I love everything Elvis. Despite the politics, which I have understanding and sympathy for–I look beyond but acknowledge the colonialist tactics of rock and roll–and pollyannishly perhaps look towards a more positive outlook. Sam Phillips at his famous Sun Records, was obsessed, especially originally, recording the music by primarily African American artists to bring to the world to overcome stereotypes and segregation. And with Elvis, he continued to cross lines of class if not race, helping to bring a hybrid of rhythm and blues music and hillbillymusic to help create rockabilly and rock n’ roll. For me, it is a site that is a birthplace for where culture changed for the better, brought up by the bootstrap of Phillips, who with a prayer and shoestring, created the studio that helped to inspire the world.
My childhood best friend Dan Knapp volunteered to drive the large moving van of my husband’s and I’s belongings from Chelsea in NYC to Southern California in August 2016, and Memphis was one of our big stops. An artist, who studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology and who got his MFA from Art Center in Pasadena, he and I decided, in the tradition of great artist friends, to make the trip a photographic journey across America. Dan tragically died in an automobile accident last spring, just months after our trip, and this is one of the first paintings I created from the body of work that was to become the My American Dream: Mystery Train exhibition at Marlborough Chelsea. Elvis meant nothing to Dan, nor Sun Studios, however he generously allowed me to ingratiate myself with the aura of this place—I had been to Graceland, but never Sun Studios, and couldn’t wait to go there. We arrived at “magic hour”, just as the sun was beginning to set, and although the place was closed, took a lot of pictures. It is Dan in the green shirt and shorts (and Crocs, his favorite shoes) taking his own picture as I took mine of this historic building. The front used to be a diner, but now is a gift store/small museum (which I visited the next day), to the left is the reconstructed Sun Records, just the same as it ever was, with a historical marker in front. While painting this picture, in my “method actor” way of doing things, I immersed myself in all of the Sun recordings that I got on boxed sets, from the very early blues music of local black musicians to the last country swing songs of the 60’s and seventies. It really struck me that Phillips was a bit like Harry Smith (who curated the local music of the Americas from his own 78s for what become the famous Smithsonian Folkways recordings), as much of this music would be lost to time if Phillips hadn’t recorded it (and the spirited Dewey Phillips, also the purveyor of Rock n’ Roll, playing color-blind music on his infamous radio show). Of course, some of this same music was rerecorded by Elvis and others, and with the success of this, Sam Phillips began (sadly, mostly) concentrating on his white musicians (which is bad as much as its good), the most famous including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and more (he also recorded female artists such as Barbara Pittman and the Miller Sisters, and black artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Roscoe Gordon, Rufis Thomas and Little Milton).
Beyond this, however, I was thinking of my dear friend Dan, who was an amazing and generous human being, and if there is a heaven, I feel he would definitely get in. Quite unconsciously, as I finished painting this, I realized that the negative space behind his figure almost feels like angel wings, and that in my subconscious, the Sun Records studios were like a brick and mortar heaven, with Dan knocking on heaven’s door, as it were… The images of famous Sun alumni are like angelic ghosts, and I hope that Dan’s spirit is in a celestial world that is akin (if not even much better!) than the nostalgic glimpse of Sun Records, as it still exists in Memphis, reminding us all what can be done to make the world a better place with a hope and a prayer.