By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The names Overton, Winchester and Jackson bring back vivid memories for most Memphians.
As soon as they are mentioned, we think of accidents, near-wrecks and traffic jams. But the streets that cut through North Memphis via Frayser and Raleigh lead you to Whitehaven and South Memphis. The roads are named in honor of the men who helped to found our city back on May 22, 1819.
John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson incorporated Memphis in Dec. 19, 1826.
Since that day, the city named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River had produced several great accomplished men. The city located by the mighty Mississippi River has seen wonderful musicians — enough to fill the Rock & Roll, Blues, Jazz and Hip Hop halls of fame.
Memphis has seen its share of great athletes in the NFL, NBA and MLB. A few major corporations were created in the Bluff City and still operate here today.
How can you narrow it down to just 10 men to represent the best of Memphis? Once again like last week with the ladies, to qualify for this list you must have been born in Memphis, gained fame here, lived here or made a major impact through the connection with the M-Town.
To understand the greatness of Memphis and how we impact trends, pop culture and Americana, let’s take a quick look at Logan Guleff.
Born in 2002, he’s a bit too young to qualify for this list as an official Man of Memphis. But Guleff became close as a master chief, television personality, cookbook author, entrepreneur and owner of Logan’s Underground Supper Club. He became the winner of the second season of the American reality cooking competition “MasterChef Junior” in 2014. A couple of years later, Guleff was listed in Time Magazine’s “30 Most Influential Teens” as “a rising star in the culinary world.”
Maybe when Memphis turns 205 years old, Guleff will make the cut. Before I jump into the top 10 Men of Memphis here are a few honorable mentions: Ric Flair, Craig Brewer, Joe Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Edward H. Crump, Peter C. Doherty, Morgan Freeman, Harrold Ford Sr., Harrold Ford Jr., Avron Fogelman, Paul Finebaum, Al Green, W.C. Handy, George Hamilton, Chris Hardwick, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Wink Martindale, The Neelys, Roy Orbison, Michael Oher, Woody Paige, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elliot Perry, Memphis State 8 (Luther McClellan, Marvis Kneeland Jones, Sammie Johnson, Ralph Prater and John Simpson), Michael Ramirez, Otis Redding, Loren Roberts, Lance Russell, Justin Timberlake, Ike Turner, Fred D. Thompson, Rufus Thomas, Maurice White, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, Tennessee Williams, Lorenzen Wright, Reggie White, Thaddeus Young, Gasol Brothers (Pau and Marc), Kemmons Wilson, Joe Theisman, Zach Randolph, Kirk Whalum and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
Reading all those names will help you pass the time while stuck on Winchester about 5:25 on a Friday evening. Just in case you’re still stuck in traffic let’s start with No. 10.
10. Tim McCarver
Some know this native Memphian as a baseball commentator. Others might remember his long Major League Baseball career. But those who watched area high school sports back in the 1950s remember Tim McCarver as iconic.
During an era when newspapers were the main source of news, McCarver’s exploits at Christian Brothers High School became part of legend. He was so good he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals straight out of high school in 1959.
James Timothy McCarver, born in Memphis on Oct. 16, 1941 went on to be one of the best sportscasters after his playing days concluded.
McCarver played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox between 1959 and 1980, mainly as a catcher. He appeared in the MLB All-Star Game in 1966 and 1967 and was the starting catcher for the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 and 1967.
By the 1990s, he was known for having a stadium named after him here where the Memphis Chicks played. And McCarver was the voice of 23 World Series and 20 All-Star Games.
9. Three 6 Mafia
Music history in Memphis is strong. You name the genre, the Bluff City has you covered. Memphis has produced some of the best in country music, gospel, funk, pop, R&B and soul (just see some of the names in honorable mention).
But one of the most impactful brands of music in the last 25 years has been rap and hip hop. And the first rap act to bring home an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2006 was Three 6 Mafia.
The iconic Memphis rap group consists of five men and female rapper Gangsta Boo. The male rappers in the group are known as DJ Paul, Koopsta Knicca, Crunchy Black, Lord Infamous and Juicy J.
While Knicca and Infamous have passed on, the other members are still performing and producing hits today.
Their style and influence can be heard throughout hip-hop music today. Their music has been described as Southern hip-hop, crunk, hardcore hip-hop, horrorcore and gangsta rap. Since the release of their debut album “Mystic Stylez” in 1995, these pioneers have gone a long way toward putting Memphis rap on the map.
8. Isaac Hayes
This Tipton County native via Covington made Memphis his home. But his masterful musical talents and trademark voice found their place across this world. The man born Isaac Lee Hayes Jr. was such a musical genius that artists like Three 6 Mafia have sampled his classics multiple times.
Hayes will go down in history as an inspiration, singer, songwriter, actor and producer. In Memphis, he is linked to the Memphis music fabric as a creative force behind the Southern soul music label Stax Records.
During the 1960s, Hayes teamed up with David Porter working with Bill Withers, the Sherman Brothers, Steve Cropper, John Fogerty, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and others. Hayes is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and is a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The song that defines Hayes is the musical score for the film “Shaft” in1971. For the “Theme from Shaft,” he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1972.
7. B.B. King
When Memphis names a road after you Downtown, you must be a very important person to the city’s legacy. That honor was bestowed upon Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King.
This 1987 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earned his way there as a blues singer, electric guitarist, songwriter and record producer. His largest musical impact was introducing a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced many later electric blues guitarists.
