Past/Present/Future: The Hotel Chisca

“That building you were just takin’ pictures of … that was the Hotel Chisca. Ol’ Dewey Phillips used to broadcast from there.”

The man, who walked with a cane, came up beside me on Main Street and offered this information. I loved that he said “ol’ Dewey Phillips”, which seemed to imply a personal relationship, a sense of ownership, which of course anyone who remembers Memphis back in the day would have. “Ol’ Dewey Phillips” was a DJ in Memphis, whose broadcast style has to be heard to be believed (you can hear some of his stylings on Youtube). He would shriek and holler, and misprounounce sponsor’s names on purpose, jabber along at ninety miles an hour, talk over the records he was playing (you can hear him clapping and murmuring in some of the clips) and, in general, give Memphis a really good show. His show was called “Red Hot and Blue” and it was on every night from 10 to midnight.

Radio, like everything else, was segregated. There was a black-run radio station in town as well, with black DJs (some very famous names: Rufus Thomas was one of them), but Dewey Phillips, on his show, crossed the color line. He was partly responsible for white kids becoming aware of the vibrancy and awesomeness of black music, happening right in their home town. Dewey Phillips would play Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters, and he also had a close relationship with Sam Phillips (no relation), who would feed him the singles he was putting out down the road at Sun Records. Sam Phillips was no dummy. Although he was devoted to recording the black musicians he admired so much in Memphis and the surrounding areas, he always had the dream of reaching a white (ie: mainstream) audience. He was looking to cross over. Not just because the whites were a more lucrative market, although I’m sure that was part of it. But because he had a messianic belief that whites and blacks could come together, through music. That America was ready to start blending, dammit. Politically perhaps not, socially perhaps not, but artistically? Sam Phillips felt that that day had come.

Elvis and Dewey, Memphis, 1956

I said to the man with the cane, staring up at the big red Hotel Chisca, covered in ghost signs, and totally derelict: “I know! Where did Dewey Phillips broadcast from?”

The grizzled guy, wearing a baseball hat, pointed to the upper floors. “On the mezzanine. Ol’ Dewey called it the Magazine Floor.”

“Amazing,” I said. “Did you used to listen to him?”

“Oh, hell yes. Every night. Memphis was alive back then. There were whorehouses and casinos over on Beale. I work over there now. Beale is now run by the city. That’s why you see so many cops. They tried to turn the place around.”

I stared up at the upper floors of the Hotel Chisca. There were broken windows and wooden boards covering some of the jagged spaces.

“Are they going to renovate the building, you think?” I asked.

“Yeah, there’s some such plans afoot, I guess. The place is a damn eyesore.”

“I think it’s kind of beautiful.”

He went silent, staring up at the giant derelict building, maybe trying to see it through my outsider eyes. Memphis is embarrassed by the Hotel Chisca. It is so dangerous, pieces falling off the roof and the sides, that the entire sidewalk has to be barricaded off around it. It is abandoned, filled with empty space and rats. Right in the middle of downtown Memphis.

Property values have dropped all around that area, because of the Hotel Chisca. You can’t get away from it. It’s enormous and it dominates the landscape. It’s right across the street from the Orpheum Theatre, which still has touring companies of Broadway shows, and a full schedule of productions that draws tourists from all over the place. Memphis feels badly that these tourists come to their city and have to see, right there in front of them, a giant abandoned building. Civic leaders and city leaders have been calling for either a renovation or a demolition for a long time. Because of the hotel’s history, because of the connection to “ol’ Dewey Phillips”, and therefore, to Elvis, the Hotel Chisca could certainly be a draw for tourists as well. It sure was a draw for me. It was one of the places I wanted to see when I first came to Memphis.

It stands right on Main Street, and behind it is a cavernous parking lot. The Hotel Chisca, unlike the Peabody, was not a hotel catering to the elite. It was an affordable downtown spot for middle-class folks who were looking for a place to stay, part of the democratization of America and American travel. Families could stay there affordably. I would love to get a look at the inside, although right now it is probably horrifying and dangerous. There are no windows along the first floor. There are no windows at all, actually – everything boarded up.

But back in the day, every teenager in town knew that ol’ Dewey Phillips was up there, night after night, on the Magazine, playing music that thrilled them.

