Home of the blues. Birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. Incubator for soul and “sophisticated funk.” I’d venture to say that nothing has made Memphis more famous than our music. It would be too simple to say that the city is a magnet for musical talent, however. Rather, I like to say that we’re a crucible, where musical talent, innovation and collaboration combine to create a soundtrack people sing and dance to around the world.
Sam Phillips’ mantra sums it up nicely—“If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything”—yet he wasn’t the first revolutionary on Memphis’ music scene. In 1909, W.C. Handy sat inside Pee Wee’s Beale Street Saloon writing the lyrics to what would become “Memphis Blues” and his claim to fame as father of the genre. Memphis was the place where small-town dreamers came to chase big dreams, from B.B. King and Elvis Presley to Estelle Axton, Jim Stewart and Willie Mitchell. Where a patchwork of styles originating in the fields, the church, the clubs and the streets forever changed music.
But we never rested on our laurels. In the pages that follow, I’ll listen in on what’s happening with our studios, music-themed attractions, performance venues and events today. A couple of my favorite stories: Big Star drummer Jody Stephens is still creating in his role as vice president of production at Ardent Studios. While “Papa Willie” Mitchell has passed away, his son Boo works the control room at Royal these days, humble as ever about the studio’s role in “Uptown Funk” featuring Bruno Mars, 2016’s Grammy Record of the Year. I love hearing how our modern-day musicians riff on the musical legacy Memphis has built over these past 200 years. The result isn’t Sam Phillips’ or the Stewart siblings’ or Papa Willie’s music, but I think it would make them proud just the same.
Memphis music is a hybrid of Mississippi Delta styles. In 1972, Judy Peiser began documenting these origins, co-founding the Center for Southern Folklore. Driven by the mission to “preserve Delta culture,” the center archives audio clips, films and photographs depicting Southern life and art forms. Some of the items are on display at the center’s Folklore Store on South Main Street.
Since 1982, the center has also hosted the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, bringing live music, food and art to Downtown Memphis.
Sun Shines on Memphis
He was one of the first white Southerners to record black artists, including Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Jackie Brenston and Rufus Thomas. The man who discovered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Yet when Sam Phillips manned the control room at 706 Union Avenue, he probably had no idea that one day, people from all over the world would visit to learn about the sound that changed the world. More likely, he was preoccupied with the financial side of his business. Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA in 1955 to improve a situation he described to Rolling Stone as “hand-to-mouth.” In the 1960s, he sold the Sun Records label to Nashville’s Shelby Singleton and moved his studio around the block, where he could continue focusing on the unconventional sounds he was most passionate about.
The original Memphis Recording Service/Sun Records building changed hands, even housing a scuba store at one time. Then in 1985, star producer Chips Moman returned to record Class of ’55, reuniting original Sun stars Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. The studio’s silence was broken. In 1987, U2 booked the studio to record songs for their Rattle & Hum record, including “When Love Comes to Town.” The number featured original Sun artist B.B. King.
The burst of activity got Gary Hardy, a local musician, wondering: could the physical incarnation of Sun be revived? When Hardy first stepped on property, he was shocked to find so much of the original studio in tact. There were merely some missing acoustic tiles and changes had been made to the control room. That’s when the Smithsonian Institution and Sam Phillips got involved.
Phillips showed the museum team how his control room had looked. The team set to work restoring it while Hardy, and in time, the Schorr family, focused on building Sun Studio as a tourist destination.
Memphis’ Sun was shining bright again, then, on July 5, 2004, the 50th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I was there for the celebration, when the original recording of “That’s All Right (Mama)” was rebroadcast to a worldwide audience. Scotty Moore, the song’s guitarist, had the honor of pushing “play” on the tape machine that day. We were joined in the studio by Jerry and Knox Phillips, Jerry Schilling, George Klein, Isaac Hayes and Justin Timberlake. Thousands of music fans gathered outside along Union and Marshall Avenues, closed for the occasion.
In this vibrant new era for Sun, the studio is rocking again after tour hours, recording heavy-hitters like Chris Isaak and emerging artists whose performances are broadcast as the Sun Studio Sessions. Just one major change has been made in recent years: you can now see Dewey Phillips’ DJ booth—the very one he first broadcast Elvis Presley from on July 8, 1954—on your tour. When the booth was at risk during the redevelopment of the Hotel Chisca, a group of Sun employees salvaged it, piece by piece, relocating it to the landmark studio.
If it’s true that nothing has made Memphis more famous than our music, no one has made an impact quite like Sam Phillips.
