If you had to make a list of the great American cities where music is an essential part of their DNA, Memphis would undoubtedly be right at the top.
Nobody else in the country does things quite like Memphis – and that absolutely extends to its sound. The first European explorer – a Spanish conquistador – set foot in the area all the way back in 1541. Built on high bluffs that protect the area from the raging waters of the Mississippi, over the centuries, Memphis would be visited (and heavily influenced), not only by Spanish cultures, but French, English and beyond. All of that activity and influence distilled into a melting pot of sonic power, lending Memphis a look, a feel and a sound that aren’t like anything else.
Certain music icons – the ones who themselves changed the way we experience the medium forever – are a part of Memphis’ history in one way or another. Aretha Franklin. Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash. B.B. King. Otis Redding. Elvis Presley. Every one of them got their start in Memphis, and that was just during the 1950s and ’60s.
All told, our music history is special because it’s always aimed to be something more than just a distraction from daily life. We don’t want to help you forget your problems – we want to help you confront them in a way that only we can. Our music history has always gone beyond what you simply hear to create an experience – music that gets deep into your bones and shakes your soul, music that makes you want to stand up for something, music that brings people of every race and class together – and that legacy lives on today.
Right here along the mighty Mississippi, you can still hear that original Memphis sound echoing through amphitheaters, performing arts centers and every single dive bar on any given night.
Memphis’ music history calls to people from all over the world like a siren, and today’s top artists, such as Grammy award-winning Bruno Mars, still come here to catch a piece of that soulful sound. We’ve got music museums, festivals, programs and more, so if it’s music that is drawing you to Memphis, you’re in for a treat.
What makes Beale Street so famous?
All roads to Memphis music lead to Beale Street. Beale Street, which takes visitors from the mouth of the Mississippi River to East Street, is approximately 1.8 miles in length. It became a landing spot for traveling African-American musicians as early as the 1860s. Initially named Beale Avenue, it took the pen of W.C. Handy, who early wrote The Memphis Blues in 1909, to release his Beale Street Blues in 1916. The song effectively changed the name of Beale from “Beale Avenue” to its present-day “Beale Street.”
The street has become a beacon for traveling musicians and other musical performers. Albert King, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong are just some of the famous bluesmen who performed in the halls, bars and clubs that make Beale Street famous.
The history of Beale Street
Music has been part of Memphis for hundreds of years. The city’s position along the Mississippi River means that it became a major trading hub in the U.S. This led to the convergence of emerging musical styles in Memphis, allowing musicians from all walks of life to come together. However, Beale Street helped bring it all together.
East Beale Street is relatively small in size. In fact, at only 1.8 miles in length, most other streets of this length are side notes on a map, but not for the city of Memphis. This small strip became an important destination for traveling African-Americans during the early 1860s. Many were either recently freed slaves or escaped slaves looking to travel north.
For many African-Americans of the time, music played an important role in passing down history, remaining connected to past ancestors and offering an open expression of feelings. After the end of slavery, the small road (known as Beale Avenue at the time), remained a gathering spot for African-Americans.
Eventually, W.C. Handy went on to release his “Beale Street Blues” in 1916. It was this reference to Beale Street that eventually led to the changing of Beale from Avenue to Street.
Music for everyone
When it comes to music in Memphis, most people think of soul. They think of the electric blues of B.B. King and instantly associate the style with Memphis. While this remains true, and is a must-do experience for anyone traveling through, there is so much more to the music community. The city helps percolate the creativity of musicians from around the world, which is why everyone from Johnny Cash to Ike Turner came to record in Mbaremphis.
With all the past history and current musical talent, it is possible to hear any style of music in Memphis. So whether you’re a rock ‘n’ roll fan, lover of country, or enjoy jazz with a chilled cocktail and tapas to munch on, Memphis is no longer just a soulful blues music destination. It is a music destination for all lovers of music (and all lovers of history).
What you can hear in Memphis
Beale Street is not the only place where the sounds of Memphis music can be heard. The famed Sun Records, located at 706 Union Avenue, which is referenced in the Cohn song with the lines, “Saw the ghost of Elvis / On Union Avenue / Followed him up to the gates of Graceland / Then I watched him walk right through.” Clearly, Cohn is making a reference to Elvis coming from Sun Records on Union Avenue, where he launched his career and gave birth to a new musical genre, rock ‘n’ roll.
Sun Records was the place that established Memphis music and the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, a young Ike Turner (of Ike and Tina Turner) and Johnny Cash. Although it is no longer in business, it is yet another reminder of Memphis music and how the city on the river established a reputation to rival St. Louis, New Orleans and even Motown City Detroit.
