Motorcycles in Music — Motorcycle Mama by Sailcat

Album Cover - Sailcat - Motorcycle Mama - 1972Sailcat was  a one-hit wonder, formed in late 1971 by two veterans of the Southern rock scene,  John Wyker and Court Pickett.

The duo recorded a demo of “Motorcycle Mama” which led to a contract to record a full album of the same name.

Despite an album filled with backing performances by notable performers (including Chuck Leavell and the Memphis Horns), the title track was the band’s only Top 40 single, peaking at #12 on July 15, 1972.

The song is easy-going, sounding like a hybrid of Donovan’s 1967 hit single, “Mellow Yellow” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 hit, “Daydream”.

The due broke up later in the same year. In 2002, Wyker released an album, “Wild Water-ski Weekend” under the Sailcat moniker. He died in 2013 at age 68.

The album is a loosely-constructed song cycle about a “Easy Rider” styled motorcyclist who meets his perfect match (the titular Motorcycle Mama) and settles down to more conventional life as a husband and father.

While the album’s concept and packaging were designed to evoke the rootless “Easy Rider” lifeastyle, the album’s laid back country-rock pop comes from a much more conventional world.

Today, the original album is collectible for its gatefold sleeve, with cover and interior art by Jack Davis. Davis was a founding cartoonist for Mad magazine. Davis’ interior art includes an illustration for each track, making the threads of the semi-story more apparent.

Lyrics for Motorcycle Mama by Sailcat

Tell your Daddy and your Mama too
You got something better to do
Than stick around the house the rest of your life
You’re eighteen, you can do what you like
You’ll be the queen of my highway
My motorcycle mama
We’ll see the world through my Harley

We’ll get matching jackets and helmets too
We’ll get respect from the towns we ride through
We’ll sleep at the roadside in the soft green grass
And if the squares walk by we’ll let them pass
You’ll be the queen of my highway
My motorcycle mama
We’ll see the world through my Harley

And maybe in a year or two
We’ll have a little one
She’ll look just like you
We’ll add on a sidecar
Electric guitar
We’ll be a trio
Baby makes three-oh

Tell your Daddy and your Mama too
You got something better to do
Than stick around the house the rest of your life
You’re eighteen you can be my wife
You’ll be the queen of my highway
My motorcycle mama
We’ll see the world through my Harley
We’ll see the world through my Harley
We’ll see the world through my Harley
(If the chain don’t break!)

© John Wyker & Court Pickett

Last Train to Soulsville: Revisiting the Stax Museum of American Soul Music

2014.08.09-TN.Memphis-StaxMuseum-Records-02Rainbow-webSaturday, I visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.  It’s been four years since my previous visit, and very little has changed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Following is my 2010 article about the Stax Museum.  As you’ll read, the place is an absolute blast to visit if you have any interest in popular music of the ’60s and ’70s.

The museum tells a great story well, but it offers little incentive for casual fans to visit repeatedly, other than a small room for occasionally-changing exhibits.

Currently, the temporary exhibit offers the chance to see a handful of Grammy Awards (those gold-colored gramophone sculptures handed out by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) up close and personal.

One thing the museum needs to change: The exhibits have not been updated since the museum’s opening in 2003. Since then, we’ve lost a few of the label’s well-known acts (most notably, Isaac Hayes, who died in 2008) to that great gig in the sky. The exhibits should acknowledge their passings.

Last Train to Soulsville

(Thursday, June 3, 2010 — Memphis TN) The story told by the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is the story of Memphis over the past 60 years.

It’s a story filled with contradictions: a story of racial integration and disintegration, the rise of black pop culture in America, and punctuated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s also a story of rags to riches to rags to riches to rags, a rollercoaster of successes and failures so common to the recording industry in the 1960s and ’70s…and to the city of Memphis as well.


The Stax Museum recreates the look of the original recording studio-cum-movie theater.

The Stax Records Story

In 1957, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (both were white employees at a bank) started a recording company (Satellite Records) to record country music by white performers. The initial recording studio was located in Brunswick, a tiny town about 30 miles outside Memphis.

The pair quickly assembled a circle of musicians and producers who had a sharp eye for talent, but the studio’s location was not conducive to recruiting that talent.

In 1960, the studio was relocated to a movie theater in a deteriorating neighborhood near downtown Memphis. The theater’s auditorium became a recording studio, and the candy counter became a record shop that stocked the label’s output.

The area became known as “Soulsville USA” due to the number of performers (from blues singers Memphis Slim and Memphis Minnie to up-and-coming soul superstars like Aretha Franklin, Maurice White and Al Green) who lived in the neighborhood.

Located in such a stewpot of talent, a stream of new acts were discovered by simply walking through the record shop’s doors.

That talent increasingly included black performers and mixed-race bands. One such band, Booker T. and the MGs, became the house band, playing on hundreds of recordings over the next couple of decades.

In 1961, the company’s name was changed from Satellite to Stax (pulled from the owners’ last names, Stewart and Axton), and the legendary house of soul hits was born.