Echoes of Sam
When Sam Phillips moved his studio from the original Sun location in 1960, he opened Sam Phillips Recording around the block. Through the years, original Sun musicians Scotty Moore and Roland Janes contributed as engineers. (Bob Dylan is just one artist who booked time at the studio in order to work with Janes.) To this day, the Phillips family remains active in operating the studio and acclaimed artists continue to seek it out. They’re drawn by the nearly all-analog (and nearly all-original) set-up, just the way Sam would have liked it.
A Landmark Venue, and a Family Affair
What we know today as the Levitt Shell was built in 1936 by the city and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). On July 30, 1954, following the airwave explosion of “That’s All Right (Mama),” Elvis Presley took the stage. Though Slim Whitman was billed as headliner, Presley whipped the crowd into a frenzy, stealing what’s commonly acknowledged as the first rock ‘n’ roll show. The following year, Johnny Cash would play; in the 1960s, Jim Dickinson helped stage the Memphis Country Blues Festivals, showcasing an integrated bill of artists including Furry Lewis and Sid Selvidge. In the 1970s, Rufus Thomas danced the “Funky Chicken” while performing alongside children Carla, Vaneese and Marvell.
Yet the next decades witnessed a push-and-pull between parties endeavoring to raze the Shell and others fighting to restore it. In 2005, a partnership between the city and the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation finally secured its future: since 2008, Memphians have taken advantage of the Shell’s lineup—some 50 free concerts every year. Keeping it in Memphis’ musical family, performers have included Lisa Marie Presley, Rosanne Cash, Carla and Vaneese Thomas, Jim Dickinson’s sons Luther and Cody, and Sid Selvidge’s son, Steve.
From Memphis to Broadway
Need more proof of the long shadow cast by Sun? In 2009, MEMPHIS, The Musical, began sweeping the Broadway circuit and, soon after, the Tony Awards. The show won Tonys in four categories in 2010, including Best Musical. It was inspired by Dewey Phillips and the cultural revolution he helped ignite by popularizing “race music” among white radio audiences. In 2010, Million Dollar Quartet debuted on Broadway, eventually entertaining audiences all the way to London’s West End. The musical depicts the relationships and legendary jam session between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash orchestrated by Sam Phillips in 1956.
A Kingly Decision
As Sam Phillips marked a changing of the guard in the realm of music, Elvis Presley was the king he helped to crown. While Presley tried to live a semi-private life at the Graceland mansion he bought in 1957, it was not uncommon to see fans hanging around the front gate taking pictures and hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero.
After Presley’s death just 20 years later, fans did not stop coming. Family members still lived in the mansion and over the next few years, there was much discussion over what should become of it.
At one point, the managers of the Presley estate considered donating Graceland to the Memphis museum system. The city spent $50,000 on a feasibility study. It concluded that the opportunity to celebrate the life and career of Elvis Presley wouldn’t last beyond a couple of years, and the city passed on the opportunity to take possession of Graceland.
One day while Priscilla Presley was meeting with a financial advisor, Jack Soden, the topic came up. They decided to embark on a discovery phase. Soden remembers, “We visited other private homes that had done the same thing, places like Hearst Castle, Monticello, Mount Vernon and Thomas Edison’s home.” The exercise led to the decision to open Graceland to the public in 1982.
It took just $540,000 cash from the estate and 10 months to prepare the mansion, eased by the fact that Elvis kept almost everything—the King’s clothes, awards, cars and furniture were readily available. The project team was guided by Priscilla, Jack and a sense of urgency: Knoxville was hosting the 1982 World’s Fair from May 1 to October 31. Graceland opened on June 7, 1982, just in time to catch the attention of the fair’s millions of attendees.
As for the $540,000 investment, it was recouped in less than 60 days. In its first year of operation, Graceland welcomed nearly half-a-million visitors. The mansion soon became one of the most visited houses in the U.S., a National Historic Landmark and a point of pilgrimage for fans from all over the world. Some visit annually during Elvis Week in August or for Presley’s birthday celebration in January. Others drop in at random to place flowers and letters on his gravesite on the grounds.
By 2016, visitors to Graceland had passed 20,000,000. That was also the year that the estate unveiled the Guest House at Graceland. At 450 rooms, it is the largest hotel project in our city since the Peabody was rebuilt in the 1920s! In 2017, the estate made another addition to the campus. The Elvis Presley’s Memphis entertainment complex includes a new museum documenting Elvis’ career and some old favorites: the King’s two custom airplanes and 20-plus automobiles (displayed in the new Presley Motors Museum).
Now consider this: Graceland and Sun Studio both opened for public tours in the 1980s, an era when the city and hospitality industry were adding amenities of their own to the Memphis cityscape. By the end of the decade, Memphis would emerge as a global tourism destination, one that generates more than $3 billion dollars annually today.
Welcome to Soulsville, U.S.A.
