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June 2024
26min read

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.

Bales of cotton no longer accumulate along the riverbank, but a small fleet of stern-wheelers still serves the Memphis waterfront.


When the phone rang and I heard the familiar voice of an old family friend inviting me to visit him in his hometown of Memphis, I was intrigued. Born and raised in Tennessee, I have lived for more than twenty years in Philadelphia, and while my work as a historian has taken me many times to Europe and around much of the United States, I never had occasion to visit Memphis. To me, growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain in distant East Tennessee, Memphis, three hundred miles away on the mighty Mississippi, was as remote, as romantic, as exotic as Casablanca. It was a city of music and murder, of barbecue and the blues. And then, of course, there was Elvis. I had not intended to take a trip to Memphis before that phone call, but it was a summons I could not refuse. I spent three days in Memphis during that visit. That was five years ago, and ever since I keep finding new reasons to return.

I am not alone. From around the world thousands answer a summons to Memphis each year, making a pilgrimage to the shrines of a global cultural revolution that began in this sleepy Southern city nearly fifty years ago. It was in this provincial backwater on the Mississippi that the diverse currents of black blues up from the Delta, country from the hills of Tennessee and Arkansas, and gospel, both black and white, converged to create a uniquely American musical expression, rock ’n’ roll.

Why Memphis? How could this modest Tennessee city, a city so traditional that Peter Taylor could write, “We were not after all a genuine Memphis family. We had lived in Memphis only thirty years,” have been the site of such a momentous musical upheaval? Memphis has always been something of a mystery, a Southern sphinx, complete now with its own stainless steel pyramid, on “the American Nile.” Situated in the southwest corner of Tennessee, Memphis is to many, even in the Volunteer State, an enigma.

Certainly Memphis has hardly turned east, toward Nashville, Chattanooga, or Knoxville, for its identity. With no city or town of any size within two hundred miles in any direction, Memphis had emerged by the early twentieth century as the commercial and cultural capital of a vast agrarian region spanning the flatlands of West Tennessee, Arkansas, and, of course, the Mississippi Delta. Indeed, the Delta is said to begin in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis and end on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. From its earliest days the city would draw not only on the Delta’s vast agrarian richness but on its potent cultural heritage as well, exerting an almost magical pull on the Delta’s ambitious and desperate, both black and white. That attraction has been especially strong for musicians and writers. From W. C. Handy to B. B. King, from William Faulkner in nearby Oxford, Mississippi, to Tennessee Williams, Shelby Foote, Peter Taylor, Walker Percy, Alex Haley, and, most recently, John Grisham, Memphis would represent the Paris of the Deep South, the gateway to the wider world. For while Memphis was certainly steeped in the Deep South, the city looked upriver as well as down, not only to New Orleans but to St. Louis and Chicago and beyond. Indeed, from the time of its founding in the early nineteenth century, Memphis has stood at a cultural and social crossroads, an inland river city where cultures, rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, Northern and Southern, did not so much converge as collide.

River City

The first of those powerful collisions occurred more than four centuries ago, when Hernando de Soto reached the site of present-day Memphis and claimed it for the kingdom of Spain. The Majestic bluff where de Soto stood (or may have stood: arguments abound) on that day in 1541 and scanned the broad river nearly a hundred feet below had served for centuries as a camp for the Chickasaw nation. De Soto and his restless band of explorers quickly moved on, but in the late seventeenth century the French explorer La Salle laid claim to the entire Mississippi Valley for Louis XIV, and in 1739 the French constructed a fort on what had become known as the fourth Chickasaw bluff. Later in the century the Spanish returned, displaced the French, and built their own Fort San Fernando on the site, before the Americans, in turn, drove them across the Mississippi.

Memphis stood where cultures, rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, did not so much converge as collide.

