After years of talk and planning, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame becomes a reality next week, as its inaugural class is inducted during an event on Thursday at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
The Hall of Fame initiative, part of the Smithsonian-connected Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, was launched with an event last month at Downtown venue The Warehouse announcing a class of 25 Hall-of-Famers. The group includes Bluff City icons like W.C. Handy, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Al Green; lesser-known figures like jazz saxophonist George Coleman, gospel songwriter Lucie Campbell, and Booker T. Washington high school bandmaster W.T. McDaniel, and many others.
For Rock 'n' Soul executive director John Doyle, it was imperative to make the induction ceremony an inclusive event. "We wanted to keep the ticket prices low, in order for the public to be able come out," says Doyle, noting that seats are available for as little as $30. "A lot of what we want to do with the Hall of Fame is about education, both through the website and the gallery, but a lot of it is about paying tribute and really giving credit to the musicians who put Memphis on a global map. And we want the public to share in that."
Thursday's ceremony is being produced by Willy Bearden. Best known for his documentary films on Memphis institutions like Overton Park and Elmwood Cemetery, Bearden also is a longtime event producer, having done work for the local Grammy chapter as well having helmed the Blues Music Awards for the past 15 years.
Rather than a traditional award ceremony heavy on acceptance speeches, Bearden is developing a thematic show that will tie in the lives of the honorees with the larger story of Memphis music.
He's tapped a house band that will be led by noted saxophonist Jim Spake, and organizers expect as many as 10 musical guests to perform. Among those slated to play are Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductee Bobby "Blue" Bland, and many second-generation acts who will honor those who have passed.
Luther Dickinson will pay tribute to his late father, Jim Dickinson; Dexter and Otis Redding III will play for Stax icon Otis Redding; while Vaneese and Marvell Thomas will celebrate the inimitable Rufus Thomas. In between the music, a group of storytellers will touch on the careers of the honorees through words and a series of video mini-documentaries. "We're going to talk about the lives and careers of these inductees, and show how it makes Memphis unique," Bearden says.
For Doyle, the idea of an unconventional induction ceremony was essential to the launch. "That was part of our idea from the outset," he says. "We wanted to pay tribute to these folks — not just have it be a cattle call. This is their night, and so it's up to us to put together a production worthy of them. We really wanted to have it be a show both for the audience and for the inductees."
The rest of this year's class includes the expected anchors of labels like Sun Records (Sam Phillips, Presley, Lewis), Stax Records (founders Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes) and Hi Records (Green, producer Willie Mitchell).
A group of artists from outside Memphis who were integral to the city's legacy — Redding, the Staples Singers and ZZ Top — will also be inducted.
Following last month's announcement, there has been some hand-wringing over who was included and who was left out, but far less than organizers and originally anticipated. "We knew that when we chose this inaugural group that it would never be perfect in everybody's mind," Doyle says. "To be able to peg everybody who is deserving and leave no one out would be an impossible task. But it does seem like the nominating committee did a stellar job in the eyes of the public."
Among the notable names missing from this year's class are Johnny Cash, Chips Moman, the Memphis Horns and The Bar-Kays. Doyle agrees, and notes that the organization plans to add more names — with 10 to 15 additional inductees each year for the next several years, with a rough goal of 300 Hall of Fame members. "We see this as part of a process, a long tribute to Memphis' greatest musical icons," Doyle says.
The plan is for the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which will administer, fund, and house the Hall of Fame, to have a physical gallery in the museum by mid-2013. But Doyle adds that the work will continue beyond that, with talk of expanding to a standalone location for the hall, as well as online and interactive initiatives.
"We won't be done for decades to come with this," he says. "This is the just the beginning."
Memphis Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
7 p.m. Thursday at the Cannon Center for Performing Arts, 255 N. Main. Tickets: $30, $50 and $100; available at all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000. For more information, go to memphisrocknsoul.org.
Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart
Bobby “Blue” Bland
Booker T. and The MG’s
Jerry Lee Lewis
Professor W.T. McDaniel
The Staple Singers
Three 6 Mafia
Nat D. Williams