Book Review: Phases and Stages
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Feb. 1, 2002
The Memphis Blues Againby Ernest C. Withers; Daniel Wolf
Viking Studio, 175pp., $35
Ernest C. Withers, 80, probably doesn't shoot live music on Memphis' famed Beale Street strip as much as he'd like, but when he did, beginning in the late Forties and continuing through the Seventies, his photos bore the stamp of history. W.C. Handy, Beale Street benefactor, glowing atop a parade limo, 1955. Ruth Brown, all 200% woman of her. Smilin' Louis Jordan and his dad. Johnny Ace's piano ambivalence. A knowing look from Lowell Fulson. A young B.B. King with his arm around Brother Ray. Little Willie John. Elvis -- young, still innocent Elvis. And talk about young, Frankie Lymon looking like he's at an elementary school dance. Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Ivory Joe Hunter. Sam Cooke, pure stud, with a young, coltish Aretha Franklin in hot pants, Lorraine Motel 1961. Ike Turner with a hard look on Tina, who's busy givin' it up. A vulnerable Carla Thomas. A sharecropper's son turned big-city hustler, Al Green, set opposite a portrait of his partner Willie Mitchell. Shocking: STAX as abandoned, run-down theatre. Roadshow trophy shots like Ellington, Gillespie, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Charley Pride. Tennessee's music capital not only birthed Sun Studio, Elvis Presley, and STAX, it was one of the black entertainment centers of the South way before Rufus Thomas started spreading good cheer. It's also where Rev. Martin Luther King was martyred; Withers' shot of the Staple Singers looking down from that motel railing give chills. That the photographer's next pictograph might do well to be a civil rights account says as much about Withers as it does Memphis, which was staunchly segregated, meaning if you were black you shot black. Withers' circumstances are music history's gain. All 148 pix, in glorious back and white, bound and awaiting a coffeetable near you. A 148,000-word tome on The Memphis Blues Again.