When Big Star’s Alex Chilton sang “Rock and roll is here to stay” back in 1972, it sounded more like a prayer than a promise. Was rock and roll, arguably Memphis’ greatest cultural contribution, really built to last? Nearly fifty years (and several musical revolutions) later, it’s clear that Chilton’s hopeful pronouncement remains true, although the genre’s fate seems to remain a perennial question mark. Thankfully, the Bluff City’s rock and roll scene received an unexpected shot of adrenaline last year with the founding of Black and Wyatt Records, a label dedicated to producing and distributing high-quality vinyl albums from some of the city’s best and brightest rock musicians.
While the trajectory of rock and roll has rarely followed a consistent path, Black and Wyatt Records is still a particularly surprising venture. The label was founded by Dennis Black and Robert Wyatt, two doctors who began their friendship nearly 20 years ago while at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and who bonded over a shared love of music. “We had a similar interest in music and began going to shows together,” Black explains. “Our first one was probably the New Pornographers in San Francisco.” From there, the duo slowly began to immerse themselves more into the city’s local music scene. “I started pretty much getting into local music when $5 Cover came out,” says Wyatt, a reference to the online series created by filmmaker Craig Brewer and produced by MTV. “Before that, I had been busy with work and raising a family and just hadn’t been going to see local music that much.”
A second serendipitous introduction into Memphis music came from the cleaning company Two Chicks and a Broom, which has earned a reputation for hiring local musicians. “It’s amazing the amount of musicians I got to know from them,” says Wyatt. “Valerie June cleaned our house for quite a while, and Jack Oblivian came by at least once. The first person I met was Luke White, who was friends with my daughter. Anyway, it was pretty extraordinary.” These relationships would eventually lead to Wyatt hosting a series of concerts as his Midtown home beginning in 2012 called the Harbert Avenue Porch Shows, which have included performances from Memphis rock staples such as Snowglobe, Cassette Set, and Jack Oblivian.
Although both Black and Wyatt had slowly ingrained themselves into the local music scene, the idea of opening their own record label was more of a happy accident than a thoroughly mulled-over plan. In fact, the idea began with local filmmaker and musician Mike McCarthy, who Wyatt had come to know through their work with the coalition to save the Mid-South Coliseum. “Mike had this record in the can—the Fingers Like Saturn record—which I guess was from about ten years ago. So he came to me and said ‘Robert, you ought to start a record label.’ I knew Dennis might be interested, so I told Mike that if we were to do it, I didn’t want to do just one record. I also told him that he should do it with us and be the label’s art director. That part appealed to him,” Wyatt says with a laugh.
After releasing the Fingers Like Saturn LP in October of 2018, the team at Black and Wyatt kicked things into high gear, releasing superb albums from artists such as Jack Oblivian, Opossums, and the Toy Trucks in relatively rapid succession. However, despite this wealth of new music, the label’s break-out release thus far has come from a band that disbanded in the nascent years of rock and roll itself. In 1956, five students from East High School strolled into Sun Studios and recorded a proto-garage rock song called “Steady Girl” under the name Heathens. Decades later, a pressing of the record found its way into the hands of local record collector extraordinaire Frank Bruno, which led to a series of events that was captured in a captivating front-page story in the Commercial Appeal.
When the national press picked up the story, “Steady Girl” became a surprise hit for the burgeoning label, garnering both record sales and increased attention for Black and Wyatt. In fact, “Steady Girl” was such a success that Black and Wyatt’s next scheduled release is a cover of the song recorded by an Italian guitarist and singer at Sun Studios, which will be available early next year.
When asked what their goals are for the label entering its second year, Dennis Black quickly responds, “One thing that has been impressed on me is that there is this really broad, deep Memphis music scene that I don’t think most people in the city really know about or recognize. One of the things we really want to do with these records is to try to penetrate that a little bit and get these groups out there and heard.” “Getting them known outside of Memphis is a goal, and a struggle, as well,” chimes in Wyatt. With some of 2019’s strongest local releases already under their belt and upcoming releases from Mario Monterosso, Turnstyles, Tyler Keith, and Los Psychosis already in the pipeline, it’s safe to say that Memphis rock and roll is indeed here to stay.
Cover image: Dennis Black and Robert Wyatt. Photo by Mike McCarthy.