On July 5, 1954, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley recorded a song at Sun Records called “That’s All Right.” Sam Phillips had put together the teenage hopeful with two more experienced musicians, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, to see if they could come up with something. During a long and not-fruitful evening of experimenting, Elvis, messing around to let off steam, started singing “That’s All Right”, an old blues song by Arthur Crudup. Phillips later expressed amazement that Elvis, a white boy who had come into Sun Records a year earlier to record two songs for his mother (two quavery ballads), even had heard of Arthur Crudup. He was on the other side of the color line. Elvis was basically fooling around on July 5 with “That’s All Right”, but Phillips knew he had something, and got the trio on tape. They only did three takes. So what happened in that studio is what was recorded. There was no monkeying with controls, no post-editing, that was not what Sam Phillips was about, and also not what recording was about in those days. It was about capturing the feel of the room, between the guys in that room, and Sun Records was genius at that.

Sam Phillips gave the acetate of “That’s All Right” to Dewey Phillips. They listened to it together. Dewey was intrigued. “That’s All Right” doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s a rhythm and blues song, with a country feel, tinged with black gospel, sung by a rocking white boy.

Three days later, on July 8, 1954, ol’ Dewey Phillips played the record on “Red Hot & Blue”. The station was inundated with phone calls from teenagers, screaming, “WHO IS THAT?” “PLAY IT AGAIN.” “PLAY IT AGAIN.” Teenagers who lived close by started convening around the Hotel Chisca, wanting to get close to the Magazine Floor, wanting to get close to this new sound, this new voice. Dewey Phillips, overwhelmed, played “That’s All Right” 17 times in a row, or something like that. Nobody wanted to hear anything else. Now that’s extraordinary. How many recordings can one say that about? One song, one recording, making everything else pale in comparison, immediately. No wonder Elvis had a sneaking suspicion that he had been Chosen, by some Divine Being. Because who else does such a thing happen to?

Sam Phillips had told Elvis that Dewey Phillips would be playing his song that night. Elvis told his parents. They were all excited. Elvis was so nervous that he went to the movies, and basically hid in the darkness of the theatre, knowing that his song was being played, at that moment. But he couldn’t sit around and listen to it. He just couldn’t. That’s a very illuminating moment, something that says a lot about who Elvis was. While his Christian upbringing and his poverty-stricken past had given him a basis of humility being required of him, he had enough ambition to light up the entire world. That had to be a little bit uncomfortable, a little out of sync with his class, his status, and his overall character. You certainly can’t be arrogant. That would be forbidden. God is always watching. God forgives you and loves you but the only thing He needs of you is to be humble, and try to do your best. How do you reconcile that, which was quite serious to Elvis, with the desire to rise above and claim a spotlight and demand the attention of the world? How can those two things coexist? Elvis would struggle with that for his entire life, and that July evening in 1954, when he was still anonymous (but those days were numbered) he could not reconcile those two things. He could not sit with his parents and listen to himself on the radio. It was too much for him. He wanted it, whatever it was, too badly. (Plenty of people have talent. Plenty of people have ambition. To be an Elvis Presley, you flat out just have to want it more than anyone else does.) His ambition for himself, out of sync with the expectations he had grown up with (get a good job, get married, be good to people, live a good life), was so enormous that he had to keep it secret. It was not a secret to himself. He was dressing like a black blues singer in high school. The boy permed his hair, for God’s sake. This was not a person devoted to fitting in. By the same token, he was shy, he stuttered, and he was a God-fearing Christian boy with a nice Christian girlfriend at the time named Dixie Locke. He was devoted to her. (She happened to be on vacation with her family during this period, which, again, I don’t think was an accident. She came back to Memphis to absolute mayhem. Her boyfriend was a local star – overnight.) As far as Dixie Locke knew, he maybe wanted to be part of a white gospel quartet, along the lines of local stars The Blackwood Brothers. He had auditioned for a quartet. They turned him down. She knew he loved music. But what was going on inside his heart, when he bust out with “That’s All Right” on July 5, 1954, was closed to her. Besides, how could you say to someone, “I want to take over the whole world”? I believe Elvis always knew where he wanted to go. I believe he saw it before anyone else did. It’s the only explanation that satisfies me.

