Knox Phillips recalls the night his father, the late Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, pushed Elvis Presley onto the stage of the Overton Park Shell for his first professional concert appearance in 1954.
“No one knew what Elvis would do. Sam wasn’t sure. He didn’t know if he would go out there and do nothing and flop,” Phillips, 9 at the time, said from his home in Eads. “He told Elvis, ‘Go out there and be yourself no matter what that self might be.’”
Elvis, for the record, did not flop that night. And now almost 60 years later, non-musician but talent spotter Knox Phillips will walk onto that same stage Saturday to be inducted into the Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame.
The 40th anniversary celebration of the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy at the Levitt Shell will include performances by Stax legends William Bell, Marvell Thomas and Vaneese Thomas, Memphis soul great Percy Wiggins with the Bo-Keys, Memphis gospel Grammy nominee Sheri Jones-Moffett, the Hi Rhythm Section, rapper Al Kapone, Jimmy Davis, Amy LaVere, Susan Marshall and the Memphis Dawls.
Phillips was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the organization behind the Grammy Awards here in the first place. Appointed in 1971 as a trustee of the Academy, then known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Phillips began lobbying for the organization, then made up of five regional chapters, to make Memphis its sixth.
When the Academy finally granted the city a chapter in 1973, Phillips was instrumental in keeping it afloat in its early days, paying membership dues for musicians who couldn’t afford it.
“I just knew that Memphis had to have a voice in the music mainstream,” he says. “It was very difficult to organize Memphis musicians. Memphis maverick, independent creativity is a lot of hard (individuals) to get together for a board meeting.”
When the Memphis chapter was founded, the city’s music scene was riding the success of Stax and Hi Records and bands like ZZ Top who were coming here regularly to record. Before the decade was out, however, the city’s status in the national music industry would start to decline.
Jon Hornyak, executive director of the local chapter since 1994, argues that things would have been worse without the Academy’s presence here.
“Thanks to the Recording Academy, we still have a seat at the table,” he says. “The record industry slowly went away, but there was a lot of other things going on. There’s still a scene here. Studios are still operating.”
Today, Memphis is one of two “virtual” Academy chapters (the other is Washington), operating without a physical building. The move has freed up money that would have gone to rent and utilities to be directed toward programming, including the annual Grammy GPS music business seminar. The extra money comes in handy as the chapter finds its mission expanded to include representing artists in a region that covers a huge swath of territory, including New Orleans and St. Louis.
“It started when Knox and others were starting the chapter, and they reached out to the Jackson, Miss., scene to get enough members to start a chapter,” Hornyak says. “And in the ’80s it was Danny Jones, when he was president, who really recruited New Orleans, getting Allen Toussaint and the Neville Brothers and Irma Thomas involved.”
It took the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when many of the Academy’s efforts on behalf of New Orleans musicians were coordinated out of Memphis, to bring the regional concept of the chapter into focus.
“It really brought us together in a significant way,” Hornyak says. “We all realized we were stronger together. When you connect Memphis and Louisiana and Mississippi, Arkansas and St. Louis — this region that is huge in American music — and make it as one, it gives us a much more solid seat at the table.”
That regional focus will be on display Saturday night with performances by Mississippi’s Shannon McNally and the North Mississippi All-Stars as well as the Louisiana duo of Roddie Romero and Eric Adcock and New Orleans’ Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, who will also be making a post-Shell appearance at Newby’s with Memphis’ Mighty Souls Brass Band.
For Phillips, the passion for Memphis and music that led him to push for the chapter in the first place all comes down to a few blocks in Downtown Memphis. It was Beale Street that first drew his father to Memphis from Alabama in 1945 shortly before Knox was born. He recalls in his youth walking down the street with Sam Phillips on one side and legendary rock deejay Dewey Phillips (no relation) on the other.
“He would tell me, ‘Knox, it was the most exciting place I have ever been,’” Phillips says. “And now to have my own music note on Beale Street, it is something I could never have fathomed.”
Recording Academy Memphis Chapter 40th Anniversary
7 p.m. Saturday, Levitt Shell, Overton Park. Free. Visit levittshell.org.