Mu­sic at the heart of Mem­phis

Walk­ing in the foot­steps of Amer­i­can blues, rock and soul gi­ants

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - TRAVEL -

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

PHO­TOS BY DAVID SCOTT / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

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.

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