No discussion about American music can be complete without a discussion about Memphis. Memphis is, hands-down, home to much of what we know as modern American music. Soul, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and other genres of music all have their roots in the city. Three specific landmarks exist in the city as a tribute to Memphis music history heritage: the Blues Hall of Fame (421 S. Main Street); Rock and Soul Museum (191 Beale Street); and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, at 926 E. McLemore Avenue at the site of the original Stax Records.
The Memphis Music History is as old as the city itself. At the beginning of the last century, Memphis was a convergence of African-American commerce and culture. Traditional spirituals handed down from generations of enslaved blacks to free people became the foundation for the blues and artists like W.C. Handy. Handy is often called the “Father of the Blues,” having brought his band to Memphis in 1909 to play in the clubs on Beale Street to showcase this distinctive style of music.
The genres (and artists) of Memphis Music
Memphis is host to many who have come through the city to play Beale Street or make their mark in “Bluff City.” Along with Handy and the blues came the introduction of the electric guitar in 1945 (after World War II) and with it, the advent of a newer form of music called rock ‘n’ roll. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and others recorded tracks in the famous studios of Memphis and further solidified the city’s influence on the music of this country.
Sun Studio and Stax Records
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Two of the best locations to visit Memphis Music History are Sun Studio and Stax Records
Sun Studio, located at 706 Union Avenue, was started by one of the fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Sam Phillips, in 1950. It was the commingling of the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records that formed Sun Studio, and until 1969, it was the producer of acts and artists such as B.B. King, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. The studio’s claim to fame is that it is where the first rock ‘n’ roll record was produced: “Rocket 88,” in April 1951.
Stax Records was born in 1957. The original Stax was named Satellite Records until it changed its name to Stax in 1961. The company brought to the forefront American and Memphis soul, as well as gospel, funk and the “Delta” blues. Its most famous act was Otis Redding, and after his death in 1967, the studio struggled to stay in competition with Detroit’s Motown.
The music of Memphis has evolved from its long, rich history. The legends of the past have created a legacy that newer artists can only hope to imitate but never really duplicate. A walk along Beale Street should invoke the memory of the great musicians who have come to and played in Memphis. It is also a great place to connect with the city’s musical past, present and future!
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