Dewey Phillips

(1926 – 1968)

As the most popular radio disc jockey in Memphis in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Dewey Phillips was a trailblazer in several ways. He had a larger-than-life on-air persona that presaged later Rock and Roll DJs. In a segregated southern city he was a white DJ who played both black and white artists for an integrated audience. And he played a mix of styles – Blues, R&B, Country, Rockabilly, Gospel — that were the building blocks of what soon would be called Rock and Roll.

Philips served in the Second World War, and when he returned to Memphis his desire to find a career in the music world led to a job managing the record department at W.T. Grant, a five and dime store. He began broadcasting an eclectic mix of records over the store’s p.a. system. Not content to simply announce records, Philips was part of the show, singing along and punctuating the music with commentary and jokes delivered in a rapid-fire manner that was half hillbilly and half jive-talking hipster. These performances began drawing crowds into the store, and in 1949 Philips moved to the local radio station WHBQ, where his show became a hit, broadcast six nights a week. At a time when most Memphis stations played “black music” or “white music,” Philips – who liked to refer to his listeners as “good people” — played whatever moved him, from Howlin' Wolf to Frank SInatra, Hank Williams to Roy Brown.

One of Phillips’ many admirers was Sam Phillips (no relation) who had recently started the Memphis based Sun Records. When Sam gave Dewey a copy of Elvis Presley’s first Sun release (“That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) Dewey became the first DJ to play an Elvis record on the radio and to interview Presley, then 19.

For almost 10 years Philips was the most popular DJ in Memphis, but in 1958 WHBQ changed to a Top 40 format and fired him, knowing Phillips wouldn't be able to adjust to a regimented playlist. He continued at other stations, but as chronic pain from a leg injury sustained in 1952 car accident worsened, he grew reliant on alcohol and pills and his life began a downward spiral. He was repeatedly arrested for drunk driving, hospitalized in psychiatric wards and grew increasingly delusional. He died September 28, 1968 at the age of 42.