Memphis was founded in 1819, the city was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. The musical legacy of the Bluff City is exciting, diverse, and extremely significant in the history of American culture. Today Memphis’s best known landmarks are two places–Beale Street and Graceland–intimately associated with the city’s place in American music history, especially that of the blues, rockabilly, and rock-n-roll. But key institutions in Tennessee’s classical music history are based in Memphis as well, and several nationally recognized artists in jazz, gospel, and rhythm-n-blues have strong associations with the Memphis music scene.
Blues, rock-n-roll, soul, and jazz music may still be heard nightly at the different clubs and music venues on Beale Street. The street was the center of African American commerce and culture for blacks from the city, eastern Arkansas, West Tennessee, and northern Mississippi, a virtual northern gateway to the rich culture of the Mississippi Delta. “A meeting place for urban and rural styles,” emphasized folklorist George McDaniel, “Beale served as a school where young talent was nurtured and it produced musicians who shaped the course of American music.” W. C. Handy, B. B. King, Jimmy Lunceford, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Furry Lewis, Booker T. W. White, Piano Red Williams, Lillie May Glover, Sleepy John Estes, McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Sam Chatmon, and Big Joe Williams were among the most important artists shaping the distinctive Memphis blues sound of the mid-twentieth century, as the city joined Chicago and New York as the creative centers of blues music. Radio announcer and Memphis history teacher Nat D. Williams observed in the Memphis World of November 30, 1945: “Come what may, there will always be a Beale Street, because Beale Street is a spirit … a symbol … a way of life … Beale Street is a hope.”
This Memphis sound and musical tradition later shaped the early rockabilly style associated with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. All five artists made their early significant recordings under the guidance of producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records studio, located a few blocks away from the heart of the African American nightclub district. Presley, Lewis, Perkins, and Cash also show how rural southern traditions mixed with the urban beat of Memphis. Presley, although living then in Memphis, was originally from northern Mississippi. Perkins came from rural West Tennessee while Lewis hailed from Louisiana and Cash from Arkansas. Presley always remained identified as a rock-n-roll star, although he took great pride in his Grammy Award-winning gospel music recordings. Lewis, Perkins, and Cash later became identified as country music performers, especially the latter two as they recorded and performed together regularly in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Johnny Cash Show, recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in the early 1970s, was a popular network television program, contributing significantly to the rise in popularity of country music across the nation. Interestingly, during this period, Orbison and Cash were neighbors in Hendersonville, a community east of Nashville. As the 1990s end, Cash is the only one of the five Sun artists to record regularly, with his recent stark releases gaining critical praise.
Memphis was at the forefront of the “arena rock” movement in Tennessee. Its Mid-South Coliseum was the only place in Tennessee that featured concerts by the Beatles, the Stax Revue, and Elvis. In fact, the appearance of the Beatles in 1966 led to KKK demonstrations outside the arena, loud complaints from city officials, and the arrest of two teenagers for throwing cherry bombs on stage. Elvis recorded a live album at the coliseum in 1974. The Mid-South Coliseum, for its musical heritage, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
The reputation of Beale Street attracted musicians to come to Memphis. Another attraction was the city’s diverse radio stations. During the late 1940s and 1950s, “radio was the key to the magic taking place in Memphis. It instilled pride; it energized emotions.” Just south and across the Mississippi was KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, where Sonny Boy Williamson II hosted a Saturday night blues showcase called King Biscuit Time. In Memphis WNBR-Radio broadcast a weekly Amateur Night show from the Palace Theater on Beale Street, where widely different musicians performed blues, pop songs, jazz, and rhythm-n-blues numbers. Memphis’s WDIA-Radio in 1948 hired Nat D. Williams, a teacher, announcer, and Beale Street advocate/performer, as the region’s first black disk jockey on a white radio station and introduced an all-black music format, replacing its earlier classical music format. Williams’ broadcasts of rhythm-n-blues music became popular and later influenced Elvis Presley and many other white performers. WDIA played an influential role in the career of B. B. King and also introduced to the listening white audience the sounds of black gospel music. WDIA is the oldest black-oriented radio station in the nation and has shaped not only the region’s musical traditions but also its sense of black history, culture, and civil rights. WHBQ-Radio during the early 1950s hosted the influential Red Hot and Blue show by disk jockey Dewey Phillips. Phillips was the first to play Elvis on local radio, and the station championed the rockabilly sound coming from Sun Records.
Rhythm-n-blues or soul music in Memphis is closely associated with the rise of Stax Records and its Memphis recording studios. Estelle Stewart Axton and her brother Jim Stewart established Satellite Productions in an abandoned grocery store at Brunswick in rural Shelby County. In 1960 they moved to an old movie theater at 924 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis where they joined forces with producer Lincoln “Chips” Moman. Among the initial artists recording with Satellite Productions were Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. Jones, and Steve Cropper. In late 1961 Satellite became Stax Records and Booker T. and the MGs became the label’s first star act. Otis Redding soon joined the company’s roster. With artists such as Redding, Percy Sledge, and the dynamic duo of Sam and Dave, Stax Records became a major force in American popular music, achieving its best work from 1965 to 1970. Local Memphis musician and songwriter Isaac Hayes penned many of the label’s biggest hits and then achieved stardom himself with the soundtrack to Shaft in 1971.
Hi Records, led by producer Willie Mitchell, was a competing label for the best in Memphis’s soul music. Early Hi artists included Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, and especially Tina Turner, who worked with Mitchell on various album productions from 1967 to 1977. Mitchell’s primary artist, however, was Al Green, who had a string of soul music hits in the early 1970s.
At the same time of this explosion of popular music, classical music institutions developed in Memphis, and sometimes artists from these institutions participated in the more popular side of the Memphis Music Scene. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Noel Gilbert organized small orchestras to play at local hotels as well as conducting both the WREC- and WMC-Radio staff orchestras. In the early 1950s he brought classical music to the new medium of television with a nightly program titled Evening Serenade on WMC-TV. From 1947 through the 1970s Gilbert also conducted a summer series of classical music at the band shell in Overton Park. He even found time in the early 1960s to serve as a studio musician and coordinator at recording sessions for Sun, Hi, and Stax records. His work accompanied recordings from artists as diverse as Presley, Green, Hayes, and Dionne Warwick. In 1952 Vincent DeFrank formed the Memphis Sinfonietta, a precursor to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra he founded in 1960. Today the city maintains several active classical music institutions, and Opera Memphis is the state’s largest opera company.
Gospel music, too, was important in the rise of the Memphis music scene. Reverend Herbert Brewster of the city’s East Trigg Baptist Church began writing gospel songs in the 1930s, including the favorites “Move on up a Little Higher,” recorded by Mahalia Jackson, and “Surely, God is Able,” recorded by the Ward Singers. Lucie Campbell graduated from high school in Memphis in 1899 and stayed in the city to shape its musical traditions for the next six decades. A prolific composer of more than one hundred gospel songs, her first song was published in 1919. Two years later, several of her compositions were included in the National Baptist Convention’s Gospel Pearls (1921), one of the first gospel songbooks ever published. Campbell later introduced Marian Anderson to the National Baptist Convention and served as Anderson’s accompanist. Memphis was also home to several significant traditional gospel harmony quartets such as The Spirit of Memphis, the I. C. Glee Club Quartet, and the Sunset Travelers.
Gospel, jazz, blues, soul, and rockabilly have combined to create the distinctive Memphis music tradition, a legacy still savored by music lovers across the nation. The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the Center for Southern Folklore celebrate that rich legacy today with exhibits and programs.
From the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture