Unmarked Memphis II: Big Star craves ice-cream and the Sex Pistols storm Union Avenue

 A trained eye can show you the weird and wonderful underground history of Memphis.
There are homes, businesses, apartments and runways in Memphis that have their own stories to tell. 

Some of these sites are strange or even undesirable, and they all lack formal historical markers. A trained eye can show you the weird and wonderful underground history of Memphis.

Part I of this series covers unknown Memphis history in the early 20th and late 19th century including encounters with mummies and a dangerous orphanage. 

How Big Star got its name in 1971

Brian Eno said about New York's Velvet Underground that not many bought their records but those who did formed a rock band.

Music historians say the same about Big Star, the ensemble of Memphians Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel. From 1972 to 1975 the band released three albums all with great critical reviews but lackluster sales. Years later the music world finally began to appreciate the groundbreaking sound from the Memphis foursome.

In the summer of 1971, the still unnamed band was recording at Ardent Studio, which was then at 1457 National Street.

The former location of the Big Star grocery as viewed from the former location of Ardent Studios. (Devin Greaney)

Across the street there was Sweden Kream, an ice cream shop, and just to the north sat a local supermarket Big Star. "Chris (Bell) and I were smoking a joint outside the studio trying to think of a name and he looked at that store and said 'Big Star' and I said 'that's it!” recalled Alex Chilton in his biography "A Man Called Destruction”.

Three fourths of the band have passed. Ardent moved out in November 1971 and that location is now the Na-Jack Market. In 1995 all Big Stars in Memphis became either Super-Lo or Piggly Wiggly supermarkets. The Big Star location that caught the rock group’s attention is now an Auto Service Center.

But the worldwide appreciation for Big Star's music remains, and the Sweden Kream ice cream shop still stands at 1472 National Street. 
The Sex Pistols storm Union Avenue in 1978

It had the look of a mansion on a Southern campus, the kind of place with a magnolia growing out front and where young ladies would get a corsage and fraternity pin from their boyfriends who happen to be heirs to a cotton fortune. 

January 6, 1978 the Taliesyn Ballroom at 1447 Union Avenue was everything but that pretty picture.

The Sex Pistols brought their shocking punk rock to that Memphis building on their first U.S. tour. 

Sid Vicious in front of the Taliesyn Ballroom during The Sex Pistol's Memphis appearance. (Bob Gruen)

There was one arrest for malicious mischief when a man broke a glass pane and ran onto Union Avenue. The show was only 45 minutes long. 

“Vicious in particular gave examples of the drooling and spitting the band uses as its hype, and Rotten came in with a stellar performance of blowing his nose without a handkerchief. Overall however the performers were no more offensive than your average rock band,“ said the Memphis Press Scimitar about the January 6 performance.
As for the audience, "this is gross" said Missy Bynum, 23, of Memphis. “Local Memphis groups are way better than this. "I think I just wasted $3.50," said another.

Bassist Sid Vicious died from a heroin overdose just over a year later in 1979. The Taliesyn Ballroom was knocked down later that year. It was replaced by Sister's Chicken and Biscuits and now a Taco Bell where for the price of a $3.50 ticket you can get the Nachos BellGrande, tax included.

The ballroom was originally part of the Nineteenth Century Club campus. This year, the stately mansion reopened to the public as Izakaya, a Japanese-French fusion restaurant.
At home with the Iranian hostages in 1981

If you pass the home at 4226 Cottonwood Road today, you couldn’t picture the yard swarming with reporters and television cameras.

Dr. Ernest Cooke and his wife Susan moved to the home in January 1980 from Maryland when Dr. Cooke took a professor position in the marketing department at Memphis State University. It was a difficult time for the couple outside of the normal stresses of moving across the country.

Two months earlier their son, Donald, was taken prisoner when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran was overrun by militants. It was a tense time for the U.S. as the future of the Iran hostages was up in the air.

After more than a year the situation changed for the hostages and the Cooke family. In January 1981 negotiations were looking positive. National media focused on the families that may soon be seeing loved ones.

The media were there on Cottonwood Drive to celebrate with the Cookes after the 52 hostages were released from their 444 days of captivity. The Cookes even let a reporter sleep on the couch. “I hope they (media representatives) clean this place up before they leave,” Dr. Cooke said to the Memphis Press Scimiter in January 1981.

Donald Cooke visits his parents home on Cottonwood after his return from Iran.

Dr. Cooke remained on as a professor at Memphis State until 1986 when he moved back to Maryland to Loyola University. He retired in 2012.

The house is still there. Since that time the area has seen the opening and closing of The Mall of Memphis and the shuttering of other businesses as the area changed. But there are plenty of places that still call the Parkway Village area home and won't be held hostage to bad press.
The FedEx freight plane that nearly crashed in 1994

Headed south on Plough Boulevard to the Memphis International Airport, there is an overpass over Winchester Road. To the right is the end of Runway 36 Left, so named because planes coming in from the south have a compass that reads 360 degrees when making the approach and it’s the left of the two north/south runways.

The point near Winchester is where on April 7, 1994 three bold pilots kept an off-the-rails crew member from forcefully taking over control of the plane.

Memphis International Airport near where Flight 705 came to an unexpected stop. (Devin Greaney)
That afternoon a FedEx DC10 on Flight 710 took off from Memphis to San Jose, California. Captain David Sanders, first officer Jim Tucker and flight engineer Andy Peterson were piloting the craft while flight engineer Auburn Calloway was riding as a jumpseat passenger.

The three were hoping to land in Silicon Valley in a few hours. Calloway had other plans. On the plan he took a guitar case containing hammers and a spear gun.

Calloway was facing a disciplinary hearing that could have resulted in his termination from FedEx the next day. He had a will notarized two days earlier and left it on his bed at 3630 Durrand Drive.

About 35 miles out of Memphis, Calloway entered the cockpit swinging a hammer at the crew in an attempt to take over the plane. The crew of three had to both fly the plane injured and fight off the man who was clearly attempting to kill them and take over the aircraft. Thirty-six minutes of hand-to-hand combat and aerobatic maneuvers designed more for a stunt plane than a DC 10 loaded with freight returned the plane to the runway just shy of Winchester Road.

All crew members survived and Calloway received a life sentence in federal prison.
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Read more articles by Devin Greaney.

Devin Greaney is a Memphis-based freelance writer and photographer who has been published in the Memphis DowntownerDeSoto Magazine and others. He works full time as an Emergency Medical Technician and had an extensive knowledge of the history and geography of the MidSouth area.