Memphis Music Gets Lionized
Around our house, whenever an MGM movie starts, if my wife doesn’t say it first, I’ll chime in: “You know, that lion came from the Memphis Zoo.” The lion’s name was Volney, by the way, and the roar was in fact recorded in the old Carnivora building at the zoo. He died in 1944.
Elvis Presley was the next Memphian to roar for MGM. Manager Colonel Tom Parker was careful to construct Presley’s Hollywood contracts in such a way that his star was not tied down to one studio. Paramount was the first to sign Elvis, 20th Century Fox was the first to actually get him on the screen, but MGM was to first to guarantee Presley 50% of his movie profits. Jailhouse Rock was the first project for MGM in 1957. Elvis made eleven more films for the studio, from It Happened At The World’s Fair and Viva Las Vegas to The Trouble With Girls, and they produced his two concert documentaries in the ‘70’s. The final movie, Elvis On Tour, netted Presley a cool million.
But the Memphis connection with MGM didn’t end there. In the mid-60’s, a couple of Memphis bands had success on the national charts for the MGM record label. “Wooly Bully” was the first to make the leap. It was Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs’ second single on Gene Lucchesi’s XL record label. The difference between a major seller on a local level and the distribution and promotion a national record label could provide was the difference between selling 1,000 copies versus selling a million. “Wooly Bully” sold that million, and made it to number two nationally. MGM put Sam on the big screen with the movie When The Boys Meet The Girls.
Hoping to bottle more of this lightning, Lucchesi and producer Stan Kesler made it their job to seek out talented locals to release on their smaller label, with their sights set on leasing the sides out to MGM or another big dog. Sam The Sham followed his 1965 smash with “Ju Ju Hand,” peaking at number 26, “Ring Dang Do” which made it to 33. “Red Hot” was the first release of 1966. This was a cover of the 1955 Sun Records single by Billy “The Kid“ Emerson, also recorded on Sun in 1957 by Billy Lee Riley. Sam gave his version the distinctive Pharaohs rhythm. It made the charts, up to number 82.
Sam’s next single matched the success of his first MGM release. “Li’l Red Riding Hood” turned the story line of the fable into a teenage romance narrative, and rode the charts all the way to number two. In total, Sam The Sham would have 10 charted MGM singles in the mid-60’s.
With the success of Sam The Sham, MGM’s Memphis radar was on. When The Gentry’s second single on the Youngstown label, “Keep On Dancin’,” started making waves locally, MGM snapped up rights and helped take that single by the recent Treadwell graduates to number four in the nation. Before disbanding, MGM released several more Gentrys’ singles, and they hit the charts with “Spread It On Thick” and “Every Day I Have To Cry.”
And although it wasn’t an MGM release, the Gentrys appeared in a beach movie alongside fellow MGM act The Animals. It’s A Bikini World starred Deborah Walley, who would later share a bill with Elvis on MGM’s Spinout.
The Gentrys performed their ‘66 hit “Spread It On Thick,” The Animals did “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” The one-hit-wonders The Castaways did their one hit, “Liar Liar,” and there was a song performed by Pat and Lolly Vegas, brothers who would later find their niche in the 70’s under the group name Redbone with “Come And Get Your Love.”
So when you hear see an MGM film release and hear the lion roar, think of Volney and the other cats who made Memphis music roar in the 60’s.