Over the next 15 years, Stax’s stable of popular acts included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes, along with many others.

The Stax studio’s sloping floor and large space had a dynamic, live sound and became a popular recording destination for non-label acts, including Elvis Presley.

The label’s first stumbles came in 1967-68. The label’s biggest act, Otis Redding, and several members of his band, the Bar-Kays, were killed in a plane crash. This was quickly followed by the ending of a distribution deal with Atlantic Records that cost Stax its back catalog.

At the same time, the label’s music was evolving. Stax’s success had been built on a stable of integrated acts. With the death of Dr. King and the concurrent focus on music specifically aimed at a black audience, tension increased among the label’s acts and staff.

As the ’60s came to a close, Isaac Hayes was moving from a house writer and performer to a lead star. A huge concert in Los Angeles (the Wattstax concert) brought the Stax repertoire to an even bigger audience on the West Coast.

Despite these successes, bad business decisions brought the label to bankruptcy in 1975. The theater-cum-studio was shuttered and eventually bulldozed in 1989.

Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac is a popular exhibit at the museum.

Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac is a popular exhibit at the museum.

Rebirth of Stax

Fourteen years later, a reconstructed Stax (including a reproduction of the recording studio and record shop) was built, with a new music academy adjacent. The Stax label was relaunched as a source for both archival works and new works by young artists.

The museum tells the story of soul music as represented by Stax. It begins with a 20-minute film about the origins of soul music. The performers in the film talk about the music they listened to growing up: gospel music performed in rural black churches and country music played on white radio stations.

The museum has four centerpiece exhibits: the Hooper’s Chapel Church, built in 1906 and relocated to the museum; the recording studio on a sloping movie auditorium floor; the hall of records, featuring hundreds of 45s and albums; and Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac.

In between are a series of multi-media showcases providing a chronological overview of the rise of soul music as a distinct form of popular music. The cases have the typical mix of memorabilia (sheet music, records, promotional fliers, etc.), performer artifacts (costumes, etc.) and audio-visual presentations (interviews, performances).

Everything is clean and professional, but the museum could already use a face-lift. The past several years (the museum opened in May 2003) have seen the death of some of performers, but narrative signs have not been updated. Some of the showcases have had so much material added that the narrative signs are obstructed.

The museum is not entirely comprehensive, viewing “American Soul Music” almost exclusively though a Stax lens. It only occasionally mentions Motown (“Hitsville USA”), it never mentions the Philadelphia Sound (“Philly soul”) which rose as Stax’s fortunes fell, and gives barely a nod to modern soul music or how it relates to rap and hip-hop.

Despite these minor quibbles, the museum is a must-see for any fan of soul music or student of pop music culture. Unfortunately, directional signage to the museum is nearly non-existent after one leaves I-240.

For more about the Stax studio and record label, see the “Stax Records” entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. For more about the Stax Museum of American Soul Music or to plan a visit, see the museum’s website.

Stax 50 - 50th Anniversary Celebration Box Set

Stax 50 – 50th Anniversary Celebration Box Set

For a satisfying overview of the label’s music and biggest hits, get the 50-track compilation Stax 50 – 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Historic Memphis: Crosstown Sears Building

The Sears Crosstown building at its zenith.

The Sears Crosstown building at its zenith.

Friday, April 4, 2014 — Friday night saw the world premiere of a new operetta, Ghosts of Crosstown. The production was commissioned by Opera Memphis as a way to tell the story of the people who worked and shopped at the historic (and long-vacant) Sears tower.

The 17-storey art deco building opened in 1927 at the intersection of Cleveland Street and North Parkway. Situated on the western edge of Central Gardens (the most affluent area in Memphis at the time), the building was in an area of town that seemed somewhat remote from downtown (a full 2 miles away!).

But automobiles were quickly redefining the city’s boundaries past the three parkways, and the site offered free parking and a wealth of glittering merchandise ready to go.

(The nearest store that offered as wide a selection of products was 400 miles away, in Atlanta, at the virtually-identical Sears built the year before on a similarly “remote” area on Ponce de Leon Avenue.)

Approximately 30,000 people visited the two-floor,  53,000 square-foot store on opening day, August 27, 1927. Chamber of Commerce representative Phil Canale described the building as being like a pyramid in relative size, but was “a living thing for the living and not a tomb for the dead.”

(Yeah, that’s an odd statement to make in opening a store/warehouse, but Memphis has long had a fixation on all things Egyptian. Canale’s son, Philip Canale Jr., was the Shelby County district attorney responsible for prosecuting James Earl Ray for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. This is worth mentioning because *Ghosts of Crosstown* premiered on the 46th anniversary of King’s death.)

Above the mammoth retail store sat a catalog order fulfillment center, regional corporate offices, and later, a telephone ordering site. The building was expanded four times over the decades, eventually bringing it to 1.5 million square feet.

