On July 8th, 1954, Dewey changed the face of music in an instant.  He played the initial performance of a young man name “Elvis,” who went on to change the world.  Sam Phillips (no relation) came to Dewey to listen to a song from an artist that he had recorded the night before. 

“He was a genius,” said Sam Phillips, “and I don’t call many people geniuses.”

Dewey was chosen to work with Sam’s most prized possession because of the influence his music radio show had over the greater Memphis area.  That night, July 7th, 1954, Dewey listened intensely.  He paused and quite frankly said that he needed some time to digest what he heard.  Calling Sam early the next morning; Dewey said he had to have it.  As Sam Phillips noted in Rolling Stone Magazine February of 1988:  then “all hell broke loose!” Elvis became a sensation throughout Memphis.  In a few hours, on July 8th 1954, Elvis went from a truck driver no one knew existed, to one of the hottest commodities in Music.  Within 2 years Elvis would rise to world-wide Superstardom; heights that no one had ever seen before or since.  It all started with Dewey’s words “It’s gonna be a hit!”. 

Based entirely upon Dewey’s recommendation and influence, a generation was able to hear Elvis and Rock and Roll.  The product that he introduced to the world would take hold and eventually influence billions of people.  Dewey’s discovery would go on to affect generations as a new way of looking at the world.  

Unfortunately, after introducing the new sound, o the world, Dewey would be completely forgotten for his contribution.  Instead of basking in the glow of Rock and Roll history, and declared a national hero; 65 years later, he has almost been forgotten.  Dewey would die without recognition. His influence cut short, and his voice silenced. The genre of music that he ushered in and promoted would completely forget that he ever existed.  Elvis went on to meteoric heights, and as his star shot, Dewey’s star fell into obscurity.    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the cathedral of Rock History does not recognize his contribution.  Without Dewey, quite possibly, Rock and Roll may never have existed.      

Mention the name Dewey Phillips, and only true fans of Elvis Presley history would remember his name.  In Memphis the home town, where Dewey introduced the world to the future King of Rock and Roll –  he has almost been forgotten.  65 years after this great event, he has been systematically erased from Rock and Roll history.  Sam Phillips, 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.

The Rock and Roll Hall Fame, which is the single place to identify contributions of those who were the key to the foundation of Rock and Roll; could not care less that he receives the recognition he richly deserves. A simple plaque describing his contribution does not exist.  All of the people who started Rock and Roll History were inducted in 1986 – without Dewey. 

The Sun Studio’s museum where there is a tribute to him, along with is radio booth he used to introduce Rock and Roll.  Is about all there is to remember him.

If Elvis and Sam were alive today, they would be the first in line to right this wrong.  Dewey was revolutionary. Sam Phillis, turned specifically to Dewey for his opinion, on what to do with this new song and the artist who sang it.  Very few, possibly only one other DJ, Alan Freed in Cleveland – who also began to play R&B music to white audiences (Freed was an initial inductee with the others that inaugural night) – could know what effect Elvis would have.  But while Alan Freed was playing classical music in the preceding years, it was Dewey Phillips who was laying the groundwork a full two years before Freed ever played a Rock and Roll record. Sam knew Dewey understood R&B music, as well as what this audience he purveyed over had wanted.  Dewey knew that the world was looking for Elvis and Rock and Roll precisely at that moment in time.

It was providence that Sam Phillips would discover Elvis and an even greater providence that Dewey Phillips was a DJ on the airwaves in Memphis at this moment. 

Without anyone who could interpret this music and account for its veracity, the song may well have gone into obscurity.   Dewey Phillips alone would have an understanding and ability to play this music to the public.  Dewey understood the risks of a white man singing black music.  What affects this would have on him – both positive and negative.   But it was a risk Dewy new had to be taken.

Sadly, Dewey has existed in recent history, he is not a figment of anyone’s imagination.  The discovery Dewey made was Elvis Presley who introduced the world to Rock and Roll music. Based solely upon Dewey’s recommendation, thousands of people would hear a voice and a sound that changed our society in a single instant. Elvis’ voice would reverberate and change the course of history. Sixty-Five years ago, on July 8th, 1954, Elvis’ voice would hit the airwaves of Memphis. Dewey Phillips would introduce the world to a young man with a different sound. A sound that he was convinced was a “hit.” 

After Dewey’s death, Elvis came privately after hours to pay his respects to the family.  At the viewing that evening, Elvis made this comment to a young Jerry Phillips – Dewey’s son:

“Son, I owe a lot to your daddy!  I may have made it without him, but if it was not for your daddy – I am not sure I would have made it so far – so fast. ”

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