In 1991 I went to Memphis. It was a stop on a larger trip whose eventual destination was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the city famed for Elvis and barbeque, I was struck by a high-contrast example of the disparity between black and white in the United States of America.
On one side of town, there was no detail of Elvis Presley's life too trivial to memorialize. I could have bought a laminated reproduction of his driver's license from one of the half-dozen gift shops across the street from Graceland.
On another side of town, the spot where Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd had recorded some of the most resonant and indelible soul music ever conceived was an overgrown vacant lot, with only a U.S. historical marker near the curb.
The converted movie theater that had served as the recording studio for Stax Records was long gone; the undeniable truth being it had been torn down to make way for a vacant lot. There were no opportunities to purchase a reproduction of Otis Redding's driver's license, much less see the building where he and the M.G.s had recorded Otis Blue.
It hit me. Hard.
Let me be clear: the intent isn't to slam Memphis. My mate and I enjoyed an otherwise wonderful visit, topped-off by the elderly gentleman who escorted us from a McLemore Avenue convenience store to the nearby Interstate entrance I had somehow been unable to locate.
But with the exception of Detroit and its Motown museum, this is a story repeated in any city that once served as mecca for black music. My hometown of Chicago has its own woeful record of neglect.
To wit, 2120 S. Michigan Ave. is a parking lot. Record Row, the home to Vee-Jay and Brunswick Records (among others) was reduced by the mid-nineties to a handful of faded, hand-painted company logos in second story windows.
With the wholesale gentrification of the South Loop, I doubt even those exist today.
These locales were the purveyors of what was essentially under the counter music for an under the counter culture. If the pop music consumed by white teenagers was considered disposable, you can imagine the status accorded the latest J.B. Lenoir forty-five.
It is ironic then, that this music could end up aiding and abetting the entity known as the City of Chicago.
As it seeks desperately to avoid being flushed down the toilet with the remainder of Illinois, Chicago is in dire need of revenue. And what better way to lure tourists from points all over the globe than by recognizing its musical heritage?
Sam Cooke, Benny Goodman and Herbie Hancock are just three of the luminous talents birthed by the city. Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley recorded the music that set an entire generation of English youth aflame here.
And yet their connections to Chicago are virtually invisible.
Cities as far-flung as Vienna, Austria and Kansas City, Missouri have acknowledged their musical heritage and acted not only to preserve it, but use it as a lure which simultaneously educates and creates revenue streams.
Even beyond these practical applications, this serves—in many cases—to pay homage to the profound contribution African-American culture has made to the broader culture of the United States, and on a good day might even encourage a rethink of our racial stereotypes.
Given the junk status of its bonds and the tautness of its racial tensions, it is high time Chicago did the same.