By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Memphis in May has been special to this area for the past 42 years.
Back in 1977, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce developed the Memphis in May International Festival, first saluting Japan. Since then the event has grown into a worldwide showcase for the Bluff City, honoring foreign lands, cooking plenty of barbecue, playing lots of good music and hosting several events throughout the month.
But the 2019 Memphis in May has an extra special meaning with the city getting ready to celebrate its 200th birthday. On May 25 the M-Town turns the big 2-0-0.
Since my hometown is getting old and has so much strong history, I am going to take the rest of this month to showcase the best of Memphis.
Let’s start with the ladies. Because Mother’s Day is this Sunday, I want to shine a spotlight on the best women either born or raised in Memphis. Also eligible are women who made Memphis their home and contributed to the city’s history.
Before the top 10 is revealed, I am noting that I couldn’t compose an honorable mention list because there were too many women with a Memphis connection who accomplished great things in music, education, the arts and pop culture.
I did manage to pull out the best to me because of impact and name recognition. If you disagree or don’t see a name that should be mentioned, please let me know.
10. Lisa Marie Presley & Priscilla Presley
It will be possible for Elvis Presley to be mentioned all throughout this month in showcasing the best of Memphis. The King had a lasting and major impact on the world, not just his hometown. So we begin the countdown with his ex-wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie.
My introduction to Priscilla as the “Naked Gun” film series as the main love interest of Frank Drebin. A few years later Lisa Marie became an household name when she married the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson.
Now both women are great living parts of Elvis’ legacy. Lisa Marie has followed in her father’s musical footsteps as a singer-songwriter with three albums.
Mom did well in acting and is not a businesswomen. She was the former chairwoman of Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that turned Graceland into one of the top tourist attractions in the United States.
9. Missi Pyle
The Germantown Red Devils have something to be proud of with the success of Class of 1991 member Missi Pyle. Born Andrea Kay Pyle in Houston, Texas, she was raised in Memphis. After Pyle attended the North Carolina School of the Arts she embarked on a lengthy film and television career.
Some of her notable appearances are “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Big Fish” and even the cartoons “Family Guy” and “American Dad.”
Pyle began a career as a singer when she met Shawnee Smith in 2007 while filming an ABC comedy pilot. Pyle stated that her dream was to be in a rock band, and Smith gave her the opportunity by creating the country-rock band Smith & Pyle in Los Angeles.
8. Elise Neal
Overton High School still sings the praises of its daughter, Elise Neal. Born in Memphis in 1966, Neal was the actual daughter of a nurse and a construction worker. She attended Lakeview Elementary, sharpening up her entertainment skills with ballet and cheerleading. After departing from Overton High School in 1984, she attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Then Neal was officially introduced to the world in the 1992 Spike Lee film “Malcolm X.” Some of her notable roles have been in “Scream 2,” “Money Talks,” “Rosewood” and the Memphis-based “Hustle & Flow.”
Her television work is outstanding as the titled mom in “The Hughleys.” Neal has represented Memphis with grace and beauty. Her diverse range has allowed her to shine in mega hits, cult classics and independent films.
7. Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul was born in Memphis on March 25, 1942. Her passing last year brought the spotlight to her amazing contributions to the world. From the spiritual singing to her work in the civil rights movement, Franklin is an American icon.
The reason she ranks eighth on this countdown is because she claimed Detroit as her true home. She did get her start there singing as as child at New Bethel Baptist Church. But the roots of Aretha started in a shotgun house in Memphis.
Franklin recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top 10 pop singles, 100 R&B entries and 20 number-one R&B singles. She is the most charted female artist in history.
She was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1987, she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
6. Julia B. Hooks
She is known as the “Angel of Beale Street.” Julia Britton Hooks was a musician and educator who did major work throughout the South including Memphis. Memphis is where she lived with her second husband, Charles F. Hooks. She was a charter member of the Memphis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
She is known to some as the grandmother of Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992. Julia was also a leader for African-American women and active in the civil rights movement.
After graduating from college, Ms. Julia moved to Greenville, Miss., to work as a teacher. After her first husband died in a yellow fever epidemic, she moved to Memphis in 1876. She lived on Beale Street, and became known for her local social service work. By 1881 she began teaching again in public schools.