No trip to Memphis is complete unless you hear live Memphis music. You can find the type of music you like to hear performed by both established and up-and-coming artists. There is a lot of history within the walls of the places on Beale and Union and throughout the musical city of Memphis. Listen to the Cohn song and get excited for your visit to Memphis and the time you will spend dancing and grooving to the music.
Here are some pointers to get you started on your music pilgrimage:
Beale Street Music Festival
Beale Street is sacred ground when it comes to live music performances. It always takes place during the first week of May, and over the years, it’s welcomed a bevy of incredible performers at the highlight of their careers. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes, Van Morrison and Paul Simon are just a fraction of the talent regularly on display. Every single night of the week, you can hear the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, genre benders and more emanating from the bars and clubs that line this legendary street.
Born from the magic of Beale Street, the Beale Street Music Festival is held each May in Tom Lee Park, right on the river. Three days, four stages, dozens of artists and countless food trucks make this the most wonderful time to be a music lover in Memphis.
Past performers include the Kings of Leon, Meghan Trainor, Hozier, Ed Sheeran and Yo Gotti, and the lineup gets better and better every year.
The International Blues Challenge
You know a city is serious about the blues when it holds a five-day music competition featuring more than 250 of the best blues musicians in the world, and that’s exactly what happens at the International Blues Challenge here in Memphis.
The event is about celebrating the uniquely American sound that originated here, and it happens every January on Beale Street. The challenge came to life in 1984 as a way to give amateur and up-and-coming artists not only a chance to be discovered, but to get a foothold within the industry that they love so much. Though the word “amateur” is no longer present in the title of the event, it still has that critical goal – to continue to give the world groundbreaking music – that drives it on an annual basis.
Hosted by the Blues Foundation, the competition is judged by blues professionals from all over the world and celebrates the gritty sound that Memphis is known for shaping.
Indie rock and alternative lovers, rejoice! Contrary to what you might think, we’re not just about the blues. In Memphis, we specialize in all types of sound, which is why we’re proud to be the home of Gonerfest.
The event was founded by the renowned Goner Records – one of the most important independent record labels specializing in garage rock, punk and similar genres in existence. A laundry list of unstoppable bands has released records under the Goner label, including The Oblivians, King Louie Bankston, The Reigning Sound and more. Gonerfest first began in 2004 as a way to continue that tradition by offering live performances.
Each September, Gonerfest brings some of the best alternative bands on the planet to the Bluff City for a three-night rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza. This quirky festival is great for serious music lovers eager to check out emerging, talented artists – don’t miss out!
MEMPHO Music Fest
What do Cage the Elephant, Cold War Kids, Jason Isbell and Bishopp Briggs have in common? They all played in the first annual MEMPHO Music Fest in 2017.
MEMPHO is the latest chapter in the rich musical history of Memphis. It’s hosted in 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, and will expand in the coming years to include camping for an immersive festival experience.
But, at the same time, this is more than just another music festival that we’re talking about. It’s a genuine Memphis experience – one that allows you to feel the exceptional music, enjoy the incredible food, camp in the park and see Memphis the way it was meant to be seen. It draws a straight line from the roots of American music to the city that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Part of what makes Memphis such a special home for music is that you can pop into just about any venue, dive bar, or club and hear some of the greatest sounds you’ve ever heard. We won’t list all of them, but here are a few that have been around the longest and made the biggest impact to get you started:
- B.B. King’s Blues Club, which features live music every night of the week.
- Mollie Fontaine Lounge, located in an old, Victorian-style home.
- Rum Boogie Cafe, which rocks as loud as any club in town.
- CC’s Blues Club is as authentic as it gets—and it’s tucked away in North Memphis.
- Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall, a little dive bar that delivers a big dose of the blues.
- Memphis Sounds Lounge, a jazz and blues bar nestled in the heart of Downtown Memphis.
- Minglewood Hall voted the #1 place to see live music in Memphis.
Mud Island Amphitheater
The Mud Island Amphitheater is right on the Mississippi, so every seat provides an exceptional view. What’s more, this venue is one of the best places in Memphis to experience live music under the stars. Past performers include the Avett Brothers, Norah Jones, Mumford and Sons and others.
This little beauty has been around since the 1930s and it’s hosted some of the most storied musical acts of all time. In fact, it became the site of the first-ever rock and roll show when Elvis took the stage on July 30, 1954.
Today it remains one of the premiere outdoor venues in the country, attracting local, national and international acts, and hosting 50 free concerts every year. It’s also the home of Moon River Festival, a fall music festival that brings together community and musicians for a weekend of great music and company.
Many of today’s top performers got their start in Memphis, which is why you never know who’s going to show up and play on any given night.
When you’re in Memphis, keep an eye out for our native stars, including Justin Timberlake, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Big Star, Three 6 Mafia, Yo Gotti, Valerie June, and more.
Until then, make sure you visit Memphis Travel to stay on top of who’s playing.