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

It's a Saturday, but a crew of luthiers is making hollow-bodied guitars. There are no automated assembly lines here. The top and back wooden panels are cut, rims pressed into shape, center blocks glued on, rims glued on, tops and necks attached and bound. There is sanding, filling, buffing, staining and drying. The process of making a guitar takes three weeks or longer, I learn later; the factory noise drowns out most of what our guide says.

Sun Studio, the smallest of the museums, is in midtown Memphis, a mile from the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which offers a free shuttle. It began life as Memphis Recording Studio, but Sam Phillips soon turned it into a record label. This is where Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, with Ike Turner on piano, recorded "Rocket 88," an ode to an Oldsmobile. The recording was distinctive because of the distortion caused by a damaged amplifier. Phillips liked the distortion and kept it.

Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his first record here. Phillips had not been enthused about Presley's initial efforts, until he heard him casually sing a sped-up version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right." The song became Presley's first single on the Sun label.

Phillips also signed Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, who came together with Elvis on one memorable night in an impromptu jam session that inspired Broadway's "Million Dollar Quartet."

The upstairs exhibit includes photos and concert posters of various Sun Studio artists, Elvis memorabilia including his high school diploma and other materials. In the downstairs recording studio, guitars lean against the walls, which are hung with blown-up photos of musicians. Guests are invited to take photos of each other handling the microphone that Elvis once used.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is in Soulsville, a neighborhood about 2½ miles south of Beale Street, close to the spot where the Stax recording studio was built in a former movie theater. The studio opened in 1960 but was later torn down. The museum, which debuted in 2003, has a touch-screen map that illustrates how the studio was part of a larger community where Aretha Franklin, Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MG's) and other musicians once lived.

Displays tell the history of Stax Records, an R&B label founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, white brother and sister, most of whose recording artists were black. Among the artists — some in a convoluted arrangement with Atlantic Records — were Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, most of them backed at some point by Booker T and the MG's.

The museum has the "Express Yourself" dance floor with videos from "Soul Train," an authentic Mississippi Delta AME chapel that was disassembled and rebuilt in the museum, and a wealth of memorabilia: stage costumes, equipment trunks, Isaac Hayes' tricked-out Cadillac, the tape machine on which Otis Redding recorded, the piano used for "Green Onions."

Now, it's Friday night, and I'm out with a group looking for music. The pedestrian-only section of Beale Street is crowded with people drinking from plastic takeout cups, wandering through music and souvenir stores, and watching the Beale Street Flippers, athletic young men who perform a sort of combination cartwheel/somersault across the cobblestones for tips. The scene hasn't reached frat-party status, but on some nights, it does.

With live music, most of the clubs have a cover charge, but they're still busy. Our group tries Mr. Handy's Blues Hall first, but it has standing room only, and we end up in Rum Boogie Cafe, where the music is not quite loud enough to drown out conversation.

A block away is the Brass Note Walk of Fame, which celebrates more than 100 people who contributed to Memphis' musical history with brass notes embedded in the sidewalk in the style of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.

Finally, there is Graceland, the 14-acre farm that Presley bought in 1957 at the age of 22 and has become the focus of Elvis fans everywhere. This month, Graceland is marking the 35th anniversary of his death.

Graceland's importance to Memphis can't be overstated. Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982, five years after Elvis's death. It wasn't until after those tours starting drawing in music lovers that Sun Studio and Stax Records followed suit, the Smithsonian opened the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, or that Beale Street began its comeback.

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