After centuries of seeing their lands traversed and claimed by a succession of European traders, settlers, and marauding armies, the Chickasaws in 1818 signed a formal agreement with the American government, ceding all West Tennessee to the United States. In the following year three Nashville land speculators, one of whom was Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and soon to be President of the United States, founded the town of Memphis. Named grandiloquently for the capital of ancient Egypt, this upstart settlement struggled for decades to establish an economic presence on the river before two developments toward the middle of the century dramatically transformed its fortunes. In 1845 the navy yard opened, greatly increasing Memphis’s prominence as a river port midway between St. Louis and New Orleans, and shortly thereafter completion of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad provided a lucrative link to the Atlantic Coast. On the eve of the Civil War, Memphis had blossomed into a prosperous port city.

During these years of rapid economic expansion, great paddle-wheel steamers such as the Bell-Lee and the Grand Republic plied the river, docking along Memphis’s cobble-stoned shoreline, disgorging fashionable ladies, silk-vested gamblers, and prosperous planters from the Delta. Mountainous heaps of cotton bales crowded the riverbank, waiting to be hauled up to the warehouses on Front Street, while gentlefolk and charlatans alike hurried off to the Gayoso Hotel, an imposing four-story wonder.


Bales of cotton no longer accumulate along the riverbank, but the Memphis waterfront maintains more than a touch of its antebellum flavor. Scenes of life on the river—from the interiors of the Belle of the Bluffs , an 1870s steamboat loaded with bales of cotton, to a Union ironclad under fire from Confederate shore batteries—have been dramatically re-created in the eighteen-gallery Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island. Just outside the museum, River Walk, a five-block-long model complete with flowing water, traces the course of the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf, conveying the river’s awesome geographic scale. Then, at the southern tip of Mud Island, the twin smokestacks and giant red paddle wheels of the steamboats come stunningly, improbably, into view. A small fleet of paddle wheelers—the Memphis Queen Line—still docks at the cobblestone landing, offering moonlight cruises and musical excursions up and down the river. As I walked along on a muggy May evening, the Mississippi Queen , an enormous, five-deck stern-wheeler that steams from St. Louis to New Orleans, churned into port and, in the late-afternoon twilight, lowered its gangplank onto the dock. But for the hum of traffic over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge into Arkansas, it might have been 1858.

The Civil War marked a major turning point in the history of the city. Unlike Atlanta or Vicksburg or Richmond, Memphis was subjected to neither siege nor destruction. At dawn on June 6, 1862, thousands of the city’s residents lined the bluffs above the river to watch a confrontation between their Confederate fleet and a large Union naval force that steamed out of the morning mist. Dew still glistened on the carriages and luncheon baskets of the crowd when the Federal ironclads smashed the line of Confederate gunboats, and by noon it was all over. Three weeks later Ulysses S. Grant set up his headquarters in the Hunt-Phelan manor house on east Beale Street and began planning the Union assault on Vicksburg, two hundred and fifty miles to the south.

Throughout the Federal occupation Memphis staunchly supported the Confederate cause, and evidence of that allegiance can still be found around the city today. The ferociously capable general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led an audacious raid on the city in 1864, is buried beneath an imposing equestrian statue in a park named for him on (ironically, it has always seemed to me) Union Avenue, and a large statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and a resident of Memphis for many years after the war, presides over an immaculate park along the river. That park, sometimes called Confederate Park, was the site, in 1909, of the largest reunion of Rebel veterans ever held.


But without doubt the most memorable vestige of antebellum Memphis to survive the war is the Hunt-Phelan estate. Built between 1828 and 1832 with slave labor, this very handsome house, which briefly served as Grant’s residence and was later used as a hospital, has been immaculately restored, with virtually all its original furnishings. Those had been hurriedly loaded into a railroad boxcar as the Yankees approached in 1862 and were hauled all over the war-ravaged South until the family could at last return home in 1865. Meanwhile, Union authorities, employing teachers imported from the North, had also established a school on the grounds to educate former slaves, one of the first Freedmen’s Bureau schools, and that small wooden structure behind the main house is currently being restored.

