Access, then and now
In the summer of 1992, a reporter for The Commercial Appeal got a call from then-Millington mayor George Harvell on behalf of his friend Bill Bomar, whose 11-year-old grandson had just won $16,000 in a Nashville talent show. Would the newspaper consider writing a story? The reporter and a photographer met sixth-grader Justin Timberlake and his family at Ardent Studios in Midtown, where they watched Justin record a demo tape of "When a Man Loves a Woman" and the country hit "Two of a Kind." A story with picture was published. Nineteen years later, the same reporter contacted Timberlake's support staff to ask for an interview. The newspaper received only an offer from a publicist to check facts.
A late-night private party is pumping up the former High Point Pinch club Downtown.
Perhaps 100 people mingle. Some line up at the old-fashioned photo booth that spits out two sets of pictures, one for the guest and one for 30th birthday party honoree Trace Ayala — lifelong friend of Justin Timberlake.
The crowd, mostly in blue jeans, is flanked by a stage and a birthday “cake” fashioned out of wrapped Moon Pies. Trays of small hamburgers circulate.
Bob Ritchie, better known as Kid Rock, sings on stage.
A longtime Memphian, who provides this account, happens upon the party on a Friday night in November. He knows someone who knows someone, and is admitted under one condition: No pictures.
He spots actress Jessica Biel.
Timberlake, her boyfriend and the party’s host, occasionally scratches out rhythms on the turntable.
Now, like his friend Ayala, Timberlake is turning 30.
Timberlake’s birthday is Monday. He’s now lived half his life away from Memphis.
But an informal survey of his hometown connections shows that through enterprise, generosity and deep roots, Timberlake is an economic and musical force here.
The pop star has poured perhaps $20 million or more into creating Mirimichi golf course, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Memphis music.
And Timberlake is a forward-driving influence on the music of the city that gave birth to Sun Studio and Stax Records, according to leading chroniclers, promoters and curators of the Memphis sound.
Beyond Mirimichi, Timberlake still nurtures physical connections with Memphis.
Should the day come when guides lead Timberlake tours, places deep in Shelby Forest, like the old General Store and E.E. Jeter Elementary, would be points of interest.
Timberlake’s seminal Memphis experience predates his adolescent ascent in Orlando through the Mickey Mouse Club and boy band *NSYNC.
Before that, he wowed audiences on the Jeter Elementary stage.
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Long before he appeared in teen mags and tabloids, Timberlake’s name surfaced in The Commercial Appeal:
At age 9, advancing to the finals of the Mid-South Fair Junior Youth Talent Contest.
At 11, recording a demo tape at Ardent Studios, singing country at the local Al Chymia Shrine and being one of two chosen from 500 who auditioned at Oak Court Mall to compete in the nationally televised “Star Search.”
At 14, misspelling “wharf” to finish in mid-pack in the Memphis/Shelby County Spelling Bee.
“Justin, a straight-A sixth-grader at E. E. Jeter Elementary School in Shelby Forest, has received an excused absence from classes to be in Orlando Nov. 9 to tape the first show,” says a tiny 1992 article about the “Star Search” audition.
Writer Robert Gordon hears the spirit of Stax and Sun in Timberlake’s mature music.
“You get that Memphis energy in there and you get that Memphis feel,” says Gordon, whose 1995 book, “It Came From Memphis,” chronicles Memphis musicians and eccentrics less well-known than Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Timberlake’s hometown visits radiate from the edge of Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. His parents and grandparents live there in an un-gated subdivision that’s like a park itself, with rolling hills, towering trees and a lake that meanders among houses.
Timberlake’s Memphis presence, through his projects and contributions, is constant and growing.
Even his words evoke his childhood home.
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Doug Ammons, who bought the Shelby Forest General Store with his wife, Kristin, eight years ago, recalls the first time Timberlake came in.
“He gave it this,” Ammons says, swiveling his head to show how the celebrity assessed who was in the store.
“He slides down (the wall), gets a drink out of the box. That told me he’d probably rather not be noticed.”
The General Store may be to Timberlake what the Arcade Restaurant in Downtown Memphis was to Elvis.
The 80-year-old country classic is practically across Benjestown Road from Timberlake’s grade school, Jeter Elementary, and the closest spot to his parents’ home to grab milk or a hamburger.
Like Memphis music, the store’s authenticity may be as good for Timberlake as Timberlake is for the store.
During the 2009 Grammy Awards broadcast, Timberlake performed with Memphis soul great Al Green, who also lives in Shelby Forest.
