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A History of Music in Memphis
Much of America's musical history was born in Memphis: blues, jazz, R&B and eventually rock 'n' roll. These musical traditions influenced each other heavily and developed significant crossover, which is part of what gave Memphis music its unique sound. Throughout the development of Memphis' musical scene, Memphis' music remained a little rougher and soulful than the more polished, streamlined productions of Chicago and New York. This allowed musicians more artistic and emotional freedom when composing and performing.
Above all else, Memphis is often known as "Home of the Blues," laying claim to one of the most successful blues songs of its time: "St Louis Blues." From the 1910s to the 1930s, a distinct, Memphis sound was developed, with a crossover into country blues that later developed. Popular performers included Frank Stokes (believed to be the originator of the Memphis Blues Guitar Style) and Memphis Minnie (a blues vocalist who recorded over 200 songs). Blues has remained popular in Memphis for over a century and has gone through many influential iterations over that time.
During the same period, jazz also had a strong influence in Memphis, with jazz orchestra becoming popular in the 1920s and continuing to interact with the strong blues culture. Blues and jazz would eventually bleed into R&B and lead to the development of funk and soul.
Blues continued to evolve throughout Memphis, influenced by artists, such as B.B. King, Willie Nix and Joe Hill Louis. In 1952, Sam Phillips would start Sun Records, for both blues music and rock 'n' roll. This highly influential record label would eventually record Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and, of course, Elvis Presley himself. These artists were the originators of early rockabilly, a style that remains popular today. Many of these artists worked with a blend of musical styles that had become popular throughout Tennessee, rather than focusing on a single type of music.
In the 1960s, a new type of R&B had arrived: Memphis Soul. Memphis Soul was distinct from other R&B developments of the time, having a more "funky" sound than the competing productions at Motown. Of course, all of this led naturally into the origins of rock 'n' roll, which had strong segments of punk rock and Southern rock in Tennessee. Throughout, blues, R&B and rock 'n' roll remained close to the African American community but also spread music in an extremely universal way.
In addition to blues, R&B and funk, Tennessee music was heavily influenced by country music and gospel music. This has given much of Memphis' music a distinctly Southern tone and differentiated it from the music that was being produced in other areas. Apart from being an incredible cultural influence, the music of Memphis also crossed traditional social lines and helped to blend communities, neighborhoods and classes. Socially, having similar musical tastes and enjoying similar musical acts, it brought people together.
The most famous artists of Memphis
With as storied a history as Memphis has, it goes without saying that it's had many notable musicians. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of incredible blues, jazz, funk, R&B and rock 'n' roll artists that either originated in or worked primarily in Memphis. Today, many musicians flock to Memphis as a way to learn more about the culture and their trade.
Some of the most famous artists of Memphis included:
- Elvis Presley. Though born in Mississippi, Elvis Presley relocated to Memphis early in his life — when he was just 13. Initially a country music and R&B artist, he began to develop a new, energetic sound: rock'n'roll. Elvis Presley remains a considerable influence, as one of the artists who was able to blend multiple styles of Tennessee music and create a new style of his own. Most notably, Elvis Presley was highly influenced by African American singing and composing and is often thought to have brought this style into the mainstream.
- B. B. King. The renowned blues singer-songwriter and guitarist, B. B. King was instrumental to the development of Memphis blues and the electric blues era. Like Elvis, he was initially born in Mississippi, but his later life took him to Memphis and Chicago. His name is now synonymous with the blues, particularly his guitar style.
- Isaac Hayes. Today he may be best known for his film score for the film Shaft, but Isaac Hayes was much more than that. Isaac Hayes was an expert in Southern soul and one of the major artists behind Stax Records. A well-known humanitarian and the child of a sharecropper, Isaac Hayes spent much of his time completing charitable work with his wealth and fame. He had considerable influence in movies and television series and received a total of nine BMI awards.
- Johnny Cash. Seamlessly moving between blues, folk, rock and roll and gospel music, Johnny Cash was and remains a musical icon. Originally from Kingsland, Arkansas, he came to Memphis as an appliance salesman and began to explore the music scene. He was eventually signed on with Sun in 1955 and the rest was history.
- Furry Lewis. Walter "Furry" Lewis, born in 1893, is one of the earliest country blues stars and a notable figure in Memphis. Popular through the 1920s, Lewis spent much of his time as a traveling musician. He experienced a resurgence as blues garnered renewed interest in the 1960s and eventually opened for acts such as the Rolling Stones.
- Aretha Franklin. It's notable that Aretha began her career as a gospel singer in Tennessee, eventually bringing her skills to Atlantic Records and spreading Tennessee's influence across the country. Aretha Franklin remained true to her gospel and soul roots and eventually was dubbed "The Queen of Soul." There are few musicians who can claim to have an influence as powerful as Aretha Franklin.
These aren't just musicians who originated in Memphis or grew their style in Memphis, but rather musicians who had a distinct hand in creating Memphis' unique flavor. These musicians influenced Memphis and were influenced by Memphis and their legacy remains in the music that is still produced there.
Visiting the musical locations of Memphis
It only makes sense that a place as musical as Memphis would have many incredible historical and musical sites to visit. Here are a few of the places that you want to go the next time you're in town:
- Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Visit the Hall of Fame to learn more about the culture and history behind Memphis music. Not only is a ceremony and concert held in this location every year, but the Hall of Fame includes tributes to a total of 48 musicians and musical groups. This is where you go to learn more about the individuals who have influenced Memphis music and culture.
- Stax Museum of American Soul Music. No producer was as influential on the Tennessee soul community than Stax. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is an immense museum that includes the actual musical instruments used by famous soul musicians, interactive soul music exhibits and information about the most famous soul musicians in Tennessee.
- Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Celebrating the marriage between rock 'n' roll and Soul, the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum is one of the major destinations for music lovers in the area. It includes not only coverage of the music of Tennessee but the social impact of this music and how it impacted relationships between different races and socioeconomic classes. This is not only a fun and entertaining venue, but it's a meaningful and educational one as well.
- Lafayette's Music Room. Hosting nightly live music and Southern fare, Lafayette's Music Room is the place to go if you want to explore Memphis' current music scene.
- Minglewood Hall. A music concert venue (which also holds events such as boxing matches) Minglewood Hall is a large, renovated event space that often hosts both local and traveling bands.
- Orpheum Theatre. With over 2,000 seats, this expansive theater often hosts large musical acts. A historic location in downtown Memphis, Orpheum Theatre has existed since 1928. In recent years, it's become a part of Memphis culture and even has its own ghost stories.
These are only a few of the dozens of venues offered throughout Memphis. Go into a Memphis night club or event space and you're likely to be able to experience live music with a Memphis heart. Memphis has had an extraordinary amount of historical influence on the musical scene, but it also hasn't stopped growing. Memphis remains the heart of country music, soul music, and rock'n'roll, and it continues to influence artists even today.