“Memphis,” Dewey Phillips and rockin’ radio

Dewey Phillips As most Broadway-watchers already know, “Memphis” won the Tony Award for best musical on Sunday night, and took home three other awards as well. This writer has not seen the show, which opened in October to decidedly mixed reviews. But its book, which spins the tale of fictitious Bluff City DJ Huey Calhoun’s introduction of “race music” to the city’s white teens, has been roundly criticized in some quarters for taking liberties with the saga of real-life Memphis jock Dewey Phillips, after whom Calhoun is modeled.

Well before Alan Freed was tearing it up on the airwaves in Cleveland, Phillips (pictured at right) was holding forth on WHBQ in Memphis, spinning primordial R&B from the station’s studio on the “magazine level” (read: mezzanine) of the Chisca Hotel downtown.

The legendary wild man — who was the first to play Elvis Presley’s music on the air — is the subject of “Dewey and Elvis,” a fine biography by radio historian Louis Cantor (you can read a chapter on the Amazon link); his vintage broadcasts can be heard on the album “Red Hot and Blue,” released a few years back on Memphis Archives.

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