Travel: Why melody is part of Memphis’s DNA

City of music

By Stuart Forster

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Photo: Stuart Forster
Photo: Stuart Forster

Published: Thu 26 May 2022, 7:48 PM

The Sun Studio is a modest brickwork building. Just two storeys high, it stands at the junction of Marshall and Union avenues in Memphis, Tennessee. It would be easy to drive by without giving the place a second glance, despite the oversized guitar mounted above the entrance — plenty of facades have those in this city. Yet for music aficionados, the studio is a place of pilgrimage.

Sam Phillips was aged 27 when he established the Memphis Recording Service in January 1950, explains tour guide Jeff as he leads a group through the building that many people regard as the birthplace of rock and roll. While we view exhibits in the compact first floor museum, he plays a recording of Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Recorded on the premises in the spring of 1951, the song is often referenced as the first single of the genre that dominated popular music over the next two decades.

The tour concludes in the ground floor recording studio whose walls display framed monochrome photos of musicians at work. They include pictures of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ recording session of 1956, which saw Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley jamming together.

Musicians continue to lay down tracks at the Sun Studio. Pointing to the drum set by the door, Jeff explains that it was left to the studio by Larry Mullen Jr following a U2 recording session. The studio’s metallic Shure 55 microphone may look like a museum artefact but it still functions. Jeff informs us that it was sung into by Elvis and invites us to grab the stand and cradle the mic while snapping photos before departing.

For music fans there’s much to experience in Tennessee. Memphis may have exerted a greater influence on 20th century popular music than any other city on the planet. Rock and roll evolved out of the confluence of musical influences that flowed together in the nearby Mississippi Delta, including gospel, country and blues.

To discover more, I head to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. “We’re the only museum in the world where the Smithsonian Institution put the entire exhibit together and turned it over to the city where it exists,” explains executive director John Doyle before I’m handed a headset for a self-guided tour.

The attraction is less than a kilometre from the USA’s National Civil Rights Museum, which explains key moments in African-Americans’ struggle for equality. That movement is intertwined with the evolution of rock and roll in the 1950s. “At the time, our country was segregated… black musicians and white musicians were coming together, and if it wasn’t for that influence rock and roll wouldn’t have happened,” says John.

Over at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, I stroll along corridors whose walls display the extensive collection of vinyl released by Stax, its associated record labels. I learn about the rise and fall of an institution that nurtured talents like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas. By far the blingiest exhibit is Isaac Hayes’ revolving Cadillac Eldorado with 24-carat gold exterior trim.

The adjacent music academy teaches youngsters about all aspects of the music industry. Students study the music and work of Stax artistes. Locally born Justin Timberlake, one of the inductees of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, is one of the contemporary artistes who make visits to the academy.

Blues is another musical genre with roots in the city. Beale Street is dotted with clubs that host regular live performances. A bronze statue of W.C. Handy holding a cornet stands in the park named after the composer and performer. His two-room wooden house was relocated to Beale Street and tells the story of the man who liked to be known as ‘the Father of the Blues’. He also features in the Blues Hall of Fame Museum on South Main Street, outside of which a statue of Little Milton Campbell cradles a guitar.

Arguably, the most recognisable statue in the city is that of Elvis Presley at the plaza named after him at the intersection of Beale and Main streets. Born in neighbouring Mississippi, Elvis graduated from Memphis’ Humes High School in 1953. Heartbreak Hotel, his first number one single, topped the charts in 1956.

He purchased the Graceland mansion, on the periphery of the city, the following year. June 7, 2022, is the 40th anniversary of Graceland opening to the public. The mansion in which the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ relaxed remains largely unchanged. That isn’t true of the opposite side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. A vast visitor complex has evolved. Private aircraft, motor vehicles and white jumpsuits count among the array of items displayed. Additionally, fans have the option of staying at the 450-room Guest House at Graceland.

Exploring the city, it’s evident that music is a part of Memphis’ DNA and many famous tunes would be markedly different without Memphis.

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