5. The women of the Memphis State 8: Eleanor Grady, Sammie Burnett, Bertha Mae Rogers, Marvis LaVerne Kneeland and Rose Blakney
I graduated from The University of Memphis back in 2003 with my degree in mass communication. From 1999 to 2003, while I was on the campus I never heard the names Luther McClellan, Marvis Kneeland Jones, Sammie Johnson, Ralph Prater, Eleanor Gandy, Rose Blakney Love, Bertha Rogers Looney and John Simpson mentioned.
It was 40 years before my arrival that those eight black students set foot on the campus of then Memphis State University. They defied odds and shattered racial barriers with their enrollment in the fall of 1959.
I have to take a moment to salute the brave young women and men who endured the challenges of that era to pave the way for me to earn my degree from an institution I love.
MSU and now the U of M is known for basketball. But it was the shoulders of these eight students integrating the school that opened the doors for Larry Finch, Penny Hardaway, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose and other hoops greats in blue and gray.
4. Shannen Doherty
I thought Shannen Doherty was from Beverly Hills with the ZIP code 90210. But the daughter of Rosa, a beauty parlor owner, and Tom Doherty, a mortgage consultant, was born right here in Memphis. Doherty got started early in showbiz as an actress with guest spots in “Voyagers!” and “Father Murphy.”
She got a boost in her fame with her breakout role in the movie “Heathers.” Then she became a household name in the early 1990s with her role as Brenda in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Brenda and Dylan were must-see TV in my house during that time with my mom and sister.
Doherty’s success continued years later with “Charmed.” She is a consistent worker and not afraid to dive into various roles or creative endeavors. Now Doherty also produces and directs in Hollywood.
3. Cybill Shepherd
The first modern woman to put Memphis on the map was Cybill Shepherd. At the height of her greatness in Hollywood, Shepherd proudly announced to the world her love for her hometown Memphis. She even was in the stands the day the Memphis State Tigers upset the USC Trojans in football in 1991.
The beautiful Hollywood blonde was a Memphis product. Her elegance and grace were combined with Southern charm and a down-to-earth sense of humor. Shepherd has earned her fame through acting, singing and modeling. Her impressive library of work includes Jacy in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Kelly in “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), Betsy in “Taxi Driver” (1976), Maddie Hayes on “Moonlighting” (1985–1989), Cybill Sheridan on “Cybill” (1995–1998), Phyllis Kroll on “The L Word” (2007–2009), Madeleine Spencer on “Psych” (2008–2013), Cassie in the television film “The Client List (2010) and Linette Montgomery on “The Client List” (2012–2013).
2. Kathy Bates
Speaking of charm and humor, Kathleen Doyle Bates is one of the best of all time to appear on screen. With her appearances in movies like “The Waterboy” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” Bates won over a piece of my heart. I just found myself drawn to her as a mother/aunt figure.
Even in her Oscar-winning performance in 1990s’ “Misery” I was sympathetic to her cause. I’m proud to say Kathy Bates is from Memphis. In 1983 she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress. Then when she left the stage from productions like “’night, Mother,” it was off to Hollywood. Her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in “Misery” made her a star.
Since the Oscar, Bates has racked up more awards, such as two Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, three American Comedy Awards and two BAFTA nominations.
She can do drama and comedy with ease. She has that Memphis personality. That’s a combination of harsh humor, tough love, sincere affection and honesty.
1. Ida B. Wells
As a journalist, you respect and kind of revere the name Ida B. Wells. She is the grandmother of investigative journalism. Also on Wells résumé is educator and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the NAACP.
Wells was born a slave in nearby Holly Springs, Miss. After surviving slavery and the yellow fever epidemic, Wells went to work before moving to Memphis to teach. Wells became the co-owner of “The Memphis Free Speech” and “Headlight” newspapers.
As a journalist, Wells wrote about segregation, racial inequality and the lynching of blacks in the South. “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases,” is an example of why my industry is so important. Writers who can combine passion with compassion wrapped in the truth can expose injustices.
Wells moved on to take on other causes from Memphis to Chicago. Her work effected change and left a blueprint on how to do effective journalism.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to email@example.com.