Robert Plant, the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin whose Dionysian rock god emeritus status is affirmed by the timeless signature of his leonine curls, is likely the most envied, admired or applauded person in any space in which he is present.
But in Memphis on a Thursday night, during the awards ceremony for the latest inductees into this city’s Music Hall of Fame? Hard to say.
Booker T. Jones earned a standing ovation accompanied by almost palpable waves of affection.
Priscilla Presley expressed love for Memphis that seemed so sincere — she called Graceland "the first place that I really called home" — that only a churl could begrudge the addition of this non-musician to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. The audience beamed.
"This is a spirit-filled room tonight," said Al Bell, the former co-owner of Stax, who inducted singer Mavis Staples (the only living inductee who was unable to attend the ceremony). Bell emphasized his point by turning the podium into a pulpit and transforming the lyrics to the 1973 Staple Singers hit "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" into a sermon.
"Fifty years ago, (Mavis) sang, 'No hatred — will be tolerated. Let peace and love flow — between the races. If you're ready — if you're ready — hmm — if you're ready...' It's as relevant today."
Jones, Presley and Staples were among the eight honorees inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame during an awards ceremony Thursday at Downtown's Cannon Center for the Performing Arts that ended an unhappy two-year hiatus: Both the 2020 and 2021 events were canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Operated by the Smithsonian-branded Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame was launched in 2012, as a way of honoring musical greats from or associated with Memphis and the Mid-South.
After enshrining 25 members in its first year, the Hall has generally inducted six to eight new members each year. The 90-member roll call features local and international music icons, from B.B. King to Elvis Presley to Three 6 Mafia, as well as songwriters, session players, producers, label heads, music educators and non-musicians (such as Priscilla Presley) whose efforts have enhanced Memphis' musical fame. Although rock, pop, rhythm-and-blues and soul predominate, the Hall has acknowledged Memphis trailblazers in jazz, gospel, classical, opera and marching band.
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As if to make up for the gap years, Thursday's ceremony was especially celebratory, but also overlong at three hours. By the time the Kurt Clayton house band began a closing medley tribute to producer Jim Gaines that featured Gaines' wife, Sandy Carroll, performing her oft-covered composition "Just As I Am," about the only people left in a crowd that had swelled at its apex to about 400 were the swells — celebrities and sponsors — at the high-ticket tables in front of the stage.
But the audience's energy flagged only after its morale had been boosted and its spirits lifted, as speaker after speaker affirmed the belief that Memphis remains a crucial crucible for American music and creativity. The pro-Memphis sentiment from a parade of residents and out-of-towners alike functioned somewhat like a salve for the self-image of a city wounded by several high-profile tragic events earlier this month.
Although some speakers jokingly alluded to the idea that "something in the water" seems to naturally produce music talent in Memphis, most offered very specific memories of the school music teachers, family members and church leaders who encouraged and instructed them, and they cited the streets — East, Polk, McLemore — and schools — Bellevue, Porter, Douglass — where their abilities were nurtured.
Jones, 77, an architect of the Memphis soul sound as leader of Booker T. & the MG's, cited his mother — who played classical music by Debussy nightly on the family piano — as an inspiration. "I tried to imitate her essence and her soul as a musician," he said.
Jones was inducted by Deanie Parker, a Stax publicist, recording artist and founder of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, who took a chair at center stage to read what she called a personal letter to her old friend, built around the theme: "Thank you for being born in Memphis, Tennessee." After Jones accepted his award, he joined the band on organ for performances of two MG's classics, "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight," and also demonstrated his skill as a singer with "Born Under a Bad Sign," a 1967 Albert King hit he co-wrote with William Bell.
When 84-year-old J.M. Van Eaton — who more or less served as Sam Phillips' in-house drummer at Sun — took the stage to accept his Hall of Fame award, he carried a pair of drumsticks that weren't just props: After his talk, he left and podium and sat at a drum kit, where he was joined by Memphis singer-guitarist John Paul Keith for renditions of three Sun classics on which Van Eaton originally performed: "Raunchy," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire."
In fact, live performances followed most of the inductions, usually with the house band accompanying such vocalists as Reba Russell, Lil Rounds and Tierinii and Tikyra Jackson of Southern Avenue, all of whom took part in a Mavis Staples tribute.