So of course Elvis hid in the movie theatre. Probably biting his nails. Probably not concentrating at what was going on up on the screen. In 1965, Elvis told The Saturday Evening Post, “I thought people would laugh at me. Some did, and some are still laughing, I guess.”

Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose at the Hotel Chisca. Dewey Phillips was being inundated with phone calls and telegrams, demanding to know who that singer was. He made an emergency phone call to the Presley household, where Vernon, Gladys and Vernon’s mom, Minnie, were huddled around the radio, listening in amazement as their boy’s song was played over and over and over again. Gladys answered the phone and Dewey told her to get their son over to the Hotel Chisca immediately, he wanted to interview him. Panicked, Gladys and Vernon hurried to the movie theatre to find Elvis. Gladys went down one aisle on a search, Vernon went down another, and they pulled Elvis out, and brought him to the Hotel Chisca. Elvis was terrified.

Dewey sat him down, told him he wanted to interview him. Elvis said he had no idea how to be interviewed, and Dewey told him it would be fine, “Just don’t say nothing dirty.” Dewey turned the mike on, without Elvis knowing, and they started talking. Dewey knew that there was some race confusion going on amidst the mayhem. Dewey was known for playing “race music”, and it wasn’t immediately apparent that Elvis was white. The name, too, was strange. It could be a black name. Dewey was conscious of all of that. He asked Elvis where he went to high school, and Elvis said Humes High. Later, Dewey said, “I wanted to get that out, because a lot of people listening had thought he was colored.” Humes was a white high school. Elvis stuttered and stammered his way through the answers to Dewey’s questions and said at one point, “Aren’t you gone to interview me?” and Dewey said, “The mike’s been open the whole time.” Terror, fear, chaos.

The interview was over. The revolution had begun. Elvis couldn’t have known that, as he walked outside the Hotel Chisca, around midnight, and wandered the streets for a bit before heading home. How could he know? But he certainly knew that something had happened. He had always wanted to be ahead of the pack, although this was something he never would have expressed. But there is no other reason that he would dress in pink suits in high school and walk around with his guitar, playing for people. You can’t be a genius only in your own mind. You need to be recognized. You need to be pointed out, highlighted, brought forth.

Elvis’ first taste of what was to come happened at the Hotel Chisca on July 8, 1954.

On July 30, 1954, less than a month later, he played his first big show at the Overton Park Shell. He had played on a flatbed truck in a parking lot a week or so before, and had attracted a huge crowd, people who had been listening to “That’s All Right” on the radio. But July 30 was his real debut. He and Scotty and Bill only knew two songs. Vernon and Gladys and Dixie went to the show together. Elvis had a nervous breakdown beforehand (described by Sam Phillips), standing on the steps in the back of the shell, stuttering out his nerves to Sam, who reassured him he was going to be great (although Sam had no idea if that was actually going to be the case). Elvis trembled his way through his two numbers, and to let off some of that steam, he bounced around and jiggled his left leg, and the girls clustered around in the audience lost their ever-loving minds, shocking Dixie who stared up at her boyfriend wondering: “What on earth is happening??”

Elvis still had his day job at Crown Electric, but that wouldn’t last long. By the end of 1954, he had a contract with the Louisiana Hayride, and he was on his way.

It all started at the Hotel Chisca.

You cannot get away from the building, if you are in the downtown area. It is tall. It is bright red. It peeks over other buildings, it is insistent and domineering. A sad relic. But perhaps it is not yet over. Anyone who knows the history of Memphis or the history of Elvis knows well the story I just told. It’s moved into legend. It’s a story people tell time and time again. It exaggerates in the telling.

Along the chain-link fence barricading it off on Main Street is an art exhibit, done by the students at a local Catholic elementary school. Big banners hang along the fence. The name of the exhibit is MEMPHIS MUSIC ICONS. These are little kids. They clearly had done their research, bless the teacher who walked them through it. These kids were probably born after 9/11. And look at the stuff they came up with. Look at how awesome they are.

(I love how Elvis apparently sang “Stand By Me”. Who knew.)

Like I said, Memphis is brave enough to remember.

The ghost of ol’ Dewey Phillips still wanders those halls, I’m thinking. Perhaps the Hotel Chisca will rise again.

