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Race was an important distinction in Memphis during those days. But I cannot say that we discussed race relations as we do today.

 


MEMPHIS HITS



Soul Man, Soul Mate

by Jerry Murley

Memphis was plain in the 1950s, 1960s and early-1970s. There were pleasant, well-kept neighborhoods with modest houses, and no one was either too close or too far away. There was much visiting from house to house for entertainment. It was green with mighty hardwood trees, and its streets were wide. Many of its people nourished long-delayed expectations. Growing up there should be nothing to brag about. But as a middle-class boy with freedom, and either a bike, a car, or bus fare, it was a big enough place to explore for those with moderate expectations and the will to venture.

Race was an important distinction in Memphis during those days. But I cannot say that we discussed race relations as we do today. The presence of a strong, independent black culture in Memphis made the place exotic and doubled its opportunities. Race was laced with questions, sprinkled with caution, and always interesting. An easy mixture of classes was also a huge part of the culture, though there were really not the wide disparities between groups that we often imagined.

In the late 1960s, I spent many a late hour sleeping in my green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible still playing WDIA low on the radio. I played in a band that leaned as much to popular rock as to rhythm and blues. I grew to love the rhythm and blues hits that we covered – they seized me from the inside out. Most aspiring musicians in Memphis at the time worshiped and tried to borrow from the professional soul sound of Memphis. It was stellar, and, despite its clear simplicity, it was recognizably unattainable by aspirants from the other side of the tracks.

As a naive, sheltered white boy, I definitely was not a soul man. I cannot even claim to have known a soul man, a man thoroughly familiar with the street, at total liberty, and showing confidence that bordered on swagger if not pushiness. They were smooth, had a knowing sway, and were ready with pronouncements. They were energetic and attractive for the moment, even if their manner also revealed an underlying insecurity and tentative hold on the practical world. But that doesn't mean that young men of my ilk didn't observe and feel just a little bit of the soul man within him. We wanted some soul man then, and some of us hope we possess a little soul man in us today.

There was plenty of partying in Memphis at the time. The girls were just as game as the boys. Still a few wandered early into the soul-mate arena, finding a clinging companion perhaps too early in life. We all moved awkwardly between the two poles, but much time was filled doing the tedious tasks required to survive junior and senior high school and adolescence.

The sixties counterculture gave our generation some extra years in their twenties to purse the life of the soul man. But most gravitated to the traditional soul-mate type of living. I for one hit the jackpot with my soul mate of forty years. It seems entirely accidental and improvisational. We had both drifted into the study of psychology to try to understand ourselves and those around us. This led to long talks. Long talks and comparable aspirations, backgrounds, and passions led to deep-seated companionship. My soul mate keeps me alive and grateful every day, but there is an ember of the independent soul man within us both still.

Some young Memphians pursued their soul (wo)man hoping he or she could become their soul mate. That seldom worked out. After much heartache, we discover that a person can't easily be both soul man and soul mate at the same time.

Memphis was the perfect host environment for this cultural development and personal adventure. Memphis was neutral. It was a place where anything could happen and usually nothing did. At the time, it was a common sense place with common sense amenities: nothing fancy, despite the pretenses of those few Memphians who became part of community lore due to their harmless eccentricities.

From my armchair in the Middle Tennessee hills, I still see that soul man walking the sidewalks of Main Street. And occasionally I still practice the strut – if only in my head.

 

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