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In the late 1940s an unassuming young man, straight out of the military, made a move from his hometown Adamsville, TN, to Memphis. The kid with an effervescent southern draw and an in-your-face personality, would almost overnight become the iconoclast of the music world. His keen ear, coupled with his fascination and adoration of what was known as “race music” would change the face of radio and the demographic of listeners forever.
Dewey Phillips, born in Crump, TN, and moved to Adamsville with his family as a young child. He would move as a teen to the bluff city, and his future would be set as the “Daddy-O” of the Rock n Roll Revolution. The face of radio would soon be forever changed and the invisible division of the black and white communities would begin to disappear.
W.T. Grants 5 and Dime store on Main would be the springboard for this larger than life personality to begin his love affair with music. Starting as a salesman in the newly formed record department, Dewey quickly pushed to the top producer spot as he turned his shift into a dance club for area youth, the largest market group for the music industry. Phillips would play albums in the stock of Grants and if he approved, the young audience would agree. He was known to scratch stop any he didn’t particularly care for, and give a metaphor laden discussion as to his dislikes of it. He was just as verbal with the ones he loved. Dewey was well known for talking over the tracks giving his colorful approval through the loud speaker in an almost hybrid, English slang that was unwittingly his and seemed to translate to the youth like their new vernacular. Many of his sayings were quickly adopted and have shaped the era slang, which would be one more way he would solidify his legacy.
Dewey met the love of his life, Dorothy (Dot), while still at Grants, and she was the absolute polar opposite of him. No one else would ever complete him as she did, as she let him take the spotlight, while she preferred the support role (so much so, it is impossible to find a photo online of her). Dot would prove her love for him over his lifetime, in conventional and non-conventional ways.
During his radio spots, the ability to reach the audience from a place of familiarity was impossible to ignore. He would make mistakes, but follow up with a comically self-deprecating, third person, “Oh yeah, Phillips, you’re doing it again…” and the audience found it an endearing change from the run of the mill standard, faked perfection available elsewhere. From “Tell ‘em Phillips sentcha,” his Dewey-ese tagline used at the end of every promo spot which took off to become iconic enough to attract the then governor of Tennessee, Gordon Browning to mutter, to “De gawww!” which had no meaning, but the entire young population of listeners would use it every opportunity that arose once hearing; Dewey set the landscape for late 40s early 50s pop culture. The man was a promotional wild fire for not only early era music, but for everything he endorsed.
In 1949, the radio personalities were known for impeccable dialect and utterance, with practiced scripts and ‘acceptable’ music. Then comes Dewey with his rough around the edges, programmed chaos of Red, White and Blue playing the best music coming out of Memphis, with "Race music” by young black artists perfecting their craft on Beale to the delight of young radio listeners. Memphis musician, Jim Dickinson spoke of his years as a fan of Dewey while a student at White Station High School. “There’d be as many people in the parking lot listening to Dewey as there were inside the dance,” Dickinson recalls. When Dewey had obtained "Long Tall Sally" by Little Richard, he played it multiple times in a row, and the kids piled outside to see how many times, beating the boring dance out. He ended up playing it 10 times, and no other disc jockey of the day would ever dare. This was his charm, and the reason he could lure the youth to listen. He was just like them, and he could relate to them on a level no other could.
He attracted the who’s who of early Memphis music like a moth to a flame. Phillips would pair up with Sam Phillips (Sun Records) to create one of the most endearing friendships known to man. Phillips recognized the gift Dewey had for talent recognition and knowing what the audience wants to hear. He would give Dewey first run of all his artists including Elvis. Sam discovered Presley, but it was Dewey who would promote him, grow him and make him the early Memphis icon he was. B.B. King, Fats Domino, Hank Williams, Les Paul, Patti Page, Natalie Wood, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Ivory Joe Hunter and so many more would pop in during a show and chat with Dewey on-air. While the elected officials of the City of Memphis, would fight for segregation and separation, Dewey would be bucking the system and planting seeds to desegregate and unite. His affect was far more social and historical than merely a progressive disc jockey. He was a world changer.
While rumors spread of a Phillips and Phillips payola sandal, it appeared to be more than likely two best friends, creating an empire and boosting each other through cooperative participation. ‘Payola’ was the act of paying for plays which through a scandal involving Deejay Alan Freed, ultimately ending his career, prompting the FCC to tighten its rules and make it illegal. This despite it still existing to this day as the seedy underbelly of the entertainment industry. During the time Sam and Dewey began their friendship, it didn’t even exist. The compensation was through mutual success feeding off of one another.
As with most seemingly supernatural beings, Dewey had demons which eventually consumed him and destroyed his career. Alcohol, addictions, and mental instability in his later life would end his marriage to Dot, and lead to an early demise. He suffered chronic pain after two car accidents leaving him with a left leg injury, and leading to a pain pill addiction. The first of the accidents which was surrounded by controversy led to the death of two women. One a passenger in his vehicle, a 19 year old named Doris Petty, and some would say was the result of his drinking problem and infidelity. Even through the obvious issues becoming apparent, the producers made arrangements to allow for the show to be live broadcast from his hospital bed and then his home while in recovery.
His behavior began to be a danger to his children, forcing Dot to take them and leave. His manic on air personality took over, and everyone who loved him watched him circle the drain. The music industry had used him up, and once there was nothing left, they discarded him. Elvis, Cash (who considered Dewey a close friend and attributed his career success to him), Dot and many others tell heartbreaking stories of having to express tough love Dewey in his later years. As Jim Dickinson put it, “(Dewey) died of a broken heart. And this man had one of the biggest hearts you have ever seen.” Sam Phillips remained a loyal friend, as did Elvis who would send money to Dot and the children even after his death.
Years later, as we see the result of the years Dewey Phillips was on-air, and the seeds he planted for change grow into the hip hop industry being the fastest growing in the industry, one is left to hope he is looking down on the world he helped create and finally forgiving himself.
Dewey "Daddy-O" Phillips, WHBQ Hosting Red, White and Blue
Cantor, Louis, Dewey and Elvis, The Life and Times of a Rock 'N' Roll Deejay, University of Illinois Press, 2005