When I visited the Hunt-Phelan Home early on a bright, already humid morning in April, I found myself virtually alone taking the tour. At the entrance I was greeted by guides in period hoop skirts and issued a tape and headphones. Leading the visitor from room to room, the recorded story of the house is engagingly told by various members of the family, but particularly by its women. They weave family stories into the fabric of the estate’s history in a manner so compelling, so vibrant, that at times I found myself turning around as if I had been tapped on the shoulder, expecting to find the lady of the house beckoning me graciously into the adjoining parlor or library. Over the years, I have taken a great many such tours, from Appomattox Courthouse to Versailles, and none so successfully captures a sense of historical time and place as this lonely antebellum estate on Beale Street.


However much Memphians may have resented the Federal occupation, the city’s commerce did not suffer unduly during the war years. In fact, the enterprising business community quickly adapted, selling cotton to the Yankees and, under the very noses of the Union authorities, nails, shoes, and gunpowder to Rebel agents.

The war did nonetheless bring momentous changes to Memphis, far-reaching changes that would increasingly define the social and cultural contours of the city. During its early years Memphis had been overwhelmingly white, its inhabitants largely Southern Anglo-Saxons, with an admixture of Irish and Italian newcomers. But shortly after Federal troops arrived, Union authorities established a freedmen’s camp for escaping slaves just south of town. As the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, the camp population mushroomed, and when the war ended in 1865, most of the freedmen decided to stay on. Many moved into the south part of town around Beale Street, swelling the black population from four thousand to fifteen thousand. The city acted as a magnet for blacks from all over the rural South, and within just a few years after Lee’s surrender, 40 percent of Memphis’s population was black. Well before other cities, Northern or Southern, Memphis was on its way to developing a distinct African-American community, and in the years of Reconstruction that community continued to grow.

Having been spared the devastation of war, the city in the late 1860s and 1870s was ravaged by a series of catastrophic yellow fever epidemics that killed thousands and forced thousands more to flee. By the end of the decade Memphis was bankrupt and virtually abandoned, prompting the state to revoke its city charter in 1879. From this extreme low ebb Memphis staged a remarkable comeback, riding a surge of revived river trade that swept the Mississippi Valley in the following decades. By the late 1880s the city had re-emerged as the cotton center of the South, and in the 1890s it became the world’s largest hardwood market.

Well before other cities, Northern or Southern, Memphis was developing a true African-American community.

The commission houses of the great cotton brokers still look toward the river from Cotton Row on Front Street between Exchange and Union, though most have long since been converted into architects’ studios, law firms, and restaurants. The ornate Cotton Exchange Building, constructed in 1873 and featured prominently in the film version of John Grisham’s The Firm , is still the centerpiece of Cotton Row, and although the hectic bustle of the nineteenth-century cotton business has subsided, Memphis remains to this day the world’s largest spot market for the commodity.

More striking vestiges of the city’s Gilded Age effulgence may be found just a few blocks away, on what locals once referred to as Millionaires’ Row. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, this was an avenue of cotton merchants’ houses, running from the river eastward along Adams Avenue—a series of Italianate villas, Second Empire French mansions, and Victorian estates strung like pearls along the lush tree-lined street. Today only a handful of these magnificent estates remain, clustered together in a two-block area called the Victorian Village Historic District in an otherwise dreary, mildly decaying neighborhood. The Mallory-Neely House, built in 1852, and the nearby Woodruff-Fontaine House, from the 1870s, are exquisite period gems that have been restored with elaborate attention to detail. A successful cotton merchant who bought his house in 1883, James C. Neely purchased an enormous stained-glass window at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair and built an expansive landing into the house’s main staircase to display his acquisition. The window is as stunning today as it was one hundred years ago, but if you stand on the landing and peer through one of the tiny leaded panes, you cannot miss the faded grandeur of the era and the haunted quality that clings to the remaining houses. The cotton coming upriver is no longer visible, but the pawnshops of Poplar Avenue will stare back at you from just a block away.