Memphis is where the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel meet. Anywhere else, this might be nothing more than an interesting coincidence. But this is Memphis, and it’s no coincidence—it’s a magic we call soul music.
Part of the magic is how the music came to be. In 1950s Memphis, a period of segregation in our city, a white fiddler named Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, rented a movie house in an African-American neighborhood. They rigged the theater into a record shop/recording studio and began inviting neighbors and school kids to audition. They styled themselves Stax Records and the hits started flowing. Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Memphis Horns—at Stax, they created a sound that shook the world. You can feel its aftershocks when you listen to the original Stax hits today. But do me a favor and watch footage of the studio’s 1967 performances in Europe and at California’s Monterey Pop Festival. Then you’ll really understand, if you didn’t live it, how the music coming out of Memphis at that time impacted audiences around the world.
As dramatic as Stax’s rise was its fall. The business was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1976. The makeshift studio that had introduced Memphis Soul to the world was eventually razed. Al Bell, who rose from Stax’s in-house promoter to studio owner, recalls, “I would drive over and look at that empty lot and remember all we had experienced there and I would cry.”
Thanks to a devoted cohort, Stax’s story didn’t end there. In 1997, a ceremony was organized to recognize artists whose careers were disrupted by the label’s demise. The artists were presented with gold records at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street. “That was the precursor,” explains Deanie Parker, Stax artist-turned-executive. Reflecting on the kindred spirits who filled the club alongside her that day, Parker recalls, “We didn’t say it to each other, but I’m sure we were picking up on each other’s vibes . . . this concept about what could be formed out of the ashes.” In January 1998, some of those same individuals gathered on the blighted corner once anchored by Stax. They gave voice to both doubts and dreams: could they build something meaningful from the rubble? Could that something be a shrine to Stax and a balm for the neighborhood, especially its children? The consensus was yes. The Soulsville Foundation was formed and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened in 2003. Bell again: “When the museum was constructed and I came around the corner and saw the marquee, I began to cry again . . . this time it was tears of joy.”
Since the museum’s opening, a charter school has been established onsite. Blues great Memphis Slim’s home has been renovated across the street, creating practice and recording space for the community. Stax artists have been recognized by the White House. The Stax Music Academy has performed across the world, most recently in the summer of 2017 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stax’s groundbreaking European revue. Clearly, Stax is back, though you could argue that its spirit never left. As Parker, who went on to serve as president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, sees it: “The Stax sound came out of the bowels of Soulsville, U.S.A., and it’s still there. I hear it in the performances of the children we work with everyday.”
On August 20, 1972, a big idea of Al Bell’s took center stage. Bell had been brainstorming ways to promote Stax on the west coast when the 7th Annual Watts Summer Festival, commemorating the 1965 Watts Rebellion, was announced. Bell organized a concert by Stax artists for the festival. The Staple Singers performed anthems including “I’ll Take You There” (written by Bell) and “Respect Yourself.” Isaac Hayes presented “Theme From Shaft.” Wattstax drew more than 112,000 people to California’s Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that day. A documentary and live recording of the concert carried its message of empowerment even further when the record sold 500,000-plus copies within weeks of its release. To the groove of Memphis music, Wattstax captured a snapshot of African-American culture nationwide.
“Yes! Memphis is in the house!”
These words were spoken by First Lady Michelle Obama on April 9, 2013, as a prelude to “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul.” The evening’s entertainment featured Sam Moore singing “Soul Man,” Steve Cropper and Justin Timberlake collaborating on “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and performances by William Bell, Eddie Floyd and Mavis Staples. In a nod to Memphis’ Hi Records, Queen Latifah channeled Ann Peebles in her rendition of “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Harmonizing it all was the production’s musical director, Booker T. Jones.
In 2007, 50 years after Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton opened their recording studio at College Street and East McLemore Avenue, Concord Music of Beverly Hills, California, reactivated the Stax Records label. The label continues to sign new artists influenced by the Stax sound, including Memphis band Southern Avenue. Meanwhile, David Porter, the Stax songwriter who created soul classics with co-writer Isaac Hayes, has been busy building his own studio and label. Made in Memphis Entertainment is Porter’s vehicle for cultivating local talent and sustaining the music business as a vital part of Memphis’ economy.
Near the original home of Stax Records, in another theater-turned-studio, a trumpeter recorded a singer he met at a gig in 1969. The trumpeter was Willie Mitchell; the singer was Al Green. Together, they made a name for Royal Studios and Hi Records, an incubator for what Mitchell called “sophisticated funk.” While Boo Mitchell has followed in his father’s footsteps at Royal, you’ll find the Rev. Al Green at Memphis’ Full Gospel Tabernacle, where he continues to lead worship most Sunday mornings.
