Venue Profile: Overton Park Shell

By Jayne Ellen White

One thing about Memphis, we will show up for free outdoor live music rain or shine–– but when the weather is right, the Overton Park Shell’s concert series experience becomes almost utopian. Families, couples, joggers, tourists, students, and live music lovers from all over the Midsouth region and beyond flock to the venue with blankets, chairs, and even full picnics to groove to the sounds of  live music of every genre, for everyone. In the old forest that is Overton Park, you get that great outdoors vibe in the middle of the city. The neighborhoods nearby can hear the echoes of voices of backup singers, horn sections, bug spray cans, and laughter. Need I say more? Probably not, but I will anyway. 

Previously known as The Levitt Shell, you may have heard Memphians call the venue simply, The Shell, but no matter the name, the recently rebranded Overton Park Shell holds a deep piece of our community’s cultural identity. Originally built inside of Overton Park by the Works and Progress Administration in 1936 as part of the New Deal, the Overton Park Shell has been host to historic concerts and festivals including Elvis Presley’s first paid concert in July of 1954, as well as the annual Memphis Country Blues Festivals during the Civil Rights era. While other similar bandshell’s like it were built by the World Progress Administration, Memphis’ Overton Park Shell is one of the last existing of its kind. 

Through its 85 years of history, the Shell was almost demolished to make way for a parking lot and a theater, amongst other things. In 2007, the venue underwent renovation and was, in so much, saved by the Levitt Foundation’s investment. The Overton Park Shell’s Executive Director, Natalie Wilson, noted the Levitt Foundation as key to the current success of the organization. “As a result of [Levitt Foundation’s] steadfast support,” Wilson said, “The Shell has flourished to become a city-wide destination for multicultural programming as well as a committed community partner showcasing other non-profits.” 

Most recently, the venue led the community as an example for health conscious, distanced, live  music operating during the pandemic, and has once again announced a full lineup of Orion Free Concert Series for summer and fall 2022. The lineup boasts some of Memphis’ favorite local artists like Don Lifted, Sensational Barnes Brothers, and The Reigning Sound in addition to national touring acts like The New Respects and The Nude Party. In accordance with the venue’s mission to build community through music and education, finding common ground in a diverse audience, the organization recently partnered with the Deaf Connect of the Mid-South to provide Certified Deaf Interpreters to many of its performances during the upcoming series.

The venue’s paid Shell Yeah! Benefit Concert Series directly supports the venue’s free programing, and features nationally recognized headliners, and VIP ticket options. This year’s lineup includes bands like St. Paul And The Broken Bones, and Durand Jones and the Indicators. Whether you are looking to impress, or indulge– this paid series provides the stage to support the organizations’ free concert programming. The dance floor WILL be open!

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