I was about the age of my daughters, somewhere between kindergarten and the first years of elementary school, when my brother introduced me to rock ‘n’ roll through the music of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. It has stayed with me ever since but at the time I did not know where its root were — to me, it was music from England.
Later on, while expanding my musical horizons I became more and more aware that the rock music I was attracted to was the one with passion but also with soul, with vocals that were probably more influenced by the traditions of African American music than those of Italian belcanto — and that is how I ended up singing in a rock band as well as a gospel choir. Over time, of course, the musical categories ceased to matter — what mattered was that the music touched my heart and inspired my soul. But it is critical that we know our history, and it is crucial that we know the history of the music that moves us.
Last night I went to see “Memphis — The Musical” performed marvelously by an extremely talented tour company, visiting the Kennedy Center until July 1st. It touched my heart and inspired my soul, and I would think, everybody in the full audience would agree. It was an outstanding show!
The story centers around a white young man attracted to the music of people much darker than him who puts that music on the radio as an up and coming DJ. It is also a love story taking place in Memphis, TN, in the 1950s when the kiss of a mixed couple could end up with broken windows, broken bones, and broken dreams. That is, unless “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails“. It is also the story of how rock ‘n’ roll was born — the love child of black rhythm ‘n’ blues and white country music.
The music of “Memphis” is by David Bryan, Bon Jovi’s keyboard player. The book is by Joe DiPietro. The stars of the show, Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell, were both understudies when on Broadway and were truly outstanding at the Kennedy Center. Felicia as Felicia, to quote the JMI show “can hit notes that don’t exist”. Bryan as Huey provides the yang to Felicia’s yin, the white to her black, the country to her blues. In a certain way, his voice cannot compare with hers but I am also glad that he is not trying to be black, though at the story line at some point he thinks he is more black than she is but there is context for everything. As Felicia contemplates an opportunity to go big, to go to New York, she reflects with Huey that he can be white any time he wants but her chance is just this one. It is a chance that of course breaks the love story of a couple which had endured the racist scorn of its town but could not accomodate the growing career aspirations of two dramatically different yet talented people. The world changes and sometimes we do too but often we don’t. Against the advice of those “smarter than him” Huey chooses to stay in Memphis, because as he says, “Memphis Stays In Me”:
I listened to advice from folks smarter than me,
And I ignored it.
I listened to hatred from folks richer than me,
And I deplored it.
I listened to music from folks darker than me,
And you know I adored it!
Huey is in touch with his soul, and that is what matters, what informs his choices. There is the emptiness of a love lost but also the fullness of being true to oneself. And only a person who is whole can convincingly inspire us to never let anyone “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll”:
Listen to your soul
Heed it, heed it
Ya need it, ya need it
Let it make/let it make you whole!
And if you listen to the beat
And hear what’s in your soul-
You’ll never let anyone/ never let anyone/
Never let anyone steal your rock ‘n roll!
In the beginning, it was a story of an argument — about whose music R’n'B is; and in the end, it is a story of unity — of the two lovers overlooking the confines of their race, of the passionate yet harmonized notes of R’n'R, of the talented performers and their inspired audience.
In the end, the music which stirs, inspires and unites us is ours — whether we are from New Jersey, Tennessee, or Bulgaria — and nobody can steal it from us!