Beale Street Blues

Throughout these decades of recovery and boom times, Memphis continued to draw a rising tide of African-American migrants. Laborers, would-be entrepreneurs, teachers, and musicians flooded into the relatively free atmosphere of the city’s south side, the hub of which was Beale Street. Although the city remained strictly segregated, the Beale Street area became a vibrant, largely self-contained black community, complete with doctors, lawyers, druggists, insurance brokers, schools, churches, retail stores, and theaters, unfettered by the oppressive Jim Crow laws or intrusive white police. Two black newspapers circulated in the area, and a black-owned bank had opened by 1910. Beale Street was home to the South’s first African-American millionaire, Robert Church, a former slave who not only financed a park and an auditorium for the city’s black residents but also contributed mightily with his financial support to the reinstatement of the city’s charter in 1893. Meanwhile the black Primrose Club and Toxoway Tennis Club catered to a sophisticated social set. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Beale Street had become “the Negro Main Street of America.”

Memphis had given birth to the blues, and black musicians streamed up Highway 61 out of the Delta to make it on Beale.

During this period Memphis acquired a well-deserved reputation as a raucous city of sin, the “Sodom of the New South.” Prosperous and bustling, it was also a tough river town. In 1905 the city emerged as the murder capital of the country, a dubious distinction it would not relinquish for three decades.

In the 1920s a newspaperman named Gilmore Millen described Beale as a “street of business and love and murder and theft—an aisle where … merchants and pawnbrokers, country Negroes from plantations, créole prostitutes and painted fag men, sleepy gamblers and slick young chauffeurs, crooks and bootleggers and dope peddlers and rich property owners and powdered women … and labor agents and blind musicians and confidence men and hard-working Negroes from sawmills and cotton warehouses and factories and stores meet and stand on corners and slip upstairs to gambling joints and rooming hotels and barber shops and bawdy houses.” But Millen left the most important ingredient out of this colorful stew, the thing that made Beale Street, and for that matter Memphis itself, exhilarating: its music. Music roiled like river rapids along the four-block stretch that seemed to be a world all to itself. It was in this exotic, wide-open environment that W. C. Handy, a thirty-two-year-old black bandleader from Florence, Alabama, would “discover” a new musical form, the blues. An accomplished, formally trained musician who had performed in minstrel shows and toured with his orchestra across the South, Handy arrived in Memphis in 1905 and set up his musical headquarters in Pee Wee’s Saloon on Beale Street, a famous hangout for local musicians. He quickly established a considerable local reputation, and in 1909 E. H. Crump, a young candidate for mayor who would come to dominate Memphis and Tennessee politics for almost half a century, commissioned Handy to write a campaign song for him. Crump was courting the black vote and wanted a tune that would attract African-Americans without alienating white voters. For years Handy had listened to the rhythms of the Delta singers and guitar pickers, the harmonica players and scrub-board artists who congregated in the parks and played for pennies all along Beale Street, and for Crump’s campaign song he hit on the idea of suffusing these rich Delta rhythms with full European instrumentation. The result was “Mister Crump,” which, like the candidate, became a local hit. The song, with altered lyrics, soon reappeared as “Memphis Blues,” and in subsequent years Handy used the same formula to compose a series of hits, notably “Beale Street Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” that put both the genre and the city on the musical map.

Everyone seemed to agree that, thanks to W. C. Handy, Memphis had given “birth to the blues,” and the city quickly became a mecca for black musicians who streamed up Highway 61 out of the Delta to make it in the clubs and juke joints that flourished on Beale Street. Memphis Minnie McCoy and Peter Chatman, better known as Memphis Slim, two of the most influential blues figures of the thirties and forties, launched their careers on Beale Street, as did Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, who later set the tone for the Chicago school of blues. Music seemed to be everywhere, from the churches, with their rollicking gospel choirs, to the street corners and park benches, filled with blues musicians just off the bus, and the rowdy saloons and smoke-filled dives that dotted Beale Street.

In the years following the Second World War, Memphis’s reputation for vice of all sorts continued to flourish. Citing crime and racial tensions, more and more affluent whites had started to migrate to the burgeoning suburbs just east of the city, and the entire downtown area began a gradual decline. Reform-minded municipal authorities launched a major cleanup of Beale Street in the late forties, closing most of the saloons, pawnshops, and poolrooms throughout the area. With the crackdown the Beale Street music scene lost much of its “anything goes” vitality, and the vigorous historic black community clustered there seemed to lose its sense of coherence.