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9 Responses to Past/Present/Future: The Hotel Chisca

  1. Kate says:

    Did he say, “I got a morphine shot in me and I can’t see very good here.” Ha! Love the art exhibit and that the children are absorbing their local roots. I’m a “river rat” myself – from St. Louis and have loved seeing the mighty Mississipp. Memphis and St. Louis remind me of one another and I love your insights into these slightly blighted ole towns. I’m crazy for old pictures of Elvis, mostly because my son looks JUST like him as a boy. Thanks Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Kate – The Mississippi River just blows me away. I was down on the shore and was really struck by how strong the current was. Impressive!!

      and yes, the school’s art exhibit was adorable and emotional! I love to see the continuity of memory.

  2. Noel Shine says:

    Aesthetically, the Hotel Chisca does not appear to have much going for it. It would appear its Fate is doomed, regardless of its immense value as a piece of Americana. That America places little value on this aspect of what little cultural heritage it has is astounding to me as an outsider. One would have thought that the commercial imperative alone, vis-a-vis its potential for tourism would have been motivation enough for conserving this and other buildings of cultural significance. America’s domination of popular culture, in terms of both quality and output is without parallel. For better or for ill tourists from within and without expect to see or experience this aspect of Americana in the landscape and townscapes. This heritage is as legitimate and perhaps more immediate than a thousand crusty old European museums, indulged in as they are by neither stranger or worshipper. Long live the Chisca and thanks for your insight.

  3. sheila says:

    // That America places little value on this aspect of what little cultural heritage it has is astounding to me as an outsider. //

    What are you talking about?

    The rest of Memphis is a veritable museum to its cultural heritage – you cannot walk 5 feet without tripping over a plaque, a museum, a statue, a park in someone’s memory, or any number of other memorials. It gets so bad that there’s a plaque on the side of a building on Front St that says: “In 1897 on this very spot, nothing happened.”

    The Hotel Chisca (which I think is beautiful) has slipped thru the cracks, for obvious reasons when you know its history of ownership (its currently owned by a church) and the hard times Memphis has gone thru financially in the last 20 years. They had other priorities and much of the downtown area is vacant – lots of empty storefronts and For Lease signs (but this is true not only in most city downtown areas, but also in most of the developed world at this time. Times are hard.)

    But to make a broad sweeping statement like yours – especially in light of my last post – which is also true – about Memphis’ dedication to remembering – is baffling.

  4. Noel Shine says:

    A delicate balance has to be found between conserving structures of historic or aesthetic appeal and regeneration, (socio-economic factors notwithstanding). This does not necessitate “beautifying” the urban landscape or turning vast tracts of downtown areas into thematic tourist traps, but it should not include tolerance of neglect either. By necessity each generation creates and then destroys its own history. What remains or lasts is a reflection on how we value ourselves and the environment we choose to live in. I pray the city fathers of Memphis have the vision to strike the right balance. That you are pleased with their efforts to “remember” is reassuring. Alas, I have heard the contradictory view about the place and it is not edifying. This is no reflection on Memphians themselves about whom I have only heard the most glowing reports. I will only be satisfied when I have had the Memphis experience myself. At the end of the day each one’s experience of a place and a people is entirely subjective. It is informed as much by what baggage we bring to it as well as by its souvenirs.

  5. Clementine Moriarty says:

    Sheila…..I was stunned by this ode’ to the “Chicsa Hotel” …..though late…. finding it! The story has been embedded in my feeble brain…..for years. You have a way….along with your pictures and words of making the story…..personal.
    Yes, the lady above is correct about the resemblence of Memphis to St. Louis……especially the “german built red brick edifices all around parts of town….now crumbling with age… and the mighty Mississippi…..flowing past the Arch!
    Elvis, famously…….. got lost in downtown St. Louis, trying to get to a bridge to take him over to Illinois for a date to sing, late one evening. He pulled over, frustrated with the maze of one-way streets …………causing the problem, decided to sleep and awoke the next morning and apparently found his way out with help from his buddys!
    Yes, I too, am a St. Louisan!
    Sheila……loved you journeys through “Elvis Country”! TYVM!

    • sheila says:

      Clementine – I don’t know that story about Elvis getting lost in St. Louis – too funny. Yes, I must get to St. Louis!

      Thank you so much for reading my posts!!

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