MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE, THE BROAD-SHOULDERED HUB of the Mid-South, is best known as the place where Elvis Presley happened. Of course, it’s no coincidence that Elvis happened here, something often overlooked in the race to visit Graceland and buy a bunch of kitsch. However you want to tag the city—home of the blues, birthplace of soul and rock and roll—Memphis is the place where several generations of brilliant black and white musicians worked out the essentials of modern American music. Elvis may have been a natural, but it’s only natural that he found his sound here.
If you’re going to spend a weekend in Memphis looking for history, though, you’ve got to dig deep and you’ve got to be persistent. Superficially, Memphis’ various musical institutions are no match for the state-of-the-art interactive exhibits housed in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And unlike Austin, there’s not a club on every corner; Memphis has always been more of a studio town. Furthermore, it ain’t pretty. Amble around downtown and you’ll realize quickly that this is one Southern city that never made the transition to Sunbelt metropolis.
But drive around town while listening to Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” played three times on the same day on WDIA 1070- AM for no other reason than King was a hometown hero and the song still sounds good, eat some of the best barbecue and soul food on this green earth, and top it off by taking a stroll down what remains of historic Beale Street, and you’ll get a good grasp of why we Americans sound like we do. Underlining that impression is the eerie feeling you get wherever you go that something of great significance happened here, something the local leaders weren’t necessarily proud to show off until recently.
The best place to start is the Memphis Music Hall of Fame—Museum and Archive (97 South Second Street), housed in a nondescript storefront next door to a guitar shop and across the street from the famed Peabody Hotel. Almost every local player of note is represented here, including father of the blues W. C. Handy, Memphis Minnie, and Furry Lewis; wildcat rockabillies Charlie Feathers, and Billy Lee Riley; blues shouters Little Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland; Al Green, Ace Cannon, and Ann Peebles, artists who made Stax and Hi the definitive rhythm and blues labels of their era; recording studio legends Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T. Jones, and Willie Mitchell; and postclassic modern rocker Alex Chilton (of Box Tops and Big Star renown). There are all sorts of minute details to marvel over: the guitar Roland Janes used to record Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp,” the saxophone Bill Justis played on the instrumental hit “Raunchy,” the hat Charlie Rich wore on the cover of the album Behind Closed Doors, and the electric razor Isaac Hayes used to keep his head shiny during his Black Moses phase.
Another Memphis must-see is Sun Studio (706 Union Avenue), the place where the recording careers of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, and B. B. King started. The actual two-room studio where rock and roll began is more or less the same as it ever was. A mere $8.50 buys a half-hour tour inside, a bargain for the chills I got hearing snippets of Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” The studio also features a cafe downstairs and a museum and gift shop upstairs.
Afterward, circle the block to Phillips Recording Studio (639 Madison Avenue), where owner Sam Phillips moved after abandoning Sun in 1959. Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully” and the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” are two of the dozens of hits recorded there. Thirteen blocks east of Phillips’ place is Memphis’ current hit factory, Ardent Studio (2000 Madison Avenue), where ZZ Top, among others, lays down tracks in a building that has all the charm of a faux French provincial funeral home. (Neither Phillips nor Ardent offers tours for the general public.) Stop in down the street at Shangri-La Records, for a copy