Memphis Musicians
Samantha Crespo | January, 2019

Near the end of the 20th century, the Smithsonian assigned researchers to uncover the origins of American music. The journey started in the Mississippi Delta, tracing the footsteps of black and white musicians to the place where their paths intertwined. That place was Memphis. 

Maybe you didn’t need the Smithsonian to tell you that. Maybe you knew the stories: how the work songs and spirituals of Africans—brought to America as slaves—passed down through generations, carried from the field and country church to the big city. For the slaves, later sharecroppers, of the Mississippi Delta, the big city was Memphis.

Yes, Memphis was the center of the global cotton exchange. But it was also Beale Street, where W.C. Handy sat composing inside Pee Wee’s Saloon, vaudeville troupes circuited The Orpheum Theatre, big bands like the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra drew crowds inside venues (while raucous ensembles like the Memphis Jug Band drew them out)—and Delta dreamers set their sights. 

For some artists, Beale paved a way to propel themselves—and their distinct musical styles—beyond the Delta: Lunceford’s orchestra replaced Cab Calloway’s as the house band at New York’s Cotton Club; Memphis Minnie, periodic frontwoman for the Memphis Jug Band, took her country blues to Chicago and helped shape that city’s electric sound. But Beale’s reputation as a swirl of sounds and good times was set, and the dreamers kept on coming. Among them: B.B. King (short for “Beale Street Blues Boy”), Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips, the renegade who recorded them all. 

Not unlike many Beale Street musicians, Phillips came from a family of tenant farmers. From a young age, he was struck by the musicality of the black community around him. It gripped him again as a teenager, driving Beale Street on a family visit to Memphis. When he returned to the city as an adult, it was to stay, and to open a recording studio. 

Inside Sam’s studio, no tradition was sacred. He was one of the first white Southerners to record black bluesmen. One of the first to make music that teens could call their own. And one of the first to blur the boundaries of pure genres to create an entirely new sound: rock ‘n’ roll. Ethnomusicologists describe it as black rhythm-and-blues meets white country music. Your hips know it as “Rocket 88”: performed by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, engineered by Sam Phillips—inspired by a busted amp. Three years later, Phillips followed his intuition again in a session with 19-year-old Elvis Presley. The result was a culture-quaking overhaul of Arthur Crudup’s blues song “That’s All Right (Mama).” 

It was bound to happen, this mash-up of musical styles, in a place where so many genres coexisted. Beale Street created the unique conditions for artists of different genres to hear each other; Sam Phillips’ success at Sun Studio gave artists and producers the guts to experiment with those genres—even create new ones. 

When Sun’s glow spread to south Memphis, it set off a soul fusion. Where blues plus country made rock ‘n’ roll, soul was the love child of blues, rock and gospel— raised on emotion. Its global explosion started with a spark in an old moviehouse, where a white fiddler named Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle invited auditions. Beale Street veteran Rufus Thomas walked up with daughter Carla. A backing band assembled on the fly of local high-schoolers and session pros riffed their way into “Green Onions” (in addition to cutting the hit, Booker T. & the MGs became a vanguard for integrated bands). Otis Redding drove in from Georgia as a backup singer. Sam Moore and Dave Prater became Sam & Dave in the care of Stax’s songwriting team, David Porter and Isaac Hayes; the Staple Singers came in singing gospel and folk and left belting black-empowerment anthems.  

Not far from Stax, a jazz trumpeter named Willie Mitchell parlayed band-leading gigs on Beale and writing arrangements for Sun into a job at Royal Studios. For the studio’s upstart label, Hi Records, Mitchell was arranger, musician, session leader and engineer—until a top-10 R&B hit took him on the road. That was where he met a gospel-group defector named Al Green. Mitchell shaped a sound around Green characterized by choral and string arrangements and a laid-back but relentless groove. Mitchell called it “sophisticated funk,” and when he took over at Royal, he put it behind vocalists from Ann Peebles to Otis Clay.

Just as Beale and Sun had emboldened Memphis to bare its soul, Stax encouraged another fledgling studio—with a sound of its own—in the city. As a high-schooler, John Fry had shopped for vinyl at Stax’s record store and dreamed up Ardent Studios in his parents’ garage. When Stax’s production outgrew its capacity, the label outsourced work to Ardent. But Fry was also working to develop Ardent as a label in its own right. In time, artists including Jim Dickinson, Big Star, ZZ Top and R.E.M. honed both craft and sound at the studio. 

By the end of the 20th century, there were more styles of music swirling around Memphis than ever. Juicy J and Three 6 Mafia were layering haunting vocals with entrancing drum machine beats, pioneering Southern rap. Goner Records was amplifying garage rock from Memphis and beyond. A band called Lucero was conjuring a mix of punk, rock and country. Memphis’ musical legacy was reaching a new generation of artists, who riffed on it and created new sounds. 
The tradition has rolled right into the 21st century. In 2019, Memphis’ bicentennial year, there’s live music on Beale Street every night. Native son Justin Timberlake will return for the second Memphis engagement of his sixth world tour. Emerging artists are recording again at Sun (listen out for Liz Brasher). At Sam Phillips Recording, Phillips’ post-Sun venture, the Phillips family is still at work—alongside Grammy-winning engineer Matt Ross-Spang. From the ashes of Stax, forced into bankruptcy in the 1970s, a flock of phoenixes has risen: the revived Stax Records label, signing talent including the city’s own Southern Avenue, and the Stax Music Academy, where students are trained in the tradition of Memphis Soul (you might catch them performing at the Levitt Shell, where Elvis played his first paid gig). While Willie Mitchell has passed away, his son Boo works the control room at Royal these days, recording artists including Bruno Mars and Drake. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens is still creating at Ardent, now as vice president of production, and the studio continues recording (native Memphian/indie rocker Julien Baker, as of late).

But it might be the city’s oldest and youngest music festivals that best capture the essence of Memphis music. At the inveterate Beale Street Music Festival, it’s not uncommon for a singer-songwriter like Margo Price (fresh off recording at Sun and Sam Phillips) to share the bill with new-guard Memphis rapper Young Dolph and the North Mississippi Allstars, featuring the sons of Jim Dickinson rockin’ Hill Country blues. At Mempho, celebrating its third year in 2019, the lineup might swing from the Stax-era grooves of The Bar-Kays to the Americana anthems of Lucero to the beats of Juicy J to a neo-soul showcase curated by Boo Mitchell. It’s that swirl of original sounds—and the flow of one right into the next—that makes “Memphis music” a genre of its own.