Memphis Music and Heritage Festival at Center for Southern Folklore

Memphis Soul


Craig Thompson

Jayne Ellen White | August, 2019
Listen to this Ultimate Memphis Soul Playlist

Memphis has a signature genre–– The Memphis Sound can be a slow emotional build of notes and horns, a cool, laid-back groovy instrumental, a protest folk song sung and written in order to heal the people, or a fast and funky dance break with a big bass line. Anyway you shake it, it’s all about Soul music in Memphis. Here is a brief history of our city’s signature music genre, where to experience it during your visit, and what to listen to while you're planning your Memphis vacation.

The beginnings of American popular music are deeply connected to Memphis. Beale Street, one of the South’s first Black entertainment districts, roared in the 1920’s with the sound of W.C. Handy’s Blues and attracted both musicians and audiences near and far. By the 1950’s, the influence of Beale’s Blues and Southern Gospel music, combined with the influence of popular Country music radio shows, and so created the big bang of Rock N Roll at Sun Studio. The recordings made in Memphis by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others ushered in a rebellious new sound that defined a generation.

By the early 1960’s, Memphis was on to yet another creative blend of sounds and musical influences. In 1961, siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton renovated the Capitol Theatre in South Memphis at the corner of College and McLemore Avenue, where they began recording artists for the Stax Record Company. The slope of the theatre floor, as well as the sound paneling, and curtains added by Stewart and Axton aided in what became the signature sound of the label’s Studio A. Later, on the marquee of the old theatre, the words Soulsville USA, identified the recording studio as the official incubator for this new Memphis sound to thrive across the globe. 

It was the house band at Stax, Booker T & The MG’s, that would be responsible for defining so much of The Memphis Sound. Bandleader, Booker T. Jones turned the common Hammond B-3 church organ into the rhythmic groove, or the funky lead melody of a song. Jones often switched between lead and rhythm with soon to be legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, while Donald “Duck” Dunn walked Blues bass lines, and Al Jackson Jr. kept impeccable time on the drums. Aside from making a number one record, “Green Onions”, for the label in 1963, Booker T. & The MG’s can be heard on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man”, Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”, and hundreds of other Stax recordings. 

The Memphis Horns, the famous horn section consisting of Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, are also heard on countless Stax recordings, and are another key element of our city’s signature music genre. While the Stax sound evolved into the soundtrack of The Civil Rights Movement, and became known for the 1970’s avant-garde recordings of Isaac Hayes, and pre Hip-Hop Funk records by Rufus Thomas, another label was making Soul music history only a few blocks away––and The Memphis Horns were playing on those recordings too. 

In 1963, producer and musician Willie Mitchell signed with Hi Records, a then struggling Rockabilly label located inside Royal Studio. By 1968, Mitchell had taken over the label and was producing Soul and R&B classics by Al Green, Don Bryant, Syl Johnson, and others. The Hi Rhythm Section was the house band, and consisted of the slick grooves of The Hodges brothers–– Charlie, Leroy, and Teenie Hodges- plus Howard Grimes or sometimes Al Jackson Jr. from Booker T & The MG’s on drums. The instruments on the classic Hi recordings were the same as the house band at Stax– drums, bass, guitar, and organ, but Mitchell’s production and the bright licks of legendary guitarist Teenie Hodges, carved out a distinct sound for the label.

The iconic recordings made at Stax and Royal in the 60’s and 70’s have been sampled in hundreds of records since, and have heavily influenced today’s modern Pop, Rap, Hip-Hop, R&B, Country, and Gospel music genres all over the globe. Soul music is a universal language, and it is still thriving in Memphis. Modern, traditional, and Neo Soul musicians are prevalent in Memphis today, and below are a few places to watch them play live.

Southern Avenue at Stax
See the iconic instruments played by Booker T & The MG’s, plus an amazing collection of more than 2,000 interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, memorabilia, and – of course – Isaac Hayes' gold-plated, peacock blue 1972 Superfly Cadillac ElDorado.


          A FREE family friendly Soul music and neighborhood festival in the heart of Soulsville
          USA. The festival takes place on the corner of College and Mclemore, where famed Stax             
          Records made history. Food trucks, crafts, local vendors, and 4 stages with 15+
          Soul bands.


            This is a family friendly TWO day festival Soul music festival.
            Headliners include Grammy nominated Eric Roberson, and soulful Gospel singer Callie Day.
            Full line up to be announced in September.


          The annual induction ceremony at the Cannon center will celebrate the 
          careers of Soul artist Don Bryant, and legendary guitar player Steve Cropper. 
          Tickets are on sale did.