But while Beale Street and the entire downtown area went into a protracted slide in the early fifties, Memphis music veered off on a dramatic new course. Beale Street went on the air. In October 1948 WDIA produced a forty-five-minute program hosted by a local black history teacher, Nat D. Williams. The show, which had been an experiment on a station devoted mostly to hillbilly and pop, proved wildly successful with the black community all over West Tennessee, Arkansas, and the northern Delta, and in 1949 the station radically changed its format. WDIA, “50,000 watts of goodwill,” became the first all-black radio station in the country, with African-American deejays and programming that specifically targeted a black audience. WDIA’s torrent of gospel, blues, and the sounds of rhythm and blues (R&B) put it on its way to becoming the most powerful station in Memphis.

As its competitors quickly discovered, its listeners were hardly confined to the black community. Sensing a white teenage audience to be tapped, another local station, WHBQ, introduced Dewey Phillips, a young white deejay with an eclectic interest in black music. Phillips took over the show “Red, Hot and Blue” in 1949. On any given program a listener might hear Arthur (“Big Boy”) Crudup, LaVern Baker, Big Mama Thornton, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, or the local gospel group the Blackwood Brothers. Several years before Alan Freed, who popularized the term rock ’n’ roll , would do the same with his radio show in Cleveland, Ohio, Dewey Phillips was bringing black music into white homes in Memphis.

There is no Dewey Phillips on the air in Memphis today, but the Memphis radio tradition lives on in WEVL, with its rockabilly and blues offerings, especially the funky “Rock House” show and “Cap’n Pete’s Blues Cruise,” which airs at 9:00 P.M. on Fridays. The WDIA studio on Union Avenue, just up the street from the Peabody Hotel, is also still in operation, broadcasting a steady stream of talk and music, and you can stop in for a quick tour. On Saturday mornings Rufus Thomas, the senior statesman of the local music scene, still broadcasts a weekly show, and the station’s all-blues programming on Saturdays remains an unpretentious tribute to the city’s blues tradition. Listening to the radio as you drive around the city or take a day trip down to the Delta, you cruise on a buoyant cushion of Memphis music, whose distinctive sound seems to literally fill the air.

The Sun Also Rises

Among those who listened regularly to “Red, Hot and Blue” in its early days was a young disc jockey who had arrived in Memphis in 1945. Sam Phillips was no relation to Dewey, but he shared the same colorblind musical tastes, especially an almost visionary enthusiasm for the black blues and rough country music he had heard growing up in Florence, Alabama. In Memphis he took a job as a sound engineer and announcer at WREC and picked up the rudiments of recording.

Then, in 1949, Phillips embarked on a modest local venture that within five years would do nothing less than revolutionize musical culture throughout the world. Scraping together all his available cash, he leased a former radiator shop at 706 Union Avenue and converted the seedy storefront building into a tiny recording studio. In January 1950 he opened the Memphis Recording Service, taping weddings, funerals, political speeches, anything at all. But his real ambition was to record the music he heard all around him in Memphis.

In 1949 Sam Phillips launched a modest local venture that would revolutionize music throughout the world.

In the early fifties the major record labels had headquarters in New York and Los Angeles and concentrated on pop music, which dominated about 60 percent of the market. While blues—“race music,” as record executives called it—and hillbilly received scant attention from the majors, small regional independents—indies, in the musical vernacular—had moved in to tap these less commercial genres. By the early fifties a number of minor labels—RPM/Modern in Los Angeles, Chess in Chicago, and Atlantic in New York—were cultivating local contacts to recruit artists all across the South, but especially in the music-rich Delta. At some point in 1950 Sam Phillips hit on the idea of recording local talent himself and then selling or leasing the masters to RPM or Chess.

On March 5, 1951, Ike Turner, a nineteen-year-old deejay from Clarksdale, Mississippi, arrived at the studio on Union Avenue with his five-man band. Turner had learned from B. B. King, at the time a deejay on WDIA, that Sam Phillips was interested in recording “race music.” That night, with Turner playing piano and saxophonist Jackie Brenston doing the vocal, the Kings of Rhythm launched into a jumping number that was not quite blues, not quite R & B, and certainly not pop. It sizzled, it rocked, and Phillips loved it. “Rocket 88” was exactly the sort of innovative music that he had been looking for, and he leased the recording he made that night to Chess Records in Chicago. “Rocket 88” began a climb up the national R & B charts, where it eventually reached number one.

