American music and its roots in Memphis


RYTHM OIL. By Stanley Booth. Vintage. 254 pages. $12.

THE hellhounds finally caught up to Robert Johnson when he died of poisoning at age 26.

He would be known as the greatest bluesman ever to put shaved glass on the strings. He is, as Stanley Booth puts it in his book "Rythm Oil," "the embodiment of the Faustian legend."

Mr. Booth begins his wonderful little book of allegedly true stories with a fictionalized account of Johnson saying to the devil: "Teach me, I been lookin' for you all my life."

Rythm oil is a potion sold on Beale Street in Memphis with magical curing powers, but "Rythm Oil" is a book about an entirely different kind of magic. Mr. Booth examines the cultural and racial history of a cotton town called Memphis; he is both historian and story-teller.

Each chapter reads like short fiction. Mr. Booth tells the American music story from slavery in the 1940s to savagery in the 1990s.

Included here are:

* The history of Beale Street, where, among other things, a young Elvis Presley bought flashy suits at Lansky's, the clothing store preferred by black pimps.

* The funeral of the legendary Mississippi John Hurt. "'He's gone, he's gone,' the man was wailing. Through the open window we could hear the other man, whose patience must have been wearing a bit thin, say, 'Hush, boy. Yo' daddy's better off than we are now.' "

* Keith Richards at 45, talking about children: " 'Your kid gives back to you that bit of love you gave your own parents, the bit of life you don't remember,' he said. 'It's vital knowledge, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle.' "

Each chapter spins a different tale of American music and traces the roots back to Memphis. The best of these is an account of time spent with the "blues boy," B.B. King.

"He has sold more records than any other blues singer, living or dead, and he is one of a small, select group of artists -- including Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington -- who are considered to be, at their distinct specialties, the best in the world. The people in the business end of the business like to call B.B. 'The King of the Blues.' But occupying such a pre-eminent position is like being the Fastest Gun in the West: everybody wants to take you on."

And someone does. Albert King shares the stage with B.B. and does his best to "cut" him, or out-play the man. The narrative of this confrontation moves like a prize fighter:

"And then, just as it becomes clear that only something as decisive as a knockout can win, B.B., who had been standing idly at the side of the stage while Albert put down riff after driving riff, begins to hit the strings of his guitar, sweet Lucille, as hard as he can, one note at a time, playing a blues chorus so strong and high and wild that the audience, shocked, becomes silent; then he pauses, takes two steps forward to the mike, and sings: 'My brother's in Korea, baby, my sister's down in New Orleans.' The last part of the line is drowned out by the screams of the audience . . . ."

What makes this book so readable is not just the yarn-spinning, but the respect Mr. Booth has for the men and women of American music. From rap to rock, virtually all contemporary American music can be traced to Memphis, and this book does an excellent job of explaining the historical and mythical events that make this so.

Victor Paul Alvarez is an editorial assistant at The Baltimore Sun.

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