Dewey and Elvis: The Life and Times of a Rock 'n' Roll Deejay

Author: Louis Cantor

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

ISBN: 0-252-02981-X (Hardback, 287 pp.)


The title and the cover photo of "Dewey and Elvis" perhaps give the impression that Elvis features to a far greater extent in this book than is the case. Certainly Elvis is there, but he is just one of the main players in this biography of Dewey Phillips.

Dewey Phillips? Just about every Elvis fan knows the name as that of the disc-jockey who first played Elvis's "That's All Right" on his "Red, Hot and Blue" radio programme, but how much more does the average Elvis fan know about the man? Very little, I suspect. Hardly surprising, really, as he has not been the subject of any other significant work and is generally mentioned only in passing in most books about Elvis, certainly, for that first play, and, indeed, in most other books about Rock and Roll music.

Yet, as "Dewey and Elvis" amply demonstrates, he was a major force in the development of Rock and Roll music. The amazing thing is that the man came basically from nowhere: he was not a radio professional, he had very little presenting experience, he was just about illiterate, yet he helped to turn Memphis and then the world upside down, before succumbing to a tragic end.

The whole story of Dewey Phillips is ably related by Louis Cantor, a professor of history at Indiana University, the author of a number of other books, some of which are music-related, and a onetime fellow student at Humes High School with Elvis. Cantor bases his biography on interviews, documentary sources, and historical collections. Those interviewed include Dot Phillips, Dewey's wife, and numerous others, many of whose names are familiar in the world of Elvis: Sam Phillips, George Klein, Barbara Pittman… and many others who are quoted or referred to are equally familiar.

Cantor manages to place all of the events and players into context, thereby allowing us to understand the incredible influence of Dewey Phillips on the development of Rock and Roll and its contributions towards the breaking down of social and cultural racial divides. What is truly amazing is that three men, Dewey Phillips, Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, just happened to converge on Memphis (none of them originating from the place) and then reacted with each other. Sam and Dewey were particularly close and the book describes how Elvis found something of a mentor in Dewey.

Although "Dewey and Elvis" is not a book primarily about Elvis, it is most certainly one which will appeal to many Elvis fans. As indicated above, one of the main strengths of the book is that it contextualises Elvis, so that a better understanding can be gained of the forces that influenced him in those now far-off segregated days, in a time that we find increasingly difficult to imagine.

"Dewey and Elvis" is illustrated with black and white photographs, some of which depict Elvis, contains copious notes, demonstrating the amount of research performed by the author, includes an extensive bibliography and is indexed.


David Neale

copyright August 2005

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