Many view “Rocket 88” as the first rock ’n’ roll record, and its success inspired Sam Phillips to create his own record company, recording and pressing the records in Memphis. He had already recorded B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf at 706 Union, only to see them signed by the larger labels, and in 1952 he scraped together the necessary financing to found Sun Records. The label scored its first major hit with Rufus Thomas’s “Bearcat” in 1953, but most of its recordings over the next sixteen years, reflecting Phillips’s eclectic interests, fizzled.

An audience was out there, he believed, a large white teenage audience that was simply too bound by tradition and fear to cross the color line musically and embrace the sort of R & B mutation he had in mind. In Memphis white kids were already listening to black R & B on “Red, Hot and Blue” and inviting black bands to perform at their parties, while the more adventurous were attending the black musical revues at the Palace, sitting in the roped-off sections for whites in the balcony. Although he is often quoted as saying, “If I could only find a white singer who sings like a Negro, I could make a million dollars,” Phillips wasn’t looking for a white artist trying to sound black. He wanted someone who felt the music, as he did, who came to it naturally and who could project it with genuine emotion.

He found that person in a shy eighteen-year-old graduate of Humes High in Memphis who was working at Crown Electric Company when he walked into Sun Records for the first time in 1953. Elvis Aron Presley and his parents had arrived in the city flat broke in 1948 from Tupelo, Mississippi, and by 1953 they were living in a fifty-dollar-a-month apartment. Elvis listened to WDIA and, of course, to Dewey Phillips, and he regularly attended the All-Night Gospel Singings at the Ellis Auditorium. He knew all sorts of music, blues, R & B, pop, hillbilly, and especially gospel, and they flowed together in the first serious record he cut for Sam Phillips on July 5 and 6, 1954. It is characteristic of the cultural cross-fertilization that came to define Memphis music that the two sides of that first record were Arthur (“Big Boy”) Crudup’s blues tune “That’s All Right, Mama” and Bill Monroe’s country hit “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The choice of songs was a spontaneous expression of the music Elvis knew, and as Phillips realized instantly, the sound in the studio was neither pure country nor pure blues. They had been fused magically together, transformed into something entirely different.


“That’s All Right, Mama” premiered on Dewey Phillips’s “Red, Hot and Blue” and was an instant sensation. Elvis’s audience quickly spread from Memphis across the South and then the nation. As his fame mounted, more hits followed in 1955—“Mystery Train,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “I’m Right, You’re Left, She’s Gone”—leaving the record industry, the national media, and even the fans puzzled. How should they classify Elvis and the music now erupting out of Sun Records? Was he country? A white R & B artist? “Rockabilly,” some called the music, but attempts at classification seemed increasingly irrelevant. Sun Records had broken the mold and launched the rock ’n’ roll revolution.


Following in Elvis’s wake, other voices roared from the tiny studio at 706 Union Avenue. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, all, like Elvis, young white Southerners from poor rural backgrounds and strong gospel roots, scored major rock hits on the Sun label between 1956 and 1958. Meanwhile, another Sun discovery, Johnny Cash, brought a distinctly different sound to the hillbilly genre, emerging as a towering force in country music at the same time. In what was a striking vindication of Sam Phillips’s creative vision, Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” recorded at Sun Records in 1956, became the first song to be a hit on the pop, hillbilly, and R & B charts.

Soulsville, USA

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.

Mystery Train

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.

Then of course there is Graceland. Since Elvis’s death in 1977 his mansion south of town has become the second most visited residence in the United States, far outdistancing William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Only the White House draws more visitors. With its Jungle Room, flowing fountains, floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, banks of televisions, and ornate smoked mirrors, the mansion is a wonderfully outrageous affront to good taste, a monument to the country-boy-made-good—and not a little eerie. Yet, in a way, it is ironic that Graceland should be the focal point of Elvis mania in Memphis, since his most creative musical period was over by the time he took up residence there in 1957. For many, the King’s ghost seems far more alive at 706 Union Avenue, in the cramped twenty-by-forty-foot studio where he was discovered, or even on Beale Street, where in his early days he listened to the blues and bought his flamboyant pink and black clothes at Lansky Brothers.