Home of the Blues
In 1980, Joe Savarin struck out to celebrate and preserve an iconic element of American culture. Blues was the genre that claimed W.C. Handy for a father, B.B. as its king and the Mississippi Delta all the way to Beale Street as its birthplace. Mainstream rock bands appreciated the blues, especially British bands. But in the U.S., blues music was not mainstream.
Savarin created a nonprofit, the Blues Foundation, and an annual awards show to recognize artists of the genre. Awardees, and their recordings and writings, were inducted into a Blues Hall of Fame even though there was no brick-and-mortar facility to honor them. The foundation added another annual event in 1984, the International Blues Challenge, as a showcase and competition for its hundreds of member affiliates worldwide.
For an organization with members all over the world, the Blues Foundation worked off of a very modest budget. There were times when debt pushed the foundation to the brink. In 2002, things looked so grim, I traveled with staff members to Baton Rouge to entertain a proposal for relocation. Louisiana was offering a state grant for us to relocate to a newly redeveloped area of downtown Baton Rouge. As the head of Memphis tourism and chairman of the Blues Foundation board, I found myself in a difficult situation. But in my heart, I was decided: there was no way that I was going to allow this Memphis tradition to leave town.
In 2003, a blues-loving attorney named Jay Sieleman began directing the foundation toward a rose-colored future. During his tenure, the annual W.C. Handy Awards morphed into the Blues Music Awards and gained universal acceptance as the pinnacle of achievement within the genre. The International Blues Challenge grew, too. The event still draws more than 250 acts to Memphis every January, the world’s largest gathering of blues musicians. Foundation fundraising took off and a longtime dream of building a physical hall of fame started to feel real.
In 2015, 35 years after inducting the inaugural class of artists into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Blues Foundation debuted its monument to them: a $2.5-million facility on South Main Street packed with artifacts and digital archives detailing every inductee and their contributions. I remember when inductee Bobby Rush saw his career memorialized for the world to see. He looked part-humbled, part-blown away as he turned to me and said, “I’m glad that I lived long enough to see this become a reality. I just wish some of my contemporaries could have lived . . . to see their work and careers honored like this.
Among Memphians, the Blues Foundation is something of a hidden gem. Yet it’s a global organization with a sweeping mission: to keep the blues alive through preservation, celebration, performance and awareness. Foundation initiatives such as Blues in the Schools and the HART Fund (Handy Artists Relief Trust) support the mission, providing education and assistance surrounding this amazing American art form.
The Blues Ball
Most Memphians who are old enough to remember the day that Elvis Presley died can tell you where they were when they heard the news. I had just finished a match at the old Wimbleton Tennis Club. Pat Tigrett remembers heading into a doctor’s office, visibly shaken. The receptionist asked Tigrett what was wrong but when she explained that Presley had passed away, the receptionist was unmoved. At that moment, Tigrett vowed to create an event that would salute Memphis musicians for their impact at home and abroad. In 1994, the Blues Ball was born. For 22 years, Tigrett’s ball was one of the biggest events on Memphis’ social calendar. Most importantly, it was a way for the city to thank artists such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes for making Memphis the home of the blues, birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and cradle of soul.
Tributes that Rock
Once upon a time, Charlie McGovern and Pete Daniel, researchers with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, analyzed the origins of American music. Their journey started in the Mississippi Delta and traced the footsteps of black and white musicians, focusing intently on where the musicians’ paths intertwined. No surprise to us: the researchers concluded that all roads led to Memphis.
In 1996, honoring the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary, McGovern and Daniel’s research informed a Smithsonian-quality exhibit. Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads explored how Delta blues, country and gospel music fused with the sounds of Beale Street to form new genres inside Sun, Stax and Royal Studios.
Community leaders including Charlie Ryan and Carol Coletta worked with local government officials to ensure that the exhibit would find a permanent home in Memphis. On April 29, 2000, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum opened in Downtown Memphis’ new Gibson Guitar building. The museum’s affiliation with the Smithsonian was the first of its kind; never before had the world’s largest museum and research complex created an exhibit and turned it over to a community.
I think we’ve been excellent shepherds. In 2004, we gave the Rock ‘n’ Soul a more prominent home at FedExForum. Over its short history, the museum has shared the whole story of Memphis music—from jug bands and jazz orchestras to vanguards of blues, rock, soul and rap—with hundreds of thousands of visitors.
In time, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum assumed operation of a new tribute to Memphis music. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame began inducting members in 2012. A physical hall debuted in 2015 next to the Lansky Bros. clothing store, where Elvis Presley, Rufus Thomas and so many other Memphis Music Hall of Famers were dressed for success.