B.B. King was so awesome he made a guitar, Lucille, a part of music royalty. Pretty good for a boy born on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Miss. He was attracted to music and the guitar in church and began his career in juke joints and local radio. He later lived in Memphis and Chicago and toured the world extensively.
6. Jerry Lawler
If the United States wants to have a real Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, I nominate the Mid-South Coliseum. If that venue were renovated into a first-class museum for wrestling history, a statue of Jerry “The King” Lawler should welcome visitors.
Wrestling has a huge imprint on the entertainment history of Memphis. Three words still make memories flood in the minds and hearts of many Memphians … “Monday Night Wrestling.” The face of that wore a crown: Lawler.
Lawler still wrestles while mixing in some commentator work. To many younger Memphians, he’s the voice of WWE. But to us older folks, he was one of the best during the territory days. He wrestled in numerous territories and won numerous championships, including many world championships, throughout his career. Lawler is a one-time AWA World Heavyweight Champion and a three-time WCWA World Heavyweight Champion. He unified the titles by defeating Kerry Von Erich at Superclash III, forming the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Championship. In 2007, Lawler was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
5. Larry Finch
One of the most important entities in Memphis is Memphis Tiger Basketball. Since the early 1970s, U of M (then Memphis State) hit the national map as a basketball power. Losing the 1973 NCAA National championship to UCLA put the Tigers on the national stage. And one of the most vital players during that run was Larry Finch. The Melrose High School product decided to stay home and play college basketball when it was not trendy.
His Tiger teams help calm the racial tension in the city just a few years removed from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in April 1968.
Later Finch became the coach of his alma mater, taking them to an Elite Eight trip in 1992. Finch guided a team with future NBA superstar Penny Hardaway.
Hardaway is now the coach of the Tigers, following in Finch’s footsteps. The impact of Finch lives on nearly a decade after his passing.
As a player, Finch scored 1,869 points without a freshman season. Then Coach Finch tallied 220 victories. He is the greatest Memphis Tiger of all time, doing it as a player, assistant coach, head coach and ambassador.
4. Willie Wilbert Herenton
By 146 votes, Dr. W.W. Herenton became the first black mayor of Memphis in 1991. The then 51-year-old Herenton earned the destination with his education from Booker T. Washington High School, LeMoyne-Owen College, University of Memphis and then Southern Illinois University. Prior to serving as mayor, Herenton was the superintendent of Memphis City Schools for 12 years.
Now to address Herenton’s legacy is to bring up some personal situation that became public. He’s no stranger to controversy and scandals. But his work in the offices he held in the Bluff City instituted major changes for the better and made Memphis a worldwide force.
Since the days of Boss Crump, no other Memphis mayor has had such a lasting impact for a greater good. Several people don’t like Boss Herenton for personal reasons, but even most of them can’t deny he did something good as his time as mayor.
3. Danny Thomas
Actor, entertainer and philanthropist Danny Thomas was born in Deerfield, Mich. He passed away in 1991 in Los Angeles. So what is his connection with Memphis? St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is the answer.
Thomas had made a vow to himself when he was an up-and-coming actor, if he found success, he would open a shrine dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes.
By the 1950s, Thomas and his wife had built St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He fervently believed “no child should die in the dawn of life.”
With help from Dr. Lemuel Diggs and Anthony Abraham, Thomas founded the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Since 1962, St. Jude has treated children from all 50 states and around the world, continuing the mission of finding cures and saving children. Dr. Peter C. Doherty of St. Jude’s Immunology Department was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 for key discoveries on how the immune system works to kill virus-infected cells.
So the next time you’re driving along Thomas Street, think of the man who has helped so many children in the world have hope for survival.
2. Fred Smith
Some not-so-common facts about Fred Smith. The Marks, Miss., native served in the U.S. Marines and fought in the Vietnam War. He has a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He attended Yale University.
Nowhere is what Fred Smith is most commonly known for … his net worth of more than $5 billion and being the founder of Federal Express.
Now the business born in Memphis is known as FedEx. And FedEx is the life source of the city. Smith has been generous with his money, giving to various causes and endeavors in the city (see the FedEx Forum).
Back in 1970, Smith purchased the controlling interest in an aircraft maintenance company, Ark Aviation Sales, and by 1971 turned the focus to trading used jets. On June 18, 1971, Smith founded Federal Express with his $4 million inheritance. He raised $91 million in venture capital. In 1973, the company began offering service to 25 cities, and it began with small packages and documents and a fleet of 14 Falcon 20 (DA-20) jets.
Over the past 40 years FedEx has grown and reinvented itself to better serve the public. Meanwhile many Memphis have been employed by the business giant, and that purple and orange logo is a fixture across the world. And it was all the brainchild of Fred Smith.
1. Elvis Presley
Was there any doubt? I’m not going to list all the accomplishments of The King from music to acting to business.
The Tupelo, Miss., native called Memphis home from a young age. Several of his Humes classmates are still rocking and rolling, sharing stories about their iconic peer.
So to summarize Elvis’ impact on the city and importance, I will reference this one fact. Since becoming a public museum on June 7, 1982, Elvis’ Graceland at 3764 Elvis Presley Blvd. has nearly 40,000 visitors each year. Elvis passed away in 1977. Two weeks out of the year are dedicated to his birth and passing.
And if you go anywhere in the world and say you are from Memphis, Tenn., the person you’re talking to will either shout “barbecue” or “Elvis.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.