Music at the heart of Memphis
Walking in the footsteps of American blues, rock and soul giants
While enjoying a rich music legacy that includes W.C. Handy’s seminal work The Memphis Blues (published in 1912), the city fathers didn’t fully realize the economic value of promoting this element of Memphis history until witnessing the crowds visiting Graceland following Elvis’s death in 1977. Music is now considered an important factor in promoting the city, and several locations associated with its musical history have become major tourist attractions. Famed Beale Street, an area of the city once suffering from major decay, was spruced up and now brims with nightclubs, restaurants and stores.
Memphis today is known as the home of soul, a combination of blues popularized by musicians such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, along with jazz, gospel, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues. Later Memphis artists Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, and Sam and Dave combined these diverse elements into raw and powerful music distinctive to the U.S. South. Compare Thomas’s Walking the Dog, Sam and Dave’s Soul Man, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On with pop songs by the Supremes, Sam Cooke, and the Temptations produced by Motown’s Berry Gordy. Even Marvin Gaye, arguably the best soul singer of all, created a soothing, smooth sound on most of his Motown recordings.
Experiencing Memphis soul
Visitors interested in exploring the city’s musical roots can easily consume a full day. Daytime hours can be spent at several important historical venues mentioned below, while evening hours are wiled away on Beale Street. So, where to begin in a city with such a rich musical history?
Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum (191 Beale St.) is the place to launch a musical tour. Associated with the Smithsonian Institution, the museum opened in 2000, moving four years later to its present home in the FedExForum. It is located on the corner of Highway 61, the famed “blues trail” used for the title of Bob Dylan’s blues-influenced sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited.
The Rock ’n’ Soul Museum presents the overall story of Memphis’s music and social change from its early rural roots through the heyday of soul and rock that flowed from the city’s major studios. Each visitor receives a pair of headphones for a self-guided audio tour through multiple galleries. First, however, is an excellent film about the history of music in the Memphis area. Following the film, visitors stroll through the galleries and view the many exhibits. Some stops include the option of listening to a selection of songs. (A music writer participating with our tour said the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum is the best music museum he has visited, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.)
Sun Studio (706 Union Ave.) is music’s Promised Land for baby boomers, many of whom consider it the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. This is where studio owner Sam Phillips discovered Elvis Presley and recorded That’s All Right in 1954, which would become Elvis’s first single. It is where Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Bill Justis recorded. It is also where the “Million Dollar Quartet” of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash came together for their famous 1956 jam session.
Phillips began in the music business as a radio disc jockey. In 1950, he opened Memphis Recording Service, where he recorded local artists such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. It is also where, in 1951, he recorded Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston. During this period, Phillips was selling the recording masters to Chess Records, a well-known Chicago record company that specialized in blues, gospel and rock ’n’ roll. In 1952, Phillips launched the Sun Records label and continued recording at the Union Avenue studio until 1960, when he opened a new studio on Madison Avenue.
First-time visitors to Sun Studio are likely to be surprised at the small size of the entire operation. Tickets for tours are sold just inside the front door in a room reminiscent of a 1950s soda fountain. Our tour of about an hour was led by an energetic young man, himself a musician, who made the place come alive. The tour ends downstairs in the recording studio where the greats of rock ’n’ roll did their thing. The studio continues to be used during evenings when tours are not in progress. Although the original equipment is gone, the flooring remains unchanged, so you can stand in the same spots where Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny, Carl and B.B. recorded for Sam.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 E. McLemore Ave.) offers a look at the history of one of the most famous recording studios in Memphis. The studio that was to become Stax was started by Jim Steward and older sister Estelle Axton when they installed recording equipment in an old Memphis movie theater. Interestingly, some music aficionados believe the theater’s sloped floor produced recordings with a special sound that identified Stax music.
Founded in 1957 as Satellite Records and changed to Stax in 1960, the firm’s first major hit was Carla Thomas’s Gee Whiz. The studio went on to record important soul artists including Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes — most of whom were backed by studio band, Booker T. and the MGs (for Memphis Group), which enjoyed its own major hit with Green Onions. Unusual for the time, Booker T’s band was integrated.
Due to some unfortunate business deals — including supposedly unknowingly signing over to Atlantic Records the rights to pre-1968 Stax recordings and an inability to follow through on a 1972 business arrangement with Columbia Records — Stax went bankrupt and was out of business in 1976. The Soul Foundation that currently funds and oversees the museum also operates a charter school and a summer and after-school music academy.
Stax Museum is housed in a replica of the original Stax Studio that was torn down on the same location in 1989. The building is filled with exhibits related to the label’s former artists. These include clothing, record labels, photos, videos, instruments, recording equipment, Hayes’s 1972 Cadillac Eldorado, and even a 1906 Mississippi Delta gospel church. The tour includes a long stretch of wall covered with Stax records and album covers.
Related Memphis music sites
In addition to a stroll along Beale Street, no visit to Memphis is complete without a trip to Elvis Presley’s home: Graceland. Built in 1939, and purchased by Elvis in 1957, the mansion is maintained to allow visitors to see the building as it was when Elvis lived here. Graceland visitors also have the opportunity to tour Elvis’s two custom airplanes and the Elvis Automobile Museum, both across the street from the home.
Royal Studios (1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd.) is one of the city’s famous recording studios and continues to operate in its original location. It is not open for tours. Like Stax, the studio is in a former movie theater rented in the mid-1950s by Hi Records, the label that would include music greats such as Bill Black, Al Green, and Ike and Tina Turner. In later years, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart and Boz Scaggs recorded here. David and Kay Scott are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). Visit them at valdosta.edu/~dlscott/Scott
The living room at Graceland, left. Where but western Tennessee, below, would you find a barbershop this devoted to soul music? Many consider Sun Studio, bottom, as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.