- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Unable to market his star nationally and under mounting financial pressure, Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA in late 1955 for an estimated thirty-five thousand dollars (he wisely invested in the brainchild of another local entrepreneur, Kemmons Wilson, who had opened the first Holiday Inn in Memphis just a few years earlier), and Sun’s prominence faded in the late fifties. But the Memphis recording scene was far from dead. While Nashville was claiming its position as the capital of country, two small Memphis studios, Stax Records and Hi-Records, hit the national music charts in the 1960s, creating a new Memphis sound and reaffirming the city’s association with interracial, but especially African-American, music. Stax led the way, and typical of Memphis music, it was an unlikely cross-cultural enterprise.
The inspiration behind Stax was a middle-aged white brother-sister team, Jim Stewart (ST) and Estelle Axton (AX), who pooled their meager resources and launched their label on a shoestring in 1958. Their studio was in an empty movie theater at 926 McLemore, about a mile south of Beale. A local musician, Chips Moman, who quickly became a major creative force at Stax, tore out the seats, placed a control booth on the stage, and designed the recording facility, while Estelle Axton converted the concession-stand area into a record shop. On the brightly lit wedge-shaped marquee above the entrance, the words SOULSVILLE , USA announced the new label’s musical intentions.
The sound in the studio that first night was neither pure country nor pure blues. They had been fused into something entirely new.
For more than a decade after its founding, Stax defined the musical movement known as Southern soul. With the MarKeys, a local white band, Booker T. and the MGs, a mixed-race band, the black artists Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Rufus and Carla Thomas recording a series of hits in the funky studio, Stax became the center for “sweet soul music.” Willie MitchelPs independent Hi-Records would follow in the early seventies with a stunning string of R & B-soul hits by Al Green.
Stax and Hi rose to national prominence at a time when Memphis and the nation were increasingly beset by racial turbulence. While the musicians worked in a relaxed interracial atmosphere inside the studio, outside, on the streets, de facto segregation prevailed, and racial tensions, never far from the surface in Memphis, seethed. The racial ferment erupted in violence during the municipal sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4 of that year, at the Lorraine Motel not far from the Stax studio, shattered the city’s already fragile racial peace.
In the aftermath of the King assassination, race relations in Memphis and the unique cross-pollinated musical world that they had fostered began a long, dreary descent. Although Isaac Hayes and Al Green would record their gold records in the city during the early seventies, the murder at the Lorraine Motel and the subsequent riots marked the beginning of the end for Memphis music. Only a few years later both Stax and Hi were in deep financial and artistic trouble, and by the end of the seventies, the Memphis recording scene, after twenty-five years of raw, creative energy, was virtually moribund.
Today Memphis is no longer a major recording center, although a number of artists (U2, Ringo Starr, and others) have occasionally used Sun’s renewed facilities, recording in the studio that launched the rock revolution. They are not alone in journeying to the shrines of rock’s origins. Like the young Japanese rock fans in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 cult film Mystery Train , a hundred thousand visitors tour Sun Studio annually, gaping at the tiny two-room Memphis Recording Service, gingerly fingering the mike used by Elvis, the piano pounded by Jerry Lee, and the primitive recording equipment manipulated by Sam Phillips. Next door they eat in the small café where Phillips conducted much of Sun’s business and Elvis munched fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches in a booth along the side wall, and just upstairs they find a cluttered museum and record store where various Sun artifacts reside in glass cases and the Sun sound never sets.