Birthplace of rock 'n' roll? Memphis has plenty of evidence to exhibit fertile musical roots

By Marjie Lambert

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, Aug. 25 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Elvis Presley is big business in Memphis, as evidenced by this storefront on Beale Street. His 14-acre farm, Graceland, is open for tours of the grounds, exhibits and his grave.

Marjie Lambert, MCT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This port city on the Mississippi River calls itself the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. Its credentials? The Memphis Recording Service, forerunner of Sun Studio, in 1951 recorded "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, which some people say was the first rock 'n' roll record.

Several other cities make the same claim, including Wildwood, N.J., where Bill Haley and His Comets performed the first song with "rock" in the title ("Rock Around the Clock") in 1954; Cleveland, where DJ Alan Freed coined the term rock 'n' roll and organized the first rock concert; and Detroit, home of Motown Records.

It's hard to argue against Memphis, where some of the earliest practitioners of the blues and rock 'n' roll got their start at Sun Studio, Stax Records or Hi Records: Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Booker T. and the MGs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and, of course, Elvis Presley.

Supporting evidence abounds. Memphis has the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Stax Museum, the Gibson Guitar factory and Graceland, all of which document that history — and Beale Street, which echoes with the sound of the blues in daylight as well as at night.

There's a statue of Elvis on Beale Street, B.B. King in bronze in the visitors center. W.C. Handy, known as the father of the blues, presides over the Performing Arts Park that bears his name.

Music seems to seep out of every building, blare from every speaker, accompany every meal. I hear it when I'm eating tamales in the Blues City Cafe, and over a pulled pork sandwich at The Pig on Beale, while I'm browsing the kitschy souvenir shops for blue suede shoes, and in my hotel, where a painting of B.B. King is part of the jazz-and-blues theme. At night on Beale Street — a 2½-block section of which is a pedestrians-only celebration of the Memphis sound — the competing music from clubs clashes in the street.

Each of the music-related museums has its own soundtrack, and I could spend days just listening to their playlists of historically significant tunes: the original "Hound Dog," recorded by "Big Mama" Thornton in 1952, four years before it was covered by Elvis. "Cause I Love You," the first record by Carla Thomas, in a duet with her father, Rufus Thomas, himself a rhythm and blues singer. Early recordings by Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett on which Booker T and the MGs performed as the Stax house band.

On this trip, it's tempting to visit the Civil Rights Museum, watch the ducks march at the Peabody Hotel, take a dinner cruise on a paddle wheeler and go to a minor league baseball game.

But I grew up in the '50s and '60s, still own the scratched 45s I collected as a kid, and view rock 'n' roll proudly and possessively as the music that distinguished my generation from the previous one. So I choose to immerse myself in Memphis' music-related landmarks, all of which, in some sense, are museums. I will find that in different proportions, all are part bragging, part recounting history and part spreading a love of music.

First stop: the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, located on the party stretch of Beale Street. Created by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of American History, it grew out of the history museum's traveling exhibition about American music. Unlike the other museums, which generally focus on a particular niche, this museum is an overview of rock and soul. Exhibits trace the history of American music to gospel music, field hollers and work songs of sharecroppers in the '30s, examining how social and cultural forces shaped music.

Also on display are guitars signed by Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray, a sequined jacket and hat worn by Sam of Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, the organ on which Mark James wrote "Suspicious Minds," a speaker cabinet used by U2 and much more.

Across the street is the Gibson Guitar factory. Our tour guide hands out safety goggles and makes it clear that taking them off won't be tolerated. Neither will stepping outside the lines on the factory floor. This is a factory where chemicals are used, we're reminded, and wood dust floats in the air. No photography is allowed.

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