The building that housed Lansky’s is now, appropriately, the site of Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a restaurant and nightclub that opened in the summer of 1997 and now anchors one end of a four-block area that is the revived Beale Street. In the sixties the old street was a dismal wasteland. The music scene had long vanished, the businesses had fled, and even that Beale Street staple, vice, seemed to have departed for more promising pastures. In a spasm of grandiose urban renewal beginning in 1966, the Memphis Housing Authority announced plans to make “drab Beale Street into a glittering jewel, complete with a revolving tower-restaurant at the Mississippi River, a riverfront freeway, high rise apartments, a plaza along Beale,” and so forth, as the Memphis Press-Scimitar told it. “You’re forgetting one thing,” said one of the many local residents who protested the plan. “If you tear down all these buildings, you will no longer have Beale Street.”

The bloated project collapsed under the money pressures of the mid-1970s. Then in 1978 the Memphis Community Development Division opened the door to private developers. A local company named Carlisle Properties, which had already started a restaurant complex over on the Mississippi at Beale Street Landing, joined up with a group—largely made up of black merchants from the neighborhood—called the Beale Street Development Foundation. With a few million dollars pledged to the project, they set about salvaging what they could of the old Beale Street.

For all its prosperity, there lingers aoout this old river city an unsettling and irresistible air of mystery, of haunted memory.

In 1979, with the outcome far from certain, the historian T. H. Watkins wrote that “history may yet combine with private profit and the public good to make something worthwhile on Beale Street. The result, of course, will not even approximate the world that produced the blues which the new Beale Street will memorialize. Nor should it. For all its luminous vigor, for all its music, there was too much pain in that world, too much desperation, too much truth.”

Today the results are in. Beale Street is enjoying an exuberant revival and is once again a place where the music that made Memphis famous can be heard. With a dozen or so blues clubs, cafés, record shops, and restaurants, the street jumps with entertainment every night. On weekends two revamped blocks of Beale are blocked off to traffic, and people of all sorts—conventioneers from Iowa, European tourists, exotically dressed Japanese youth, panhandlers, evangelists, impromptu acrobats—surge through the area, mingling with itinerant musicians, fortunetellers, and a colorful assortment of locals on the street, while music—blues, R & B, and rock—floods from the open doors of B. B. King’s Blues Club at the west end of the street all the way down to the Rum Boogie Café several blocks away.

Some observers have disparaged the spruced-up Beale Street, with its cobblestones and sandblasted facades, as little more than a blues theme park, artificial and touristy. It is true that better barbecue can be found at Payne’s, out on Elvis Presley Boulevard, or at the Interstate Bar-B-Q Restaurant, on South Third Street, and a blues purist can find grittier fare at Wild Bill’s Restaurant and Lounge, on Vollintine Avenue, or at Earnestine & Hazel’s, which was once a sundry store on South Main Street, or at any number of other juke joints that still dot the sprawling Memphis landscape. Certainly the spiffy, newly opened Hard Rock Café on Beale and Hernando could be anywhere. But such criticism is unfair.


On a typical sultry Saturday night last October, I wandered along a crowded Beale Street and stopped in at the Blues City Café, a funky, down-at-the-heels nightspot, for some pork ribs, a Memphis specialty. Just across the street, at B. B. King’s, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the great master of Texas swing blues, was strumming his guitar, and from my booth, with its ripped vinyl and slightly beery aroma, I could see him clearly through the neon night. Crowds swept on down the street, collecting in wavering eddies outside the various clubs and cafés, listening to the music that throbbed from inside, and the smell of barbecue, fried fish, and red beans and rice drifted lazily along in the smoky lamplight. Just down the street at A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, which has been on Beale since 1876, you could find anything from voodoo powders and oils to celluloid collars and suspenders. I picked up a John the Conqueror root, just for good luck and, as Muddy Waters says, to keep “my mojo workin*#8217;.” In W. C. Handy Park, across the street from Willie Mitchell’s Rhythm and Blues Club and the New Daisy, which books jazz, blues, R & B, and rockabilly acts, not to mention live boxing on the first Tuesday of the month, a local blues band was belting out one number after another. There was no stage, no bandstand. Audience and musicians mingled, and people, black and white, young and old, tourists and locals, danced, hooted, whistled, clapped their hands, and sang along. The scene might have been from Beale Street’s fabled midnight rambles of eighty years ago.