A loose duet performance occurred after Steven Curtis Chapman, a superstar of contemporary Christian music (he has *59* Dove awards), inducted Ronnie Milsap, who played piano on Elvis' "Kentucky Rain" and other hits recorded here at Chips Moman's American Sound Studio before he relocated to Nashville and became a top country artist (he has *40* No. 1 hits on the Billboard country charts).
Milsap, 79, shared anecdotes about Isaac Hayes, Elvis and others that were alternately hilarious and touching. He said he was looking forward to reuniting in heaven with his wife, Joyce, who died last year; the couple had been married 54 years. "And I'll be able to see her this time, how about that," said the singer, who has been blind since birth.
"It was kind of like a school for me," the 79-year-old Milsap said of his time in Memphis, on stage and in the studio.
Speaking of his time in Memphis, on stage and in the studio, Milsap said: "It was kind of like a school for me." Inductee Jim Gaines — a sound engineer and producer who cut his studio teeth at Stax and other Memphis spaces before working on such huge-selling and often Grammy-anointed albums as the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle," Huey Lewis & the News' "Sports" and Carlos Santana's "Supernatural" — made an even more laudatory comparison: "To me, this was Mecca."
Gaines recalled watching Otis Redding make a record at Stax. "How was I the one who gets to see this?" he said he asked himself. "It changed my life." As a result, "I've tried to be an ambassador of Memphis music all my life."
Priscilla Presley, who was praised for uplifting Memphis music and Memphis music tourism with her decision to open Graceland to the public, was accompanied by Plant and by Elvis associate Jerry Schilling, who called Priscilla Presley "truly my best friend."
Taking a break from a tour, Plant came to Memphis at Schilling's request with only a couple days off after a New York concert. Wearing a suit coat he said he borrowed from Memphis Tourism president Kevin Kane, Plant called Priscilla Presley a longtime friend, and praised her for her stewardship of Graceland, which he described as "a hallmark and a touchstone for the many millions of that extended family (of Elvis fans), that never-ending worldwide family of which I'm a part."
Plant, 74, is probably the most notable non-Memphis-area musician to attend a Hall of Fame induction since 2015, when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones inducted Elvis' original Sun guitarist, Scotty Moore. His music with Led Zeppelin and beyond always has been steeped in the Memphis and Mississippi blues and rockabilly traditions. "I'm British, and we have a fascination with the music of this specific city and its environs and further down in the Mississippi Delta," he said.
Plant's remarks were the most literary of the evening. "Here in Memphis, excitement and unparalleled expression rose above the constraints and the infamy of the times," he said. "Here in Memphis, the sounds of Clarksdale, Jackson, Tunica and the Delta collided with unholy abandon, with the hillbilly two-step. Here in Memphis, trailblazing Blacks and whites worked under cover of night at Sam Phillips to forge the beat that created a new world of music..."
Plant said Elvis created an "extended family" of enthusiasts of Memphis music. "We were bound together and are bound together by the energy and the beat from long ago that was driven with stunning conviction and abandon by the man you, Priscilla, knew so well.
"Once upon a time many years ago I shared a little time and space with Elvis," Plant continued. "He was interested, which is something special, funny, and deep into the roots from whence he arrived from the blues, the Blacks and the whites. I'm sure, like I am, tonight he would be pleased and honored to see you recognized by 21st-century Memphis."
When Presley took the stage, she was visibly moved. "You're making me cry," she said. "My eyelashes are coming off."
Presley said Tuesday was the 63rd anniversary of the day she met Elvis, in Germany, where he was stationed in the Army, and she was the 14-year-old adopted daughter of an Air Force officer. "Elvis was playing 'Sweet Nothin's' by Brenda Lee on the record player," she said. As with many of Thursday night's testimonies, much of Presley's talk consisted of very specific and personally meaningful music-related memory.
In addition to Gaines, Jones, Milsap, Presley, Staples and Van Eaton, Sun rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley, who died in 2009, and saxophonist Fred Ford, who died in 1999, were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Riley was inducted by Jerry Phillips (son of Sam Phillips and a notable record producer in his own right), while Ford was inducted by a successor Memphis sax player, Kirk Whalum.
Exhibits relating to this year’s honorees and past inductees can be found at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame Museum, located next to the Hard Rock Cafe at the corner of Second and Beale. The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum is also just a short distance to the southeast, on the plaza outside FedExForum.
For more information, go to Memphismusichalloffame.com.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis Music Hall of Fame: A look at 2022 inductees and ceremony