All through the night there were stories and memories, the testimony of family friends and colleagues, but more than anything there were songs, as the Memphis Music Hall of Fame inaugurated its second annual class during ceremonies Downtown Thursday night.
This year’s 13 honorees — inducted in front of a packed house at the Gibson Showcase Lounge — included Americana icon Johnny Cash, Stax Queen Carla Thomas, blues guitar giant Albert King, and studio wizard Roland Janes. Other Stax notables the Bar-Kays and songwriter/producer David Porter were included, along with folk musician Sid Selvidge, legendary combo the Memphis Jug Band, jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., gospel vocal group The Blackwood Brothers, spiritual singer and composer Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, early ’50s pop hit-maker Kay Starr, and music impresario Knox Phillips.
Compared to last year’s inaugural ceremony held at the Cannon Center, this second edition boasted a more intimate and electric atmosphere as scores of Memphis music icons, local celebrities like former Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins, and dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen were among those in attendance.
The program began with remarks by John Doyle, head of the Smithsonian-connected Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which has spearheaded the Hall of Fame initiative
The music and awards officially kicked off with rousing gospel performance honoring the late Rev. Brewster. The East Trigg Baptist Church choir was led by Brewster’s great-granddaughter. Kentosha Brewster Evans.
That was soon followed by another nod to Memphis’ spiritual music legacy, with the induction of the long running Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Accepting on behalf of the group, second generation member Billy Blackwood noted that the quartet would be celebrating its 80th anniversary next year. Blackwood added that it was fitting for the group to be included among so many disparate types of artists. “Music, in all its forms, pays glory to God,” said Blackwood.
Sun and Phillips studio legend Roland Janes, who died just last month, was given a pair of honors; in addition to his induction into the Hall of Fame, his family was also presented with a Brass Note on Beale. “If Roland were here today, he’d say this was nonsense,” said his widow, Betty Janes, amid much laughter. “It’s true. He didn’t feel he did anything special. But he loved music, the music business and most of all music people.”
Steve Selvidge and the Sons of Mudboy — augmented by veterans of the Stax and Hi house bands — paid tribute to his father the folk singer Sid Selvidge, who also died earlier this year, with a powerful electric reading of “Boll Weevil.”
Music industry heavyweight Jimmy Jam came to introduce and present Stax songwriting great David Porter with his award for helping pen many of the tunes that would become the soundtrack of Memphis soul. “The Voice” star Kris Thomas performed a pair of Porter songs: “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.”
When her name was announced, reclusive Stax veteran Carla Thomas took the stage to a standing ovation. Then, backed by the estimable Hi Rhythm Section, proceeded to duet with her younger sister Vaneese on her classic 1960 hit “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”. The song ended with Carla engaging in some call and response with sax player Lannie McMillan before leaving the stage triumphantly.
Others receiving recognitions included influential Memphis Jug Band, pop songstress Kay Starr, and Sun scion Knox Phillips, who — along with the other hall of famers — were the subjects of informative biographical videos that introduced them.
R&B survivors the Bar-Kays — introduced by New Orleans rapper Master P — were hailed by the audience, before performing their signature “Soul Finger.” Stax bluesman Albert King was given a commanding vocal tribute by Paul Rodgers, the British born frontman of Free and Bad Company. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash was paid homage by R&B man Bobby Rush, who performed “I Walk the Line.”
In the end, it was an evening rich in history and shared connections, one — which as John Doyle noted proudly at the outset of ceremony — could only be possible in Memphis.