If you’re like us, then every new year begins with the resolution to read more books, but finding the perfect one can often be a headache. Thankfully for us all, there is a virtually endless list of Memphis-related books to add to your list, many of which speak to the history and people that helped to make Memphis the one true “music city” (Sorry not sorry, Nashville). Whether you’re a fan of blues, soul, rock, jazz, or anything in between, we guarantee that this list will have something right up your alley. Oh, and please support your local book stores while you’re at it!
I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone by Jim Dickinson
The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin…those are just a few of the artists who sought out Jim Dickinson for his unique ability to bring out the full potential of every artist he worked with. In addition to being an acclaimed producer, pianist, and singer, Dickinson was also a musical shaman with the ability to link seemingly incompatible worlds together. A passionate rejector of racial barriers, Dickinson had a Forest Gump-like ability to be in the middle of the city’s action, regardless of era or genre. His memoir, released several years after his death, is a crucial document for those who want to know more about one of our town’s most distinctive and enduring characters.
Memphis Man: Living High, Laying Low by Don Nix
While Don Nix is far from a household name, his vast contributions to Memphis music are hard to overstate. Nix’s career began in high school as a member of the Mar-Keys, the group who scored an early hit for Stax Records with the instrumental classic “Last Night.” From there, he quietly forged a career as one of his generation’s most celebrated producers, arrangers, songwriters, and musicians, working with luminaries such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Albert King, Isaac Hayes, and scores more. The story of Nix’s life is a major missing piece in the overall story of Memphis music and this wise and folksy memoir is an ideal introduction.
Time is Tight: My Life Note by Note by Booker T. Jones
As the leader of the legendary Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MGs, Booker T. Jones was a seminal architect of the revered “Memphis sound” and an important collaborator with superstars ranging from Otis Redding to Bill Withers to Bob Dylan. This 2019 memoir takes readers on a fascinating journey from Jones’ childhood in the segregated South to a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Choosing to not utilize the aid of a ghostwriter, Jones’ distinct voice and razor sharp memory shine throughout.
A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren
The term “musical chameleon” is thrown around quite a lot these days, but in the case of Alex Chilton, the phrase fits like a glove. Chilton’s career began at 16, when the teen heartthrob led the Box Tops to a #1 hit in 1967 with “The Letter.” Following that, he became the troubled and brilliant lead singer of Big Star, the deeply influential yet commercially unsuccessful power pop group that has since become a cult favorite. From there, well…the story gets a bit messier. Thankfully, George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction is a great help in elucidating the enigmatic artist’s life in full, painting a complete picture of one of the Bluff City’s greatest and most misunderstood musicians.
Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson by Annye C. Anderson and Preston Lauterbach
For many, the story of Robert Johnson’s life is based more on myth than fact. The story of the Mississippi bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to become a guitar great is so ubiquitous that it is now a common piece of American mythology. That’s largely due to the fact that Johnson’s actual life has always been shrouded in mystery…until now. Somewhat miraculously, Johnson’s step-sister Annye C. Anderson reached out to historian Preston Lauterbach at the age of 94 to fill in the blanks that had long existed in Robert’s biography for decades. Unsurprisingly, Memphis plays a central role in this updated narrative, one that many believed we’d never get.
Sam Phillips: the Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick
Although one can certainly dispute whether or not Sun Records founder Sam Phillips was indeed “the Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” his contributions to the genre are undeniable. A true visionary with a renegade’s spirit, Phillips was instrumental in bringing Southern blues to the masses in the 1940s and 50s with legends such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf before trying again with a few white kids by the names of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. Peter Guralnick is one of Memphis music’s greatest historians and his handling of Sam Phillip’s story proves why.
Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green by Jimmy McDonough
Gifted with a voice that could somehow convey joy, sensuality, and sanctimony at the same time, Al Green reigned as the undisputed king of Memphis soul during the 1970s and stands as one of the most popular artists of the decade. However, as he ruled the charts (and plenty of hearts), his personal life was often filled with turmoil. Whether fighting the agelong battle between the sacred and the secular or, you know, the whole grits thing, Green’s life has been filled with incredible highs and lows, all of which are outlined in fascinating detail. As an added bonus, Soul Survivor also shines new light on Hi Records, the Memphis soul label that was the longtime home to Green during his commercial and artistic peak.
Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues by Paul & Beth Garon
Known as “The Queen of the Country Blues,” Memphis Minnie earned a reputation as one of the greatest blues guitarists of the 1920s and 30s and was a key figure in Beale Street’s musical heyday. Released in 1992, Woman with Guitar was the first full-length study of her life and remains the definitive account of her storied career. In addition to her guitar virtuosity, Memphis Minnie was also an accomplished and prolific songwriter, writing upward of 100 songs, many of which are expertly dissected in this book. Whether you’re a fan of the blues or just badass women in general, Memphis Minnie’s life is worthy of deeper exploration.
Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street by Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall
Written by a husband-and-wife team of journalists for the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar, Beale Black & Blue is an engrossing look at the history of Beale Street and its role as one of the most important musical sites of the 20th century. With assistance from the legendary disc jockey and historian Nat D. Williams, the couple takes a deep-dive into the people and places that made Beale Street America’s “Black Main Street.” Originally published in 1981, the book also has the benefit of documenting first-hand counts from a number of musicians who were active during the street’s creative peak, many of whom are sadly no longer with us.
Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis by Preston Lauterbach
Although not technically a “music book,” any deep exploration of Beale Street’s long and sordid history is bound to be filled with countless stories of musicians, venues, and musical innovation. Lauterbach’s Beale Street Dynasty certainly delivers the goods. Although primarily focused on Robert Church (the South’s first Black millionaire), the book also explores the street’s influential jug band scene, the emergence of the blues as the city’s first great cultural export, and the many regular people who inadvertently laid the seeds for Memphis to become one of the world’s true musical meccas.
It Came from Memphis by Robert Gordon
With a newly updated and revised edition out on shelves now, there has never been a better time to check out Robert Gordon’s seminal book about the unheralded characters that make Memphis (and its music) so special. His subjects range from an anti-segregationist wrestler to a one-legged bluesman to a maniacal radio DJ who first exposed the city to Elvis, all of whom are exemplary of the dreamers, rebels, and innovators who led a cultural revolution right under the noses of the unexpecting mainstream. If there is only one book to add to your reading list, this very well may be the one.
Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis 1960–1975 by Ron Hall
For those of you that prefer the hard rocking sound of Goner Records to that of Memphis’ other storied labels, then Ron Hall’s encyclopedia of Memphis’ early garage bands is a must-read. From cult favorites such as Zuider Zee and Big Star to relative unknowns such as the Yo-Yos and the Jades, Hall tells the story of over 100 garage bands with amazing detail, especially given their relative obscurity. If your interest is piqued, then good news: Hall has also written two other books on the subject, The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook and Memphis Rocks: A Concert History 1955-1985.
Red Hot and Blue: Fifty Years of Writing About Music, Memphis, and Motherf**kers by Stanley Booth
For the past 50 years, few (if any) writers have captured the essence of Southern music better or more thoroughly than Memphian Stanley Booth. Last year, a much-anticipated collection of his writing was released and it quickly illustrates why he’s considered one of the city’s greatest living artists. Speaking of great artists, Red Hot and Blue features dozens of them, including idols such as Otis Redding to more enigmatic pioneers such as Blind Willie McTell and Phineas Newborn, Jr. Regardless of the subject, Booth has an ability to unveil new truths about each of his subjects.
Soulsville, USA: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman
Although Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself and Graham Betts’ Stax Encyclopedia are also highly-recommended, Rob Bowman gave us the first full history of Stax Records in 1997, and it remains an essential account of the small record store that would become an internationally beloved soul powerhouse. Based on years of first-person interviews and extensive research, Soulsville, USA is an exhaustive and engaging tale of regular folks who would go on to define the sound of their era and break down long-standing racial barriers.
Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound that Changed America by Louis Cantor
Written by radio DJ Louis “Cannonball” Cantor, Wheelin’ on Beale tells the story of WDIA, the nation’s first radio station to program entirely for African American audiences. Featuring a slew of popular Black disc jockeys, including soon-to-be icons B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, WDIA not only allowed Black audiences to feel represented for the first time, but also introduced a generation of young white artists to blues, R&B, and gospel. In addition, WDIA became an important center of Memphis’ African American community, establishing scholarships, hosting little league teams, and even helping to provide housing to listeners.