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Blue Breezes From the Delta : RYTHM OIL: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, By Stanley Booth (Pantheon: $23; 254 pp.)

March 08, 1992|Nick Tosches | Tosches is the author of "Country," "Hellfire," "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll" and award-winning novel "Cut Numbers." His latest book, "Dino," will be published this spring by Doubleday

William Faulkner of Oxford, Miss., saw it, heard it, wrote it: "Against the wall squatting a blind negro beggar with a guitar and a wire frame holding a mouth organ to his lips patterned the background of smells and sounds with a plaintive reiteration of rich monotonous chords, rhythmic as a mathematical formula but without music."

Faulkner was writing in 1927. What he was writing about--the Delta blues--had developed around Dockery's Plantation, in Sunflower County, Miss., some 75 miles, as the crow flies, to the southwest of him. The progenitor and patriarch of the Delta bluesmen, Charley Patton of Dockery's was born in the late 1880s, a decade before Faulkner. Both men, each in his way, later wrested masterpieces from the great Mississippi flood of 1927: Patton with "High Water Everywhere," Faulkner with "The Wild Palms."

It was during that year, the year of Faulkner's blind, rich-chording beggar, the year of the flood, that the first country-blues recordings were made. The urbane, jazzy blues of singers such as Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and others had been selling since 1920, when Mamie Smith recorded "That Thing Called Love" in New York; but it was not until 1927 that Americans far from the Delta were able to hear what Faulkner heard, what the likes of Charley Patton wrought.

The heart of Stanley Booth's "Rythm Oil" (the title comes from a brand of potion sold on Beale Street in Memphis) is the spirit of that music and its legacy. Though Booth roams far and wide here--from Beale Street during its heyday to James Brown's release from prison in 1991, from Delta-blues legends to rockabilly casualties, from Elvis in 1967 to Keith Richards in 1988--the warm, haunted breezes of the Delta pervade throughout.

Stanley Booth came from Georgia to Memphis as a teen-ager in 1959 and lived there 25 years. He knows his territory well. As "a professional journalist, something I'd never wanted to be," he has produced some of the most gracefully written, thoughtful and thought-stirring musings on the characters--the famous and the forgotten, the infamous and the unknown--who command the kingdom or drift through the shadowland of the South's rich-chorded patrimony.

Booth's eye is one to be reckoned with, as important here as his ear. There are few idle observations. Details are rife with possibilities and perceptions. "At Myrtle Street, near the end of Beale," he writes, wandering the ghost town of modern Memphis, "you can throw a half-empty beer bottle through the window of 706 Union Avenue, where Sam Phillips made the first recordings of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and Howling Wolf, and chances are no one will even see you. It is a short walk across Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to the University of Tennessee medical school, where many people from Beale Street have been dismantled by students, to be buried in three-foot boxes. They don't get many Beale Street cadavers now, because most people from Beale Street are dead or gone, or both."

As B. B. King breakfasts on Johnny Walker Red and tells of listening during his Delta childhood to records by Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Gene Autry, Booth notices the titles on King's bookshelf: "High School Subjects Self-Taught," "Female Sexual Anatomy," "Whitfield's Universal Rhyming Dictionary," "The Key to Winning at Dice," "The Function of the Orgasm."

Booth asks Keith Richards about the deep necrotic scars in his deltoid muscles. Keith explains that instead of shooting heroin into his veins, having plenty to shoot, he had taken to shooting it into his muscles: "I thought, They're just bruises, they'll go away in a week--and I still got 'em." On the trail of the late pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., Booth spies a clinical record stating that Newborn "expressed the belief that he and Jesus Christ were related in a direct fashion and said he was married only once: to his mother. There was only one child: himself." James Brown, drooling and foaming at the mouth, pulls a gun on a little boy who asks him for his autograph in an Atlanta parking lot not long before his recent imprisonment.

Only a few of the 20 chapters in "Rythm Oil" have not appeared previously as magazine pieces. Booth's landmark Elvis article, "A Hound Dog to the Manor Born," published in Esquire in early 1968 when Presley's commercial and mythic stock were at their lowest, is here reprinted as "Situation Report: Elvis in Memphis, 1967," with its original, uncensored, and previously unprinted introductory passage restored.

"Blues for the Red Man," another Booth classic, recounts the life and death of Charlie Freeman, the Memphis musician whom a Synanon therapist described as "a Mozart of self-destruction." Freeman, who survived life on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis, and other misadventures, only to end his deathward symphony, on the road again, at age 31, had the distinction of having Sam the Sham of "Woolly Bully" fame deliver the closing prayer at his funeral.

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