Memphis-man Robert lives up to description of ‘people of the book’

IN his new book, Robert Gordon declares that his native Memphis “likes the unquantifiable”. Nashville, New York and Los Angeles, he writes, “promise stardom”.

Robert states in Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown (Bloomsbury): “Had Elvis gone there, he might have enjoyed minor success as the lame-ass Perry Como imitator he thought he was supposed to be.”

Luckily for Robert, the Tennessee city has been essential to American music as the home of the Blues, the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and a soul music capital.

In Memphis Rent Party, he recounts his early teenage years, meeting people like Blues legend Furry Lewis.

“My parents raised my brother and I on a broad palate of information, which included the arts,” the writer, producer and director told me from his Memphis home.

“I essentially got into music through our African-American housekeeper. An early lightning strike was during a Rolling Stones concert when they brought Furry Lewis on to the stage.

“It made me realise that Blues musicians were alive in our town and that we were the home of the Blues.”

The 57-year-old found himself hanging out at Lewis’ duplex with him.

“I was raised in a Jewish neighbourhood of Memphis with a lot of amenities,” Robert said. “Hanging out with Furry was my first experience of a really impoverished environment.

“Those experiences with him made me realise that I had made assumptions about the way people lived. It was through Furry that I began to question that and all the privileges I had.”

It was only when Robert’s first book, It Came From Memphis, was published that his parents told him they were unaware of what he had been up to.

“They said to me, ‘wow, we didn’t know you were doing all that’,” Robert laughed. “But I am not sure what they did and didn’t know.”

His new book, which has an accompanying soundtrack, also tells of fellow Memphis resident, Elvis Presley.

Robert, raised by a New York-born mother and a father from Virginia, who were both grandchildren of eastern European Jewish immigrants, recalled: “My friend’s father was director of the Jewish community centre.

“Elvis used to play racquetball at the JCC after hours and they had good courts. One night, my pal invited me up to watch.

“It was when Elvis was in a decline, not so popular with kids like me, and also when it seemed like he would be around forever.

“I declined — and I’ve regretted that ever since.”

He did go on to pen two books about Presley, though — Elvis: The King of the Road: Elvis On Tour, 1954-1977 and The Elvis Treasures.

Robert read English at the University of Pennsylvania and spent a year at the University of Texas at Austin’s Film School before being asked by the Centre for Southern Folklore to edit a film, All Day and All Night: Memories From Beale Street Musicians.

“I was more than happy to leave behind the academic environment.” he said. “I wound up with a directing credit because I had to do some shooting and the film ended up being broadcast nationally on PBS.”

Robert returned to Memphis in 1989 to edit the film — and has stayed there ever since.

He was offered magazine assignments and wrote about the multiple artist who were trying to make their name in the city.

That led to his first book, which he describe as being about “weirdos, winos and midgets who really created rock ‘n’ roll”.

Involvement in Blues and the music of Memphis was not a sole African-American achievement, either.

Apart from Robert, there was also Leonard Lubin, a pharmacist who managed the Blues band Prince Gabe and the Millionaires, and Teenie Hodges, who wrote many of Al Green’s hits.

Several Jews were also related to Stax Records, the famed record label based in Memphis and home to the likes of Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

In 2013, Robert wrote a book about Stax called Respect Yourself, as well as making a film of the same name.

The book was optioned by Paramount Pictures, but as that option has now expired, he is in discussions with other studios about picking it up.

“It could be a film or series, as it is such a great age for TV and streaming services — there is a real appetite for long-form stories,” Robert said.

Robert, who also penned Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters and won a 2010 Grammy award for his essay in the Big Star CD boxset Keep An Eye On the Sky, is an award-winning filmmaker, too.

“One of the things I dislike about making films is the incredible difficulty there is in raising money,” he added.

“I have spent untold hours on projects which could never be made because people didn’t want to risk the money.

“It is, obviously, more expensive to make a documentary film than to write a book.

“With Stax, I wrote a book on it after I was done with the documentary, because we had only been able to skim the surface of our interviews. There was so much more rich information which I wanted to share.”

The hugely-influential band Big Star are also from Memphis. They are less commercially known, but have inspired a generation of musicians including REM and Teenage Fanclub.

Robert said: “I got into them when they were relatively unknown and to witness their growth was a thrill.

“Their music is so deserving and, in a way, it makes you think of that saying about if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

“The answer for me is that their delayed success makes an affirmative ‘yes’.”

Three years ago, Robert took a step away from music to make Best of Enemies, a behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F Buckley Jr.

It won an Emmy award for best historical documentary at last year’s ceremony.

Robert continued: “A friend of mine in Memphis had tracked down most of the interviews and shared them with me.

“I immediately saw the potential for a documentary and thought it would be timely for the 2012 American presidential election, but then it took four years to raise the money to make it.”

His efforts were vindicated though, when it won an Emmy.

“I don’t really know a lot of people in the TV world, so winning it felt like a true win,” Robert said.

“I have been in the music business all my adult life, so when I won the Grammy, it felt a bit like a popularity contest.

“The Emmy, though, just seemed more bona fide to me.

“Best of Enemies was the most enjoyable of the documentaries I made because I always felt misunderstood as a music writer.

“I used a music lens to look at broader cultural topics, but Best of Enemies allowed me to use a different lens. It was a real thrill and it also reached a broader audience.”

Robert has interviewed and been in the company of some huge names. And, while not necessarily starstruck, he admitted to being “star frightened” of Vidal, when he interviewed him for Best of Enemies.

“Him and Christopher Hitchens gave me the most anxiety ahead of interviewing them for the film,” Robert added. “However, both actually turned out to be puppy dogs.

“I interviewed Ray Charles over the phone and the timbre of his voice sounded like all of his records that I love. I had that moment of disbelief as in, ‘wow, I am talking to Ray Charles’.”

While there are numerous differences when it comes to writing books and making films, Robert has encountered problems doing both.

“Nothing can compare to being commissioned to write your first book,” he recalled. “It was a dream come true, but it was followed by the actual writing of the book — which was a nightmare come true!

“I had previously written two novels, neither of which I submitted for publication, but it trained me in long form.

“The Stax book was a really difficult story to wrangle because there were so many characters and everybody was so interesting that they were all jostling for the lead position.

“That took a lot of careful thought to figure out to how best to convey the story in an understandable way.

“The Muddy Waters book and film was thrilling to write and make. The film came at the end of writing process, so I already knew the characters in terms of the film and knew their best stories.

“I was so honoured to tell the story of a Blues icon whose life embodied the whole history of modern Blues.”

Another fascinating project he took on was Very Extremely Dangerous, a documentary about a career criminal, Jerry McGill, who had recorded one single on Sun Records. He later turned to robbing banks and running from the FBI.

“He had just been released from his third stint in prison,” Robert said. “It was a thrill ride on someone’s trigger finger, which made it a really difficult task.

“He was what some would call ‘unpleasant’, so it was a really intensive 10 weeks of filming.

“I made it with Paul Duane, an Irish director, who has a strong interest in Memphis. He brought in the money from the Irish Film Board.”

Robert, who is married to Tara and father to Lila and Esther, feels strongly about his Judaism.

His brother, Baruch (who was born Bruce), is a ba’al teshuva (returnee to Judaism) and lives in Beit El, in the West Bank, with his wife and numerous children.

“He is doing his best to create the 13th tribe,” Robert laughed. “We have been to Israel many times to visit and eat hummus, of course.

“I like to think of us as people of the book and love that that has been the nickname of our tribe for generations. I also love the way that pursuit of knowledge defines us.”


© 2018 Jewish Telegraph