Introducing Green to the TV audience, Timberlake said, “I’d hear reports that Al Green was just down at the General Store. Which, by the way, in case you don’t know, is called the ‘General Store’ because it’s pretty general. Bait. Tackle. Burgers.”
The next day, Ammons’ phone nearly overheated.
Timberlake has used the store to shoot ads for his and Ayala’s William Rast fashion line. He told Barbara Walters the General Store has the best hamburgers. A Japanese version of the “Today Show” even shot video there in preparation for Timberlake’s guest appearance.
Fans from all over the world drop in because of Timberlake, Ammons says.
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As regional director for the Tennessee Golf Foundation, Jimmy Darr knows great golf courses.
After playing Mirimichi, he says, “Without question, it’s the best public golf course in the state of Tennessee.”
That lofty assessment considers others in the pantheon, including the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ross Creek Landing at Clifton and The Tennessean in Paris.
Mirimichi’s national stature will only grow after a few more annual rankings by publications like Golf Digest, Darr says.
The United States Golf Association and Mirimichi already are in discussions about the course hosting the prestigious U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, he says.
Timberlake has spared little expense transforming the old Big Creek Golf Course he bought in 2007 for $800,000. Golf Digest reported in 2008 that “Timberlake & Co.” was spending $16 million to remake the 303 acres.
After being open six months in 2009, the course was closed most of 2010 for additional improvements. Darr estimates the total investment in Mirimichi now exceeds $20 million.
The cost to play — $71 on weekends and $59 weekdays — is high compared to typical Memphis daily fee courses. But Darr sees the fee as a “deep discount” considering the quality. In larger markets, the charge could easily be $100 to $200, he says.
Mirimichi aspires to be a travel-destination course.
“As generous and wonderful as this gesture is by Justin to make this course available at an affordable rate,” Darr says, “they know they are going to have to draw from a broader base than just the immediate Memphis area to meet business projections.”
The plans to build a 43,000-square-foot clubhouse that will also house Justin Timberlake Enterprises could make Mirimichi the closest thing to Justin’s Graceland.
Out-of-town golfers in RVs or rented cabins already have discovered nearby Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park.
“In the next five to 10 years, we’ll have a significant business because of (Mirimichi),” park manager Steve Smith says.
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David Porter, Isaac Hayes’ songwriting partner at Stax, says Memphis infuses Timberlake’s music.
“He never left Memphis. He just went to where the opportunities were. That’s what you call smart. ... He capitalized on it and he turned around and showed love to where he’s from by doing these things he’s done.”
Referring to Timberlake’s 2007 pop-R&B hit “What Goes Around Comes Around,” Porter says: “That’s Memphis through and through.”
Robert Gordon says Timberlake has figured out what it means to be a Memphis music artist.
“And (he) has embraced that and put his own spin on it,” Gordon says.
“Which is exactly what each (Memphis) star before him did. Built on what was here. Didn’t replicate it, but make it their own and something new.”
Beale Street and city officials tried for years to persuade Timberlake to get involved with the city-owned entertainment district, and maybe open a club there.
But Beale’s developer, John Elkington, says, “Anytime you get the government involved, it makes it much more difficult, much more a public thing.”
Still, Timberlake has made his presence felt on Beale. He performed at the New Daisy, owned a small interest in B.B. King’s Blues Club, and even lured a “Good Morning America” broadcast to Beale by agreeing to perform there.
Beyond Beale, Timberlake and his parents have supported Memphis music with money and effort.
His foundation gave $100,000 to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum two years ago. The museum uses the money for its educational programs and to give tours to impoverished schoolchildren, executive director John Doyle says.
Timberlake’s mother, Lynn Harless, has served on the museum’s board four years.
Timberlake is Memphis Music Foundation’s largest individual donor. He gave $100,000 to the organization, which uses the money to provide free resources to local musicians, president Dean Deyo says.
Timberlake’s mother and stepfather, Paul Harless, have served on the Music Foundation’s boards of governors and advisers.
The star even gave Jeter Elementary $47,000 and nearby Woodstock Middle $3,000 for their music programs.
The Memphis Music Foundation sees Timberlake as a poster boy, an example for other Memphis musicians.
“When the next one comes out, we want them to be just like Justin,” Deyo says. “Remember their hometown.’’
Timberlake helps give Memphis music a future, Elkington says. It’s dangerous when too much talk about Memphis music is in the past tense. “Eventually, you want to have someone in the present,’’ he says.
“That brand we have in Memphis, he is continuing it on. Any involvement you get get (from him) should be encouraged. It puts flesh on the brand.”
— Tom Bailey Jr.: 529-2388