Memphis, which for so long shunned its musical heritage, is now working hard to embrace it. Museums such as the Memphis Music Hall of Fame on South Second Street and the Center for Southern Folklore on Beale have sprung up to herald the city’s musical past, and such annual musical events as the Beale Street Music Festival in May draw thousands of music fans to the city. Memphis also remains the gateway to the blues-rich Delta, and many who come to attend the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, in October or visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale or even just to gamble in the glittering casinos of nearby Tunica County, Mississippi, begin their tour on Beale Street or at 706 Union Avenue.

Memphis today is once again a prosperous, thriving city. As ever, cotton and timber continue to be major pillars of the local economy—Dunavant Enterprises is the world’s largest cotton exporter, and the National Hardwood Lumber Association has its headquarters here—but cotton and lumber are no longer the undisputed kings in Memphis. Since the late 1970s, when the local entrepreneur Fred Smith founded his company, Memphis has been the home of Federal Express, one of the largest package-delivery outfits in the world, and the city prides itself on being “America’s Distribution Center.” Gleaming glass canyons, home to the banks and brokerages and law firms that form the backdrop to John Grisham’s sinister Memphis novels, dominate the central business district, punctuated by a gigantic stainless steel pyramid that seems to rise from the river itself.

Fashionable, affluent neighborhoods stretch eastward along Poplar, toward the prosperous suburbs of Germantown and Collierville; midtown, especially the area around Overton Park, with its stately old houses, tree-lined streets, parks, and museums, has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Overton Square is home to some of the city’s most popular boutiques, upscale restaurants, and elegant nightclubs and the impressive Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which, when I visited in May, was showing an extensive exhibition of French painting from the ancien régime . Only a short distance away, on Central Avenue, is the ornate roseate-tinted estate of Clarence Saunders, who opened the country’s first self-service food-market chain here, the Piggly Wiggly, in 1916. The estate, called the Pink Palace by locals, has been converted into a diverse and imposing museum, housing a replica of the first Piggly Wiggly, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and numerous exhibits on Memphis social and cultural life. Memphis, in short, is far more than blues, barbecue, and Elvis.

Yet for all its prosperity Memphis is not Atlanta or Charlotte or Houston, glittering symbols of the Sunbelt and New South. There lingers about this old river city an unsettling and irresistible air of mystery, of haunted memory, of ghosts lurking always just beyond view. You sense it as you ride the newly created trolley line through a tableau of contrasts along Main Street, traveling from the tiny park at Auction Square where slaves were bought and sold, through the glass and steel of the modern business district, to the seedy store-fronts and deserted flophouses of the South Main historic district. You feel it in the haunted corridors of the Lorraine Motel, converted now into the National Civil Rights Museum, in the faded grandeur of the Victorian Village, in the tiny studio at Sun Records, in the rooms of Graceland, and on East McLemore, where a forlorn state historical marker rises like a tombstone from the litter-filled vacant lot that was the site of Soulsville, USA. But above all else, there is the sound, the unmistakable undying sound of Memphis music in all its myriad forms and phases, summoning us decade after decade to this city on the Mississippi. For anyone who visits the nightspots of Beale Street, who travels to Faulkner country just to the south, eats ribs at the Rendezvous, or buys voodoo powders at Schwab’s, the sultry mysterious Memphis that gave birth to the blues, to rock ’n’ roll, and to soul will cast its luxuriant, disturbing spell.

My Memphis “The Place of Good Abode” TO PLAN A TRIP

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