Aesthetically Speaking

Withers exhibit captures history of Black music

This article is the second in a three-part series on African American photographer Ernest C. Withers, now showing at the Minnesota Center for Photography in Minneapolis.

While Ernest Withers may be best known for… This article is the second in a three-part series on African American photographer Ernest C. Withers, now showing at the Minnesota Center for Photography in Minneapolis.

While Ernest Withers may be best known for his stunning portraits of the civil rights movement, his images of the music scene in Memphis are just as historically and artistically rich. Withers has produced dozens of now-classic photos of what he often calls the "good times in Memphis."

While he moved his studio many times (often because of the rent coming due), many of his studio addresses were located right on Beale Street in Memphis—in the very heart of the African American music scene. Recognizing that there was money to be made, Withers began doing a lot of work in the black nightclubs—although he never drank or cared much for the party scene.

One little known fact on Withers, and something that helped him gain access to the music scene in some ways, is that he served a several year stint as a Memphis Police Officer. He was one of the first nine blacks inducted into the Memphis Police Department. Of course, there were very strict rules for the black officers and things were far from equal on the force.

"While we could be trained as policemen, we could not arrest white people," said Withers, a rule that consistently put the black officers in a compromised position. Withers, in large part due to his success as a photographer, suffered a lot of resentment and hatred from his fellow white officers. Due to this and general discrimination for all of the black officers, Withers was forced off the force in just three years, based on some false charges of taking money from bootleggers. However, being forced out allowed him to focus full time again on his photography.

As an entrée into the black nightclub scene, he started with "table photography" where he took pictures of the club patrons dressed in their best and sent them the photographs later. And, recognizing that pictures of famous people sell, Withers also began taking photos of some of the best entertainers and selling them to the local newspaper, or putting them in his studio window to attract customers.

It was through this work that he captured some of the most compelling images of the many of the nation’s best gospel, soul, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll artists. Included are: B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Ike and Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, Rufus Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Lionel Hampton, and many, many more. He also captured street musicians, gospel music, and the songs and beats of children that helped make up the mixture of music in Memphis.

Similar to many of his civil rights movement photographs, Withers often had his "good times in Memphis" photos published without proper credit given to him. In fact, it is very likely that you have seen many of his photographs before, without realizing they belonged to Withers.

Withers especially enjoyed taking photographs of the artists before or after their performances when they were in a more relaxed state. Through this, he captured several famous photos, including an image of the two great "kings"—Elvis Presley and B.B. King relaxing together after a performance. You might also recognize the photograph of Howlin’ Wolf singing for his supper in a Memphis supermarket, Lionel Hampton drumming at the Hippodrome, or Isaac Hayes with Helen Washington.

Of course, during the 50s and 60s, segregation was at its peak in Memphis, so there were strict rules prohibiting black and white performers on the same stage. Despite this says Withers, Elvis Presley spent a lot of time after-hours in the black clubs studying the music and spending time with the musicians. Withers is very gracious to Presley, and does not consider him

July 28, 2003
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