The Memphis Chapter Is Full Of Soul At 40

Shadowing a robust history that includes the King, Sun Records, Stax Records, and Beale Street, The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter celebrates 40 years as a local community touchstone
  • Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
    Elvis Presley
  • Photo: Courtesy of the Memphis Chapter
    (Seated) Producer Willie Mitchell, Jim Stewart, Sam Phillips, David Porter and (standing) BMI’s Charlie Feldman, Jon Hornyak, Knox Phillips, and renowned session guitarist Roland Janes convene in Memphis circa 1992
  • Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
    Johnny Cash
  • Photo: Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
    Sam Phillips
  • Photo: John Shearer/WireImage.com
    Al Bell
  • Photo: Greg Campbell/WireImage.com
    David Porter
  • Photo: David Reed/Redferns
    Jim Stewart
  • Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage.com
    Jody Stephens
  • Photo: Greg Campbell/WireImage.com
    Jon Hornyak
  • Photo: Mike Brown/Getty Images
    Knox Phillips
June 28, 2013 -- 9:28 am PDT
By Larry Nager / GRAMMY.com

(Editor's Note: Founded in 1973, The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. In the coming weeks, GRAMMY.com will publish a special content series paying tribute to the Chapter and the surrounding region's rich musical legacy, which encompasses the deepest roots of American music and the birthplaces of blues, jazz, ragtime, Cajun, zydeco, and rock and roll. The Chapter will host a 40th anniversary celebration featuring musical performances on July 13.)

When The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter was formed 40 years ago, gas was 30 cents a gallon and folks everywhere were filling up and heading to West Tennessee. The Home of the Blues and Elvis Presley was thriving as a fertile, diverse musical hotbed.

Mid-South blues Kings B.B. and Albert were reigning as mentors to rock gods such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. Chips Moman's American Sound Studios was helping bring Elvis back to the charts with recordings such as 1969's From Elvis In Memphis. Johnny Cash, who scored hits for Sun Records, was country's biggest star. Memphis was unchallenged as Soulsville, USA, with Stax, Hi and smaller labels such as Goldwax churning out future classics. Stax expanded Memphis' reach to include Richard Pryor's comedy recordings and Big Star's modern rock offerings.

Memphis was at a commercial and artistic peak in the early '70s as efforts to form a Recording Academy Chapter heated up. The challenge, recalls producer/engineer/studio owner Knox Phillips, was organizing a fiercely independent scene that included the likes of his father, Sun Records head Sam Phillips, Stax Records President Al Bell and songwriter/producer/session musician Jim Dickinson.

"Everybody sort of had their own agenda. There really wasn't much of a spirit of cooperation," says Knox Phillips. "There were people like Chips [Moman] who didn't even want his people to work for any other studio."

Bell says the city had an inferiority complex. "People thought [a Memphis Chapter] was a good idea, but they didn't think it was possible, because the general attitude was, 'We're just little old Memphis, Tennessee.'"

But timing is everything. Knox Phillips represented the Nashville Chapter on The Recording Academy's Board of Trustees and in 1973 Nashville landed the ultimate prize: the 15th Annual GRAMMY Awards telecast, which took place March 3, 1973, at the Tennessee Theatre. This marked the first and (thus far) only time Music's Biggest Night strayed from the coasts. The eyes of the world were on Tennessee.

Phillips and fellow Trustee Mike Post played a key role in The Recording Academy adding a sixth chapter in Memphis (which was competing with Detroit, Miami and Toronto, according to Phillips). "Mike Post made the motion for Memphis and the Trustees approved that," says Phillips, who later represented the Memphis Chapter as a Trustee. "I felt pretty good, but there was a lot of work to do."

Phillips, Stax Records' Jim Stewart and local attorney Harold Streibich lobbied relentlessly. Memphis' heritage — including "Father of the Blues" W.C. Handy, WDIA-AM, Beale Street, and Sun Records — proved formidable. And as Stax and Hi continued to yield hits, Memphis tipped the scales as both a hallowed ground and industry powerhouse. "It was the credibility of Stax Records that created the logical step for that to happen," says David Porter, former Memphis Chapter President and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee.

"Most of all, I wanted Memphis music to be recognized for its creative spirit," says Phillips. "That was the thing that was going to allow Memphis music to continue even in the hard times."

Just landing the Chapter was a huge boost, Bell remembers. "It said to us we were being recognized by the recorded music industry. We didn't think we measured up. But when we got a Chapter it was, 'Oh my God!' And it's been, 'Oh my God!' ever since."

Despite success stories such as Ardent Studios hosting recordings by ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin and other notable acts, the '70s saw a shrinking of the Memphis music industry and the Chapter attempted to find its footing. The '80s saw another shift, as major labels rediscovered Memphis with numerous signings of local artists such as Jimmy Davis, Jimi Jamison, Rob Jungklas, Tora Tora, and Xavion. Under Dean Richard Ranta, the University of Memphis expanded its music industry curriculum and Ranta later served as Chapter President and an Academy Trustee.

Everything changed in the '90s, as Academy Chapters morphed from stand-alone entities to one singular not-for-profit entity under The Recording Academy, each with allocated funding. In 1995 the Memphis Chapter opened offices on Beale Street, hired staff and began producing events tailored for members and the community at large.

Jon Hornyak became the first full-time Memphis Chapter Executive Director in 1994 and began producing an expanded Premier Players Awards, an event honoring regional luminaries. Recently, the Chapter has focused on offering members educational and professional guidance initiatives under the GRAMMY GPS banner.

A Missouri native, musician and entrepreneur, Hornyak came to The Academy with a diverse background as the owner of a recording studio and sound and lighting companies, and experience managing artists and serving as founding executive director for the Crossroads Music Conference.

"Jon Hornyak has been priceless," says Bell, who received a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2011. "He could relate to the musicians. He could relate to the city. He could relate to all of us, and it's still that way today."

Native Memphian, Big Star drummer and Ardent Studios Manager Jody Stephens has seen the Chapter's evolution from the beginning.

"It's become even more vital to musicians. It's been a real catalyst for bringing all sorts of people together," says Stephens, who is a former Academy Trustee.

As the Chapter has continued to evolve, Hornyak says the biggest change has been an increased effort to service and engage the entire region.

"Knox Phillips talked about getting Memphis a seat at the table and one of my contributions has been getting the region a seat at the table and bringing Recording Academy events, programs and community service to Louisiana, Mississippi and St. Louis and getting people involved on our Board as elected leaders and Trustees," he says.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Memphis Chapter stepped in as part of the MusiCares Hurricane Relief Effort, with Member Services Production Manager Reid Wick coordinating efforts in New Orleans. Both cities realized they were better united. "It's really from around that time that the regional aspect of the Chapter began to take shape," says Hornyak, who is now the Chapter's Senior Executive Director.

Hornyak sees the Memphis Chapter's mission today as a delicate balance between "paying tribute to the musical heritage of this area, while trying to pay attention to the present and the future. There is no future unless we learn from the past, but unless we have a vital future, the past won't be relevant. We need to connect the past, present and the future in a significant way."

(Larry Nager is a Nashville-based writer, musician and documentary filmmaker. A proud former Memphian, he is the author of Memphis Beat (St. Martin's Press) and the writer and co-producer of the film Bill Monroe: Father Of Bluegrass Music. He has been a member of the Memphis Chapter for more than 25 years.)