Southern Visionaries: Memphis

Oxford American Music Issue, November 2017

In Memphis, people walk Beale Street to conjure the original blues boys. They step into studios—Sun, Stax—to feel the nascent rumblings of rock and soul. They pass through the gates of Graceland to contemplate sounds that shook the world.
The places and the music reverberating through them serve as reminders: something different happens in the crucible of Memphis, where forces are drawn together to create something new. 

Once upon a time, Memphis was the big city that turned small-town dreamers into kings: Elvis, Riley B. And Sam Phillips, the revolutionary who produced them. You’ve seen their stories play out on Broadway, film, and television (Mick Jagger is producing another interpretation, a Phillips biopic). Standing inside Sun Studio today, you can’t help but wonder how such a bang originated in the impossibly small space, seemingly sagging beneath Phillips’ DIY acoustic tiles. A few bars into “Rocket 88”—distorted at Phillips’ urging to forge a magical, modern sound—you’ll be a believer.
The entrepreneurial spirit embodied by Phillips, and his mantra that “if you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything,” are as vital to Memphis’ identity as the Mississippi River. Consider that and it’s not so far-fetched to imagine the Stewart siblings inviting neighborhood kids to audition at their moviehouse-turned-studio, then to imagine that studio—Stax Records—introducing the world to Memphis Soul (headlined by a vanguard for integrated bands, Booker T. & the MGs). In another theater nearby, a jazz trumpeter recorded a singer he’d met on the road, making a name for Al Green and Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, incubator for what Mitchell called “sophisticated funk.”
Today you can visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on the former site of Stax Records. Amid a hall of vinyl hits and Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac, Stax hosts live music in a replica of its storied Studio A. You might witness a performance by Stax Music Academy, the student training program that shares space on the museum campus. The students spent summer 2017 performing in the U.K. and France to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Stax/Volt European Tour.
As for Royal, ask Tad Pierson, who runs American Dream Safari cultural expeditions out of his 1955 Cadillac, for a drive-by. The working studio is closed to the public, but you have to see its facade to believe Royal’s modesty despite its influence over the last 60 years. “Papa” Willie Mitchell has passed away, but his son “Boo” works the control room these days, humble as ever about Royal’s role in “Uptown Funk,” 2016’s GRAMMY Record of the Year.
There’s no doubt that Memphis honors its musical legacy. (Sam Phillips’ family is back in the control room too—all analog, naturally—at his last working studio, Sam Phillips Recording.) But Memphis’ modern musicians riff on the legacy, evolving and collaborating. The result isn’t Mr. Phillips’ or the Stewart siblings’ or “Papa” Mitchell’s music, but it would make them proud for its originality and ability to bring people together. Listen as the beat goes on:
The Levitt Shell, where a young Elvis stole what’s called the first-ever rock-and-roll show, hosts 50 free concerts a year. You might catch raw talent like Southern Avenue, fronted by Israeli-born blues guitarist Ori Naftaly and Tierinii Jackson, whose blazing vocals kindled in her family’s Memphis church.   
Memphis Music Mansion is a private home, Airbnb, and, at times, a listening room. Once a month, the owners invite the public to hear artists who are in town to record and/or local musicians—Americana singer/songwriter Mark Edgar Stuart recently dropped in.
Ken Steorts was touring as a musician when he had an idea: to create small communities of students training for careers in music. With four campuses—the flagship in Memphis—and an international student base, Visible Music College has taken root. Hear what students are up to at songwriter nights and showcases around town.
If it’s Saturday night, head to the Cooper-Young neighborhood. Do dinner or drinks anywhere. Pop into Goner Records to talk about Memphis punk. Hit Bar DKDC late for whichever band’s playing (maybe the innovators of “Swamp Soul,” Marcella & Her Lovers). Then set an alarm. Reverend Al Green’s expecting you for Sunday morning service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle.

November, 2017