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, and 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.
Laidback and oddball, melancholy and determinedly nostalgic, Memphis has a friendly scale. Downtown still retains a healthy ensemble of buildings from the cotton era – best admired either along the riverfront or from the trolley down Main Street – along with a number of places that look unchanged since Elvis’s day. Four miles southeast of downtown, the Cooper-Young intersection boasts a handful of hip restaurants and vintage stores.
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. 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 recording. 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 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.