Cultural historians have contended for years that no other ethnicity has had an impact on popular culture in the way the “black” culture has. From the roots of modern music through nineteenth century jazz — which in turn birthed blues, rock and roll, hip-hop and more — to “urban” slang and fashion, the influence black society has had on the rest of modern American style and substance is undeniable.
That same holds true in the Mid-South, in Crittenden County and all across the Delta.
Many men and women of color have played important roles in shaping not only black history but history itself. And while it is important to remember and honor the legacy of civil rights activists, community leaders, doctors, politicians and educators that have contributed to society, it’s also important to take a look at some of those who were pioneers and prodigies in different, diverse fields, including sports, music and entertainment. And in looking there, one can not ignore the influence the local community has had on the world of popular culture and society.
One of the most important legacies that Crittenden County can boast is the musical talent that has hailed from and traveled through this community.
Radio station KWEM is perhaps the cornerstone of that legacy.
KWEM was established in West Memphis in 1946, Appropriately enough in regard to Black History, the first broadcast took to the airwaves in February of 1947. Broadcasting out of a studio located at 231 Broadway, KWEM Radio featured live music performance from 1947 to 1955, launching the careers of artists including B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Junior Parker and Joe Hill Louis, as well as a West Memphis youth named Albert King who has been cited as an influence on guitar legends Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Pat Hare, James Cotton and Junior Parker honed their skills at KWEM and went on to found the Chicago Blues scene.
Joe Hill Louis began his music career with his own show in 1949.
He would record for Sam Phillips that year.
West Memphian Sonny Boy Williamson II had become the most well known musician in the Mississippi Delta while appearing on the King Biscuit Radio Program on KFFA in Helena.
Howlin’ Wolf was the first “colored” artist to have his own daily show on KWEM from 1949 to 1952.
KWEM wasn’t limited to black artists. Elvis Presley’s debut radio performance broadcast was on KWEM in 1953, Johnny Cash’s debut radio performance broadcast when he arrived in Memphis was at KWEM. He had his own weekly show with bandmembers Luther Perkins, and Marshall Grant.
KWEM returned to the air in March 2009, as a part of the Live 365 Radio Network (the largest radio network in the world), joining Disney Radio, Rock.com and others. KWEM is a web-based global broadcast station broadcasting around the world. The programing includes the historic music that started the station; it is also only one of two Internet stations to broadcast the Beale Street Caravan.
In more recent times, Shirley Brown, who was born in West Memphis, carried on that musical torch. Early experience singing gospel gave her a powerful but expressive voice likened to that of Aretha Franklin. In 1972, Brown cut her first record, “I Ain’t Gonna Tell” with “Love Built on a Strong Foundation” on the B-side. Recording for Stax Records in Memphis, her 1974 hit, “Woman to Woman” spent two weeks at No.
1 on the Billboard R& B chart and sold over one million copies.
Fast-forward to today, and you can see the tradition of strong music talents in the likes of Jekalyn Carr, a threetime Grammy nominee from West Memphis, and former Blue Devil choir standout Candace Quarrels, who has appeared in the Broadway smash hits “The Book of Mormon” and “Hamilton.”
Crittenden County has also produced a number of superstar athletes across an array of sports. Boxer “Big” John Tate was not only
See BLACK HISTORY PART 2 on Page 3 an Olympian, winning a bronze medal in 1976 for boxing, he also went on to become the World Boxing Association’s Heavyweight Champion of the World in the late 1970s, knocking out champ Mike Weaver to take the title.
Football is another sport featuring a lot of home-grown talent.
From West Memphian Bob Brown and Marion’s Ray Brown, who had a two-decade long career in the NFL, to contemporary players like former Patriot Jerry Franklin and Earle Bulldog Gerry Bohanon, the area has produced some gridiron greats.
But it is perhaps basketball that has consistently presented black athletes with a chance to shine in Crittenden County, including former Blue Devils Marcus Brown, Michael Cage, Sonny Weems and Corey Brewer. But few West Memphis hoops stars can draw up memories the way Class of 1981 graduate Keith Lee can.
Lee played his high school basketball at West Memphis Senior High from 1978 to 1981. The 1980 team is touted by many to be best high school basketball team in Arkansas history, going undefeated for a 30-0 record. To compliment that accomplishment, the 1981 team went undefeated as well for the longest winning streak for high school basketball in the state.
Playing college ball for Memphis State, Lee is one of the most renowned players in Tiger basketball history. During his fouryear career, Memphis compiled a record of 104-24, made four consecutive
including one trip to the Final Four.
He guided the team to three Metro Conference titles, led Memphis to a school record 31 wins in 1985 and helped put the Tigers in the final AP Top 20 poll all four seasons.
Lee was selected by the Chicago Bulls in the first round (11th overall) of the 1985 NBA Draft and was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lee played in 3 NBA seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Jersey Nets.