Perched above the Mississippi River, MEMPHIS is perhaps the single most exciting destination in the South – especially for music-lovers. Visitors flock to celebrate the city that gave the world blues, soul and rock’n’roll, as well as to chow down in the unrivalled BBQ capital of the nation. Memphis is both deeply atmospheric – with its faded downtown streets dotted with retro stores and diners and the sun setting nightly across the broad Mississippi – and invigorating, with a cluster of superb museums and fantastic restaurants. If it’s the Elvis connection that appeals, you won’t leave disappointed – let alone empty-handed – but even the King represents just one small part of the rich musical heritage of the home of Sun and Stax studios.
Culturally and geographically, Memphis has always had more in common with the delta of Mississippi and Arkansas than with the rest of Tennessee. Founded in 1819 and named for Egypt’s ancient Nile capital, its fortunes rose and fell with cotton. The Confederate defeat that ended slavery briefly plunged the city into economic chaos, but thanks to its potential for river and rail transportation it soon bounced back. The nation’s second largest inland port became a major stopping-off point for black migrant farmers and sharecroppers escaping the poverty of the Delta and many stayed, significantly shaping the city’s identity.
In the 1950s and 60s, the vibrant musical metropolis had a confidence that belied its size. The city reached its lowest ebb, however, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated here in 1968, and for a couple of decades thereafter it tottered on the brink of terminal decline, with downtown blighted by white flight. In the 1990s money was poured into tourism projects like Mud Island and the colossal stainless-steel Pyramid, while the new millennium brought the huge Peabody Place mall to downtown. Those lofty schemes are white elephants today, hit by recession and the draining of tourism away from the city by the big Mississippi casinos, but a handsome minor league baseball stadium – Autozone Field, home of the Redbirds – and a major performance arena, the FedEx Forum, as well as the fabled blues corridor of Beale Street keep Memphis’s downtown far livelier and more appealing, than most, while the Rock’n’Soul Museum, Sun Studio and Stax Museum keep true to the city’s astonishing musical heritage. Then there is Graceland, a warm and witty tribute that provides an intimate glimpse of the city’s most famous son.
The sound of Memphis
The sound of Memphis
Since the start of the twentieth century, Memphis has been a meeting place for black musicians from the Delta and beyond. During the Twenties, its downtown pubs, clubs and street corners were alive with the sound of the blues. Jug bands, in which singers were given a bass accompaniment by a musician blowing across the neck of a jug, were a specialty. Several songs by Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers – such as Walk Right In – became hits for white artists during the folk revival of the Sixties. Bukka White, Memphis Slim and guitarist Memphis Minnie appeared at nightspots like Mitchell’s Hotel and Pee Wee’s Saloon, all long since defunct. After World War II, young musicians and radio DJs such as Bobby Bland and B.B. King experimented by blending the traditional blues sound with jazz, adding electrical amplification to create rhythm’n’blues. White promoter Sam Phillips started Sun Records in 1953, employing Ike Turner as a scout to comb the Beale Street clubs for new talent. Among those whom Turner helped introduce to vinyl were his own girlfriend, Annie Mae Bullock (later Tina Turner), Howlin’ Wolf and Little Junior Parker, whose Mystery Train was Sun’s first great recording. In 1953, the 18-year-old Elvis Presley hired the studio to record My Happiness, supposedly as a gift for his mother, and something prompted Phillips’ assistant Marion Keisker to file away his details. The next summer, Phillips called Elvis back to the studio to cut That’s All Right, and thereby set out towards proving his much-quoted conviction that “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”. Phillips swiftly dropped his black artists and signed other white rockabilly singers like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis to make classics such as Blue Suede Shoes and Great Balls of Fire. Elvis – who in the words of Carl Perkins had the advantage that he “didn’t look like Mr Ed, like a lot of the rest of us” – was soon sold on to RCA (for just $35,000), and didn’t record in Memphis again until 1969, when at Chips Moman’s American Studios he produced the best material of his later career, including Suspicious Minds. In the Sixties and early Seventies, Memphis’s Stax Records provided a rootsy alternative to the poppier sounds of Motown. This hard-edged southern soul was created by a multiracial mix of musicians, Steve Cropper’s fluid guitar complementing the blaring Memphis Horns. The label’s first real success was Green Onions by studio band Booker T and the MGs; further hits followed from Otis Redding (Try A Little Tenderness), Wilson Pickett (Midnight Hour), Sam and Dave (Soul Man) and Isaac Hayes (Shaft). The label eventually foundered in acrimony; the last straw for many of its veteran soulmen was the signing of the British child star Lena Zavaroni for a six-figure sum. For gospel music in Memphis.
Memphis gospel: Al Green’s Church
Memphis gospel: Al Green’s Church
Memphis has been renowned for its gospel music since the Thirties, when Rev Herbert Brewster wrote Mahalia Jackson’s Move On Up a Little Higher. Following a religious revelation, the consummate soul stylist Al Green, who achieved chart success for Hi Records with hits like Let’s Stay Together and Tired of Being Alone, has since the early 1980s ministered at his own Full Gospel Tabernacle, at 787 Hale Rd in the leafy suburb of Whitehaven. Visitors are welcome at the 11am Sunday services; continue a mile south of Graceland, then turn west (phone ahead to check he’s in town; t 901/396-9192; w www.algreen.com). While they’re very much church services rather than concerts, Green remains a charismatic performer and he does sing, backed by a smoking soul band. For more on Memphis music.