Memphis Music: Hear the Beat

Rhythm. Sound. The beat.

Call it whatever you want, but few cities truly have their own musical mojo. And Memphis certainly is at the top of the heap when it comes to hearing the American music beat.

Here, the rhythm isn’t one-dimensional but rather the melding of melodies, a blend of syncopation, from lament-filled blues to the steady beat of rock to the grooves of old-time soul. A trip to Memphis isn’t complete unless it includes some of the myriad music experiences – and historic venues – the city has to offer.

Every note of music that has emerged from Memphis started with the notes played on Beale Street. It was here that the blues found an urban home, having floated up Highway 61 from the Mississippi Delta. W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie and B.B. King all played regularly here, and King still comes back occasionally to his namesake club at the corner of Second and Beale to thrill a hometown crowd.

The sweet notes of live music pour out of each club as you stroll down Beale Street. In the center of the street at W.C. Handy Park, musicians gather regularly on the stage to entertain passersby. It is the rare club on Beale that doesn’t offer live music nightly. Alfred’s presents a mix of cover bands, the Eric Hughes blues band and an Elvis tribute artist, while B.B. King’s stays true to the blues with up-and-coming artists like Will Tucker.

Silky O’Sullivan’s offers two grand pianos backing up blues singers – and the tavern’s resident goat – while Rum Boogie mixes blues with some good old-fashioned rock. (Be sure to spot the signatures on guitars hanging on the bar’s walls. You’ll be impressed!)

Gonerfest in Memphis - Craig Thompson
Music at Rum Boogie Cafe

Once you get off of Beale Street the blues may fade a bit, but traditional and indie rock pick up the beat. In Midtown, Minglewood Hall offers dozens of shows a year, with an emphasis on small touring rock acts. Small bands play in the always-hopping bar area of Ernestine & Hazel’s on South Main, while Mollie Fontaine Lounge dishes up small plates and jazz singers. The Young Avenue Deli offers hundreds of beers to choose from while one grooves to local rock groups, and nearby Goner Records – an independent label and record store – offers in-store concerts most weekends.

It may seem as if there’s a church on every corner in Memphis, but there’s no other church where you can hear the Rev. Al Green – yes, the Al Green – sing (and preach) in such an intimate setting. The good reverend, known for love songs like “Let’s Stay Together,” leads a mighty inspirational service at Full Gospel Tabernacle, if you can catch him. Call ahead or check his website to see if he’s in town on any given Sunday.

Music fills public spaces in Memphis as well. The historic Levitt Shell in Overton Park, where a young Elvis performed with Johnny Cash, was resurrected in recent years and now hosts free concerts from spring through fall featuring diverse acts that are family-friendly. The summer concert series at Memphis Botanic Garden brings national acts – from Bonnie Raitt and Lynyrd Skynyrd to Michael Bublé to Donna Summer – into its gorgeous garden setting, filling the lawn with music lovers enjoying alfresco picnics under the stars.

Memphis also offers professional music companies, including the Memphis Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Robert Moody, and Opera Memphis, where soprano superstar Kallen Esperian often appears with the chorus.
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