Memphis As Musical Mecca

It's Home to Blues, Soul and Rock ‘n’ Roll

B.B. King: David Jaimeson

B.B. King Sings the Blues

Elvis Presley. Photo Credit: EPE

Elvis Presley, King of Rock 'n' Roll

Sun Studio exterior with tourists

The first rock n roll record ever was recorded at Sun Studio. Photo by Brand USA

Gibson Guitar Factory

Putting the final touches on a Gibson Guitar. Photo by Andrea Zucker.

Isaac Hayes car at Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Photo Credit: Dan Ball

Isaac Hayes’ restored peacock-blue1972 Superfly Cadillac El Dorado at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music - Photo by Dan Ball

Robert Johnson Exhibit at Rock n Soul Museum

Robert Johnson Blues Exhibit at Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.

Bike Night on Beale Street: Craig Thompson

Bike Night on Beale Street puts hundreds of motorcycles on display. Photo by Craig Thompson.

Before there were boy bands, there were bands with men in them. Men who played instruments. Men who had something to say. Men who could move you with their voices and nothing else if they wanted to. Men, in other words, with soul. Anyone with an interest in music -- meaning anyone who owns a record or two -- should pay homage to these soul men by visiting the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Located on the legendary McLemore Avenue, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is an exact replica of the former Stax recording studio, home to soul legends like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett and Rufus Thomas, to name just a few. Built in 2002, the museum experience literally takes visitors through a living timeline of Southern music, from the small country church to Isaac Hayes’ solid gold Cadillac Eldorado. In addition to artifacts, historic gold records and rare video footage, the museum hosts a number of live music events in its Studio One space. In the same exact spot where Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and the rest of the Stax house band the Bar-Kays cranked out hit after hit for over 15 years, the museum puts on live soul revues for legendary and current artists.

But for a more current and riveting soul experience, visitors to Memphis need to get up early on Sunday mornings and make a pilgrimage to Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. Not far from the Stax Museum, Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church offers one of the purest soul music experiences in the city. Granted, it’s gospel, but it’s Al Green, and he’s taking you to the source of all soul music. Services being around 11 a.m. and often end around 2, sometimes later. It’s not a gig or a show, or even a club. It’s church, so bring your heart, your stamina and your wallet for donations. You won't regret it; it’s a religious experience in every way.

Critics like to cite the “British Invasion” of the 1960s as the catalyst for modern rock music. Memphis begs to differ. Cleveland claims it’s the birthplace of rock 'n' roll with its big old museum. Memphis can only laugh. L.A. is often described as the epicenter of the music industry. Maybe so, but Memphis knows where rock began.

At Sun Studio.

A modest brick building on Union Avenue most folks wouldn’t give a second glance, Sun Studio gave birth to the rock 'n' roll we all know. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all cut records at Sun. Today, it’s more than a home for rock memorabilia; it’s a living experience kept alive by a motley crew of local musicians, actors and writers who do more than show you around. With their charm, wit and storytelling, these tour guides bring you back to a time when Sam Phillips captured lightning in a bottle.

Sun didn’t just give birth to rock 'n' roll, it gave birth to its king. The King, that is. Anyone who makes it to Memphis absolutely, positively has to make a stop at Graceland. Often referred to as a mansion, Graceland has modest features in comparison to most homes today. But its interior and its stories are what continue to bring people to its door. One of the most beloved national landmarks Graceland, as well as its slew of Elvis exhibits (you can check out his planes!), is a unique window into the imagination of the first American idol. Listen to original recordings, tour his jungle room and take a stroll through his hall of honors, and you’ll begin to understand that the King was constantly reinventing himself, always searching for something new and exciting, whether it was recording gospel (his only Grammy) or acting in movies.

In Memphis, the blues mean many things. It is our history. It is our culture. It is the sound you hear on our streets. It is the art on the walls of our hotels. The blues are everything to us. They are our past and our present. And that, in many ways, is how people experience the blues when they visit.

For many this experience begins with that first stroll down Beale Street. A neon tunnel buzzing with the 12-bar chord progression, sometimes a slide, a jaunty piano and the raspy voice of a singer well into his or her third set of the night.

Beale Street is the heart beat of Memphis Blues, Memphis entertainment and Memphis fun. Lined with club after club after club, Beale Street offers visitors an escape into a past that is thick with hickory smoke, open containers and the freedom that comes with letting go for a few hours.

But the blues is more than a good time. It’s also the context for our city. The Smithsonian Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, attached to FedExForum and a half block away from where you were the night before on Beale, gives visitors the full history of Memphis music. With over 100 songs to listen to, this audio journey takes visitors through the history and drama of the formation of the blues, its migration north and its importance to our national culture.

A block away, visitors can dive a bit deeper into the blues by touring the Gibson Guitar Factory, home to the ES series guitars played by such blues (and rock) legends as B.B. King, Scotty Moore and Chuck Berry. From wood to strings, the tour gives you a close look at the care and craft that goes into each instrument. And if you’re lucky, the tour will end with a few licks, played by any number of the accomplished musicians who make the Gibson their day job.