Is Knoxville the Birthplace of the First Rock 'n' Roll Star?

It shouldn't be surprising that a new history called How Nashville Became Music City USA doesn't list Knoxville in the index. Nor is there mention of the Knoxville radio stations, especially WNOX and WROL, that fed Nashville its first couple generations of stars. It does give some credit to Roy Acuff, who more than any other individual created "Music City USA."

But it refers to Acuff, when he emerged as a music publisher in 1942, as "the hillbilly singer from Maynardville, in the mountains of East Tennessee."

Whether Maynardville's "in the mountains" may be a matter of perspective, but like other capsule sources, it says Acuff was "from Maynardville" without ever mentioning that he lived anywhere else before his dynamic career in Nashville. It's an appealing image, maybe, the unwashed country kid swinging in from the wild hills who tells them city slickers what fer.

Routinely left out is the more complicated fact that he moved to Knoxville as a teenager, and didn't learn to play fiddle until years later. Here he graduated from Central High, worked for the L&N Railroad, and played a whole lot of baseball. After learning fiddle from a Fountain City mechanic, he played for his first audiences in Knoxville, formed his first bands here, first broadcast on the radio here. For years, he was a star of local radio, on both of Knoxville's live-music stations, WNOX and WROL. He spent about 20 years in Knoxville, becoming Roy Acuff.

But birthplace is what people like to remember, and Maynardville, which may have more biological connections to successful musicians, per capita, than any community in the world, efficiently claims him.

Likewise, Chet Atkins, Archie Campbell, Carl Story, Howard Armstrong, Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Don Gibson—none of the dozen or so most famous musicians who had some formative experience with Knoxville radio were actually born in Knoxville. In thumbnail sketches, birthplace is more likely to appear than the site of their early careers.

The number of famous musicians actually born in Knoxville proper is small, but it's interesting.

And that's why, as University of Tennessee sports archivist Barry Rice noticed, Knoxville makes a brief appearance in another new book about popular music, Robert Greenfield's The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun. The Turkish-born musical genius was the producer and sometime songwriter who co-founded Atlantic Records and was one of the most influential figures in the popularization of rock 'n' roll. He worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones—in fact, he died, at age 83, as the result of an accident at a Stones concert about five years ago—but he was also there at the very beginning, and that's the reason the word Knoxville appears in the book.

See, Knoxville is the birthplace of Atlantic's first big star, who was one of the founders of rock 'n' roll. Granville McGhee's name is not as recognizable as that of Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley or Howlin' Wolf—but as Stick McGhee, he performed what some consider the first rock 'n' roll hit.

Granville McGhee was born here in town in 1917, probably in Mechanicsville, to a father known as a street musician. Granville's older brother Walter, who later became known as Brownie McGhee, was disabled as a result of polio, and rolled around town in a small wagon propelled by his little brother, who carried a stick. Hence the nickname.

Accounts of their childhoods are vague, but it sounds like the McGhees were rootless for a few years, living sometimes in Knoxville, sometimes in Maryville, sometimes in Lenoir City, settling for a while in Kingsport, where Stick and his father both worked for Eastman Kodak. The McGhees were a musical family, and both sons learned to be handy with a guitar.

Greenfield describes Stick, based on a 1930s photograph, as "a handsome light-skinned man with a wispy mustache and a shiny lustrous conk.... In an open-necked white shirt, a pair of boldly pinstriped dark suit pants held up by skinny black suspenders, white socks, and leather sandals, he looks like a gentleman who had little trouble attracting the ladies."

In the Army during World War II, Stick learned a new song, a favorite of the black troops. Originally partly obscene, the song wasn't ready for the radio. But Stick reworked it with some extra lyrics, extracting a problematic four-syllable term you may have heard. In rap music, it usually means "bad fellow" and sometimes just "fellow." The result was "Drinkin' Wine (Spo-De-O-Dee)."

Greenfield tells a little more of the story than I'd heard. McGhee first recorded "Drinkin' Wine" for Harlem, an early black-owned record company, in 1947. He did it, he later said, for "$75 and a couple of hot dogs." It went nowhere, but was different enough that it got some attention in the industry. By then, music-industry folks knew Brownie McGhee, a versatile musician associated both with black blues and white folk. Ertegun, then just an aspiring producer of 25, called Brownie McGhee to see if he knew someone who could cover "Drinkin' Wine."

"That's my brother's record!" Brownie McGhee responded. He figured his brother could cover it all right. He handed the phone to Stick.

So Ertegun worked with Stick McGhee himself on a new, more polished version in 1949, and this time it was an R&B hit, the first of many for Atlantic Records. It was different enough from the 1949 status quo that it seemed like maybe it was the beginning of something different. You can hear it on YouTube today.

Already in his 30s then, Stick McGhee cut several more records but didn't stay on top for long, and eventually tired of the business. He died of lung cancer at age 44.

In the 1950s, other, whiter singers, most notably Jerry Lee Lewis, had mainstream hits with "Drinkin' Wine."

Once, in this space, I proposed we start an annual commemoration of Stick McGhee's birthday, which comes around every March 23. Maybe a big wine festival.