First Amendment rocks Memphis

Friday, October 15, 1999

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sam Phillips remembers being waist-deep in promotions for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957 when a Detroit-based record distributor called to express worries about the title of the piano rocker’s song, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

Phillips, founder of the legendary Sun Records here, said the distributor was worried about what people might think was “shakin’.” He said he refused to delete the word “it” from the “shake it, baby” refrain, believing that the song would get radio airplay without modification. The uncensored record became the third-best-selling song in the country in September 1957.

Phillips said nothing was raised as objectionable about another classic, “Great Balls of Fire.”
“But you see how you’re wont to make connotations out of something when you want to get rid of it in the first place?” he said.

The man credited with unleashing Elvis Presley upon an unsuspecting world got used to vestiges of censorship but never liked it.

“Censorship is the most dangerous thing that God has ever let live or exist on this world,” Phillips told an audience of more than 300 journalists gathered yesterday for the 1999 Associated Press Managing Editors National Convention in Memphis’ Peabody Hotel. “Because when you start messing with
the creative energies of people, you don’t have much left in this world.”

For a conference program, “Elvis, Music Censorship and the First Amendment,” The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center gathered Phillips, Sir Mack Rice of the Falcons and writer of “Mustang Sally,” John Kay of the seminal rock band Steppenwolf and singer-songwriter Jill Sobule.

Charles Overby, chairman and CEO of The Freedom Forum, said a program on music censorship — including a raucous Steppenwolf performance — was just the thing to get the editors thinking about what keeps them free to publish.

“The freedom of the press is not highly regarded somewhat because it is viewed as a special-interest piece of legislation,” Overby said. “One of the reasons that’s the case is that people in the newspaper business tend to care about freedom of the press and either don’t care or don’t know or don’t understand the other four freedoms.”

In a recent survey on music censorship, the First Amendment Center found that 54% of Americans polled agreed that musicians should be allowed to sing songs with words that others might find offensive. The poll revealed that 62% agreed that radio stations should be allowed to play songs of a political nature.

But the approval numbers drop significantly when stations play music with themes of violence, drugs or sex. The survey found that 75% of those polled disagreed that stations should be allowed to play songs with violent lyrics, while 81% disagreed about songs about drugs and 68% disagreed about sexually suggestive songs.

The questions were part of a larger survey on the State of the First Amendment that the center released in July.

For yesterday’s program, the First Amendment Center took advantage of Memphis’ blues and rock-’n’-roll history and used one of the city’s favorite sons — Elvis Presley — as a vantage point from which to discuss music censorship.

“When he emerged out of this city, he frightened a lot of people and when he went to places like Jacksonville (Fla.) — they said you can sing but you can’t move,” said Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center and moderator of the program. “And that was a classic example of prior restraint of government.”

Paulson noted that it was an Elvis appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — one where producers refused to allow cameras to film the rocker below his waist — that gave many young Americans of the time their first taste of censorship.

Sir Mack Rice remembered such concerns while the Falcons were touring in the 1950s with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, performers of the oft-censored tune, “Work With Me, Annie.”

“We were in Alabama and the authorities said, ‘We’re going to let you Midnighters sing, but we don’t want no dancing,’ ” said Rice, who said the bands didn’t object then because they wanted first and foremost to sing.

For Jill Sobule, censorship came as her very first single, the 1995 hit “I Kissed a Girl,” struggled to find airplay in some markets because of its lesbian theme.

“The positive thing was, if there hadn’t been that controversy, the censorship, I wouldn’t have sold as many records as I did,” said Sobule, noted for songs of social commentary.

For the program, Sobule played and sang a song she had penned only hours earlier with Nashville musician Bill Lloyd about New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his opposition to the hotly debated “Sensations” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s called “Call Rudy.”

“Call Rudy if your art’s a little queer, call Rudy, election year is near,” Sobule sang. “Don’t call the Whitney, don’t call the Met, don’t call MOMA, lest you forget. You can be a sensation on every news station, lines round the block to see your degradation. It’s your duty, call Rudy.”

Steppenwolf’s John Kay also drew applause after he related a story where authorities in Winston-Salem, N.C., stifled the band’s efforts to play “The Pusher,” an anti-drug song banned for the line “God damn the pusher man.”

Although the band promised not to sing the line, at Kay’s urging thousands of fans at the
concert shouted out the chorus themselves.

As a refugee from post-war Germany, Kay said he learned at a young age the effects of censorship.

“My growing up in East Germany after World War II made me keenly aware of how wrong things can go when oppression sets in and no one speaks up,” said Kay, who then played a solo version of “The Pusher” and later joined his bandmates for “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.”

For Phillips, the program held in the Peabody Hotel’s Skyway marked a sort of return to roots. Before Elvis ever walked through the doors of Sun Studios, Phillips said he spent a half dozen years in the late 1940s and early 1950s engineering broadcasts of big bands for the hotel’s rooftop venue.

But something stirred the soul, he said, tempting him to find a sound that represented his poor upbringing in Alabama.

“My only aim was to stay in the business until I could prove, right or wrong, that we needed to be blazing some new trails,” Phillips said. “I didn’t do it to change the world. I just wanted the world to know some of the things that I was seeing, feeling and hearing even though there wasn’t any noise going on.”

Looking back on more than five decades of music, Phillips smiled as a man who knows he’s right.

“Music has done more to break down areas of censorship, racism, international understanding,” he said. “More than all of the damn ambassadors put together, and I mean around the world!”