With suburban Sears stores ringing the city, the Crosstown store’s retail sales faltered, and closed in 1983, becoming a catalog clearance center. (It outlasted the Atlanta Sears, which for the same reasons had already transitioned to a catalog clearance center, but even that was closed in 1979.)

The distribution center’s operations ended in 1993, and the store has been vacant since. Sears sold the property in 2000, and the Sears name is nowhere to be seen on the property. Still, the architecture of the three-floor parking deck, seen at Sears locations across the country, is a tell-tale of the building’s origins.

After nearly two decades of silently sitting, virtually invisible despite its bulk, the Crosstown building is about to undergo a renaissance.

A group of partners, led by organizations as diverse as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Rhodes College, and Crosstown Arts (among others, see below) is about to begin renovation of about a third of the building’s space. This first phase is expected to open by the end of 2016. (Long-term plans will complete the building’s renovation over time.)

The new Crosstown building will be a “mixed-used vertical urban village” housing medical care facilities and offices, student housing, and space for artists to perform their crafts. The vision is to revitalize the building and the neighborhood by creating reasons for people to work, visit and live in the building.

Similar projects to repurpose these types of huge buildings (many of them built by Sears) are happening all over the country, but none of them have the potential impact as this project in Memphis.

The city’s place=as a national leader in medical research and treatment, medical device manufacturing, and medical education is ever-expanding. Crosstown’s role as an engine for a higher-educated, higher-paid workforce is crucial to the region’s future beyond warehousing and transportation.

(The list of partners who have committed to tenancy include: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, ALSAC (the fundraising arm of St. Jude), Crosstown Arts, Gestalt Community Schools, Memphis Teacher Residency, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Church Health Center, Rhodes College Christian Brothers University and the Southern College of Optometry.)

Sight of the Day: Elvis in Tupelo

Elvis Satue at Fairpark in Tupelo, MS

Elvis Statue at Fairpark in Tupelo, MS

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 — Tupelo’s Fairpark district is built on the old fairgrounds, a block from the historic downtown that lines the railroad tracks.


Elvis is reaching for you!

Fairpark centers on a public plaza, and the center of that plaza features this statue of Tupelo’s most famous native, Elvis Presley.

The statue was inspired by a well-known photograph of Elvis performing at the fairgrounds in 1956. The photo by Roger Marshutz, popularly known as “The Hands”, shows Elvis leaning over his microphone just out of reach of the outstretched hands of his fans.

The statue was dedicated on August 9, 2012 in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ death in 1977.

This visit to the Elvis Presley statue at Fairpark was just before attending a concert by Elton John at the BancorpSouth Arena across the street.

This photo by Roger Marshutz, of Elvis performing at the Tupelo fairgrounds in 1956, was the inspiration for the statue at Fairpark.

This photo by Roger Marshutz, of Elvis performing at the Tupelo fairgrounds in 1956, was the inspiration for the statue at Fairpark.


Long Range Forecast for March 9, 2014 – A Case Study (Conclusion)

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, the Memphis area National Weather Service recorded the following weather observations:

  • Sunrise — 7:19 AM (DST)
  • Sunset — 7:03 PM (DST)
  • High Temperature — 53 (1:54 PM DST)
  • Low Temperature — 41F (11:54 PM DST)
  • Conditions/Precipitation — Overcast, cloudy. No precipitation

45 days ago, AccuWeather forecast was: Rain – High 53 / Low 35

Ultimately, AccuWeather got the day’s high exactly right in that initial forecast on January 23.

However, it significantly underestimated the day’s low by 6 degrees. (I use “significantly” because temperature differences of 5 or more degrees are noticeable, the kind of difference people will comment on.)

It also incorrectly forecast rain. Although the day wasn’t rainy, it was overcast. Combined with the cooler-than-typical temperature, AccuWeather’s initial forecast was a pretty good indicator of the day: not great for outdoor recreational activities.

In that regard, I’d grade AccuWeather’s 45-day projected forecast to be a B+ effort: Correct in most of the essentials.

Still, AccuWeather offered so many different forecasts over the six weeks that this seems to be more a matter of random luck than accurate forecasting…more like getting the answer right on a multiple-choice exam.

Over the 45 days, AccuWeather’s forecast high ranged from 53F to 67F. The forecast low ranged from 35F to 48F.  Weather conditions ranged from “windy with rain” to “sunny” and every variation between.

It might have been more impressive if AccuWeather had made the forecast and then stayed with it more consistently. If it had made only minor adjustments, or deviated once or twice before returning to the same forecast, there might be a more compelling case for the 45-day forecast’s value.

The only way to more scientifically assess the value of AccuWeather’s 45-day extended forecast would be to repeat this exercise on a recurring basis.

Since the Washington Post and the meteorological community of professionals have already done that, I’ll trust their assessment that the forecast is unlikely to be accurate any other educated guess. (That is, combining historical averages with recent climate conditions…weather that’s been cooler or wetter than typical.)

Here are the essential previous entries in this study: