Stories

The Fire Barber of Memphis

“Your attitude determ your aptitude.” Warren Lewis has been cutting hair for 65 years and plans on cutting hair for 20 more. He uses a candle flame to trim customers at Lewis’ Barber Shop, which is also a museum. “If I did my life over again I’d be another barber. The only thing I’d have is a lunch hour and a vacation.” Warren is just one of the inspiring characters photographer Simon Emmett met on his trip to Memphis: Soulsville.

FILM and photography SIMON EMMETT

Stax Records is one of the most popular soul labels of all time (second only to Motown in sales and influence.) Formed in 1957, Stax pioneered a raw, stripped soul sound, launched the career of Otis Redding and had more than 150 hits on the pop charts. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music now stands on the original site of Stax, and The Stax Music Academy is bang in the middle of Soulsville, USA. The neighborhood remains very poor but is on the way up from decades of blight and decline. The people, the food and the divine talent that explodes from Stax’s soul singers and musicians are some of the driving forces of change for good. Check out the students performing.

 

"When I first put them in front of the camera they looked incredibly nervous so I asked them to sing, and the minute they started to sing… it was an amazing transformation"

Simon Emmett first heard about Stax from the Memphis tourist board. “It was too good to be true to me… next thing we were on a plane and we were over there being taken around Soulsville.”

Quite a switch in gear from photographing Cameron Diaz and Reese Witherspoon?

“Yes a little bit.”

Was your approach the same?

“I think so. It’s never about me it’s about the subject. You have to work the person out quite quickly and create a rapport. With the kids at Stax, they’re all singers and performers. When I first put them in front of the camera they looked incredibly nervous so I asked them to sing, and the minute they started to sing… this confidence… it was an amazing transformation.”

What were the kids like?

“They are remarkable is so many ways. A lot of them come from very poor backgrounds, and what the school does for the kids is extraordinary. They are the most polite, respectful, helpful and well behaved kids I’ve met. They are all flawless. I don’t know what I expected but that was the surprising aspect. Remarkable students.”

The portraits are so full of energy. What did it feel like, being at the school?

“It’s a very happy place, amidst some not so happy things. There are areas of Memphis that are heartbreakingly poor. We drove past the house Aretha Franklin was born in, which is in a very very poor area, all boarded up. It’s not what you expect to see it was quite upsetting at times. And in the midst of all this there’s the Stax academy.”

"Having spent most of my time on the East or West coast and having not seen much else, it’s fascinating. It’s a must visit. It has an authenticity to it that places like LA lack a little bit. It was a very uplifting experience.”

On his trip Simon got to photograph lots of the local characters around Stax, like Wayne Jackson who played trumpet for Elvis and Shirley Coleman who runs a beauty parlour and sells sweets. There is however nobody quite like Warren Lewis, the Fire Barber. “We were only going to pop in for a picture, and we ended up staying with him all afternoon and making the film. He really is an amazing man. He’s 85 and his barbershop isn’t in the best area. When we where there some dodgy guy came in and Warren just scared him off. He’s part of the history of the place.”

In the film, in his thick Memphis accent Warren calls the Barber Shop an Information Centre. “You can find out anything you want to, you just listen. That’s how I learned what I learned out in this jungle. Bank robbery … anything. All I gotta do is listen.”

Did you let him have a go on your barnet with a candle?

“He offered. I ran a mile! At 85 to have so much optimism and ambition for your future. You don’t often meet people like that.”

What was your lasting impression of Memphis?

“The food is unbelievable! Everything is triple fried: absolutely ridiculously good. It’s a very friendly place. Having spent most of my time in America on the East or West coast and having not seen much else, it’s fascinating. It’s a must visit. It has an authenticity to it that places like LA lack a little bit. It was a very uplifting experience.”

To donate visit soulsvillefoundation.networkforgood.com


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