Memphis in the Meantime
The Bluff City of the ‘70s and ‘80s, seen through the nocturnal lens of Pat Rainer
By Bob Mehr
Reading time 19 Minutes
The faces in Pat Rainer’s photos are familiar
The faces in Pat Rainer’s photos are familiar. They are among the heroes and icons of Memphis music: Al Green, Willie Mitchell, Sam Phillips, Alex Chilton. But these images capture Memphis’ music royalty not in their triumphant moments and glories of the '50s and '60s. Rather, Rainer's camera captures them in the strange, somewhat dissolute years of the ‘70s and ‘80s – the bust that followed Memphis music’s boom.
By the late 1970s, the state of Memphis music was in disarray. After a 20-year explosion of creativity and success – which birthed Sun Records, the American Sound Studio hit machine, and the soul perfection of Stax and Hi Records – the local scene had sunk into a dark depression following a series of label bankruptcies, studio closures, the death of Elvis Presley, and an overwhelming feeling that the city’s best days were behind it.
To look around Memphis in 1978 or 1979 was to see Beale Street boarded up, the famed Peabody Hotel closed, and city leaders considering tearing down cultural landmarks like the Orpheum Theater and Overton Park Shell.
“It was hard back then for musicians, hard for them to make a living, make a record, get anything going,” Rainer recalled. “As a local community, we all huddled together and supported each other.”
A Memphis native, Rainer has a long personal connection to Memphis music history. She was just 14 when she first heard the Beatles. “And the whole world changed for me then,” she said. “I sent a telegram to England asking to start a fan club in the U.S. for them. They told me that they’d already set something up, but I could have a chapter in Memphis.” A couple years later, when the Fab Four arrived in the Bluff City, Rainer was there, along with city officials, to present them a key to the city.
But Rainer soon found a new passion in the local garage rock scene that came in the Beatles’ wake. “I discovered the wealth of local talent in Memphis and started going out to hear bands every weekend. The Gentrys really became the focus of my attention. I became the president of their fan club and kicked the Beatles to the curb,” said Rainer, laughing. “The Gentrys were always fun to go hang out with and listen to and they were in my hometown. It was a lot better than a band from frickin’ England.”
Rainer attended Memphis State, but by the early ‘70s she had dropped out to work at the famed Poplar Tunes record store. “I couldn’t find anything I was interested in studying – well, other than music. So working in a record store made a lot more sense. I got the education of a lifetime working at (Poplar) Tunes.”
Further informal education came after she connected with the sage Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson, for whom she served as an assistant. “I met Dickinson and became like his student. I felt he was the greatest teacher ever. I’d rather be in a studio with him learning than a classroom.” Through Dickinson, she would fall in with the city’s artistic demimonde, a group that included noted photographer William Eggleston, visual artist/provocateur Randall Lyon, pop star-turned-punk Alex Chilton, and the roots-trash rock collective Tav Falco and Panther Burns.
Rainer did eventually return to Memphis State to complete her studies, “when I found out they had a radio/tv/film department. Around that time, they started making black and white [Sony] video Portapaks available.” Rainer began using the video camera and shooting still photos of numerous sessions around town at Phillips Recording and Royal studios.
“That transitioned into me being a fly on the wall on a lot of recording sessions,” said Rainer. “I really felt it was a mission for me, or maybe just something that needed to be done, in terms of capturing just what the heck was going on in Memphis – in the studios and the clubs -- at that time.”
Rainer eventually got a darkroom set up at Phillips Recording and was soon tagging along with writers Robert Palmer and Peter Guralnick, taking photos for their books and articles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times. But, beyond a handful of images that were published, most of Rainer’s photos – thousands of them, taken over a decade -- would never be seen.
Her negatives were placed in storage after she moved to California in the late 1980s, where she became, and remains, a successful travel agent. Finally, in 2018, Rainer’s work was given its first public presentation, as the Stax Museum of American Soul hosted an exhibit of her work.
Here, byNWR offers an exclusive collection of Rainer’s other, previously unseen images. These are the products of her nocturnal studies: photos of cult figures like The Cramps, Panther Burns, Charlie Feathers, Johnny Woods and others who haunted the studios and stages of late-70s Memphis after dark.
“If you were an artist living in Memphis them, it was a little like the wild west,” said Rainer. “We were just trying to survive and somehow we managed. Seeing these pictures again and having them tell a little bit of the story of that time is really amazing thing for me.”
Rainer was particularly close with the late Alex Chilton. A former pop star with ‘60s blue-eyed soul band The Box Tops, Chilton led the ill-fated cult band Big Star in the ‘70s before embracing punk and trash rock and launching his solo career with 1979’s deconstructionist masterpiece Like Flies on Sherbert.
Pat Rainer: “When Alex decided he was going to embark on this project I was with him there a lot. He was hanging out my house a lot and listening to records. He was getting over the disappointment of Big Star not going anywhere. He recorded [Flies] at Phillips, then moved to Ardent to do overdubs. I was doing some engineering and between that taking pictures. These pictures are from Ardent – that plaid sofa is in their Studio B. The other picture of him…well, it looks like he’s passed out but I don’t think he was actually asleep. He may have been listening to the playback.”
The muse for Big Star’s famous Third album, Lesa Aldridge was also a founding member of Memphis femme-punks The Klitz, and the cousin and sometime subject of photographer William Eggleston.
Rainer: “This is at my house in Memphis, a gang of us were over one night. Randall Lyon, he liked working with things he called ‘found art’ or ‘yard art.’ We drove around and found this old TV and sofa. And Randall threw a brick through the TV and pulled the guts out of it, ‘cause it looked cool. Then I drove my car into the yard with my headlights on to light it. It was just us messing around while we were loaded I’m sure.”
Rainer: “This was when Alex Chilton was producing the Cramps. I was hanging out, shooting photos. I enjoyed watching Alex being the producer. The Cramps being in Memphis, in the South at that time… I’ve heard people say the way they looked they stopped traffic. But Memphis in the 70s…it was already a weird, wild place, so I think they actually fit in pretty good. They seemed normal. But live and in performance the Cramps were anything but normal. They were really fun.”
BILLY LEE RILEY
Billy Lee Riley was a shouda-been star at Sun Records, beloved by rockabilly fans for wild ‘50s sides like “Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll.” By the ‘70s, Riley had quit performing and moved back to his native Arkansas to work construction. But in 1978, amid the rockabilly revival, he was on the comeback trail. Rainer photographed him cutting at Sam Phillips Recording for Rolling Stone magazine.
Rainer: “[Rock critic] Bob Palmer came down from New York to write a story about Billy Lee and this was the picture that accompanied the piece. Riley might have had a reputation for hard to handle, but he was really a sweet easygoing guy, who was always true to himself and his music.”
J.M. VAN EATON & CHARLIE FEATHERS
Rainer: “Sam Phillips’ son Knox Phillips was recording Paul Burlison [of The Rock and Roll Trio] and a bunch of the rockabilly guys. That’s J.M. Van Eaton, the Sun drummer – who played with Jerry Lee Lewis and bunch of other folks -- on the left, and Charlie Feathers on the right. All those guys were so jazzed to be in the studio and that people were paying attention to them again. For them, it was like a big party.”
ROCK ‘N’ ROLA
Rainer: “That’s the Coke machine at the Phillips Recording Service. Knox produced some albums on that band the Amazing Rhythm Aces. Their pedal steel player, Barry ‘Byrd’ Burton, was an artist too. One day he asked if he could take the glass where the Coca Cola sign was. He took it home and changed it around and brought it back. That was down at the studio for years.”
JIM DICKINSON & CYBIL SHEPHERD
In the late-‘70s, Memphis-bred actress Cybil Shepherd came home to make a jazz album at Phillips Studio. Producer Jim Dickinson – whose resume included the Rolling Stones and Big Star – was spearheading the project.
Rainer: “Cybil wanted to make a jazz record and might have reached out to Jim through her brother. It was just a stroke of genius, because Jim assembled the most amazing array of musicians with Fred Ford and Phineas Newborn and all of these fantastic horn players. Jesus Christ! It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, all those musicians together. I don’t why she’s covering her ears in this photo. I thought it was fascinating project. She told me her approach to making this record was like an actress playing a part – and she was playing the part of the singer. I thought she did pretty well honestly.”
PANTHER BURNS AT THE WELL
Rainer: “This is a bar called The Well that later became the famous [Memphis rock venue] the Antenna Club. When it was The Well it was just a dive bar. It was run by a guy, he was a drunk, but he let us come in there and do pretty much what we wanted. The Panther Burns, which featured Tav Falco, and for a time Alex [Chilton], played there quite a bit. I think for this photo we lit them to to get this effect, but they were always something to look at.”
Rainer: “This is Danny Graflund, they called him Drive-In Danny. Danny was Alex’s bodyguard during a lot of the Big Star days. One night Panther Burns played at the Well and the motorcycle was on stage. Not sure why, probably Tav had set it up -- he was all about weird stage props.”
PATRONS AT THE WELL
“This is Kay King at a Panther Burns show. She was just a wild child. She had a clothing store in Midtown Memphis called Chelsea Limited, that catered to the rock and roll crowd, musicians and hipsters and whatnot. She was killed in a tragic car accident a few years after this. She was out walking her dog and got hit by a car and died, a few years after this. The other photo, that’s Amy Gassner, wearing the ‘cha cha’ button, she was in The Klitz, Memphis’ first all-girl punk band.”
The great Southern author and Rolling Stones confidante Stanley Booth. This photo was taken around the time of the 1981 court case of Dr. George Nichopoulos, aka Dr. Nick, Elvis’ longtime physician. Nichopoulos was on trial for “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously dispensing by prescription quantities of drugs to himself, Presley, members of his entourage, and the singer Jerry Lee Lewis, in amounts far in excess of acceptable medical standards.”
Rainer: “Stanley, myself and Rose Phillips and Peter Arnett from CNN went to Dr. Nick’s trial every day. Stanley ended up writing a piece about it. After the day’s proceedings in court we would go back to Stanley house and decompress.”
MABON “TEENIE” HODGES
Teenie Hodges was one of soul music’s greatest guitarists and songwriters, the anchor of the Hi Rhythm section and co-author of many of Al Green’s biggest hits.
Rainer: “That’s at a studio called B.R. Toad, run by this guy named Barry Shankman. He had bought all the equipment from the bankrupted Stax studio. He leased a warehouse space by the airport, and built a studio inside. He had it sprayed with stuff to soundproof it and it created the most ridiculous hot and humid atmosphere in the summer. He tried to make a few records there – and did make one on Teenie called Soul Serenade. This is during those sessions.”
Rainer stands at the gates of Graceland as mourners line up to view Elvis Presley’s remains.
Rainer: “The day after Elvis’ death they let people go in the house and view the body They put him in his casket with the lid up right there in Graceland. And you could go through and take a look. That was the craziest scene I have ever experienced. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that crazy anywhere ever. Think about it! It was August in Memphis, it was hot as blue blazes, and there were people in line all down Elvis Presley Boulevard as far as you could see. Cops were standing on the top of the gates at Graceland with bullhorns, telling people not to push, not to shove. People would pass out and ambulances would come in and they’d load people on stretchers and haul them off. It was insane!”
Bob Mehr is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.