I am a self-admitted music nerd. I gathered many hours at university in music history courses covering everything from the Delta blues to the Beatles. In May my parents and I stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on our way home from graduation. That was a really cool experience, by the way, even with 400 kindergarteners running around the museum. Who takes kindergarteners to a rock museum? Anyway, I decided that in light of our detour there, it seemed appropriate that we finally make the Memphis music trip. Memphis is extremely important in the history of American music, in case you hadn’t heard. The pulsing veins that carry the very lifeblood of three towering genres run straight through the heart of that city and continue to make Memphis a very relevant town in that respect.
My maternal grandmother’s family is from Memphis going back several generations, and much of our family continues to live there to this day. We go to visit my aunt and her family at least once a year usually, but we have never visited any of the multitude of important historical sites in the city. My younger cousin just graduated from high school in May, and we very much wished to see her before she leaves for college next month. We finally decided to be smart and kill two birds with one stone and make the music pilgrimage (at least for me) while seeing our family. Luckily my mother has a cousin with pretty amazing contacts in the Memphis tourism world, and our cousin generously made some phone calls and swung us tickets to Sun Studio, The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Stax, and Graceland, and my aunt, uncle, mom, two of my cousins, and I made a two day mini-vacation out of it.
To be honest, there was only one site I knew I had to see or the entire trip would be a waste: Sun Studio, the famous birthplace of rock and roll. I have read countless pages and watched countless hours of documentary film recounting the stories and importance of that building. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, discovered and recorded many of artists who became household names and legends in music including Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, oh yeah, and a guy you might have heard of. Um, Elvis Presley ring any bells? While I disparage my home state quite often and am not choosing to continue my life within its borders, I have always been proud of the musical heritage of the state. From the peaks of the Smokies in the east to the rolling hills and rivers of the mid-state to the flat cotton and soy bean fields of the west, music has always risen and permeated everything here and then gone on to touch the world in the most spectacular ways.
I started my personal music pilgrimage at Sun Studio. There’s something in the air around that little building on Union Avenue. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels electric, magical even. As I walked down the alley from the parking lot and passed the images of the founding fathers of rock ‘n roll posted on the side of the building and looked up to see the giant Gibson hanging over the door, I couldn’t help but get goosebumps. As I opened the door everything else melted away, my family, the tourists around me, the sounds of the street outside. I was in the highest spiritual meditation at the altar of my religion’s most holy and ancient of temples.
The tour consisted of a trip into a small gallery containing photographs, memorabilia, and recording artifacts from the golden days. Our tour guide, Eldorado, was fabulous and came complete with slicked back hair, mutton chops, browlines, and rolled up Levis. He told us the story of Sun and Sam Phillips (which I realized I knew just as well as he did and could probably get a job as a tour guide there myself), played some music, and then took us down to the actual studio. It has been kept exactly as Sam had it fitted all those years ago. The only thing that’s changed are the pictures on the walls and most of the instruments. There are still some original pieces in there, though, such as…
Oh, by the way, Howlin’ Wolf is probably my favorite of all the Sun artists from the early days. Here is the insane “Moanin’ at Midnight.”
It was a surreal feeling, standing in that space hearing clips of the recording sessions of the Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins) and the stories of rock’s own creation myth. I almost had a Hesiod moment. Not only had my idols of the early days of rock stood where I was standing creating the Lexington and Concord of popular music, but scads of my modern rock idols like Tom Petty and U2 had also stood there soaking in the history to make their own amazing works at Sun. Yes, Sun is still a working studio. Tours are given during the day and bands, such as our lovely tour guide’s (Eldorado and the Ruckus), record at night. It’s a living, breathing place not just a dusty box of old vinyl memories. I wish I could properly do the place justice, but no amount of images or fluttery descriptions can. Please, please, please, if you love rock and roll, go to Sun Studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
After Sun, we went downtown (and walked down the world renowned Beale St.) to visit the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum which was very well done and told the story of those two genres more specifically as they related to Memphis and Nashville as well. I will say that I did not like the fact that they are set up on a self-guided audio tour system. That’s just a personal preference issue on my part, though. I’m old fashioned and would rather read panels for myself or listen to a guide. I don’t dig wearing a headset. They did have stations where you could stop and listen to songs, though, which was pretty cool. The museum’s main exhibit was actually designed by the Smithsonian (the only one out there that has been other than the actual Smithsonian, by the way) so it was VERY well done. The number and quality of artifacts was jaw-dropping. Everything from Ike Turner’s first piano to Sam the Sham’s motorcycle. I recommend you all go there as well. Right now they have a special exhibit called “The Beatles Hidden Gallery” which showcases Paul Berriff’s photographs from the Beatles last tour in 1966 when they played Memphis. For those who know their Beatles history, this was shortly after Lennon’s misquoted God comment that sparked many a Beatles merch bonfire party across the American South. The pictures in the exhibit are great.
The final stop we made on our outing that day was to Stax the record company so famous for producing soul music from Otis Redding to Issac Hayes. Unfortunately, after Stax went under in the mid 70s, the original building was torn down, but thanks to those who realize the importance of preserving history, a new building was built on the original site and a Stax museum was opened in 2003. It really is a lovely museum filled with amazing memorabilia (hello Issac Hayes’ Cadillac!) and music. Unfortunately, though, I became rather violently ill right as we began our tour and we had to rush through, which really did break my heart. I definitely would have lingered much longer if I could. A visit there is also recommended.
The fine folks at Stax didn’t stop at just a museum, however. On site is also Stax Academy and Soulsville Charter School, which give local young people the opportunity to shine and meet their absolute highest potential both musically and academically fostering the continuation of a great legacy that goes so far beyond the gold records. Now how cool is that?
Also, on an interesting but completely related side note, as we were walking to the museum door we spied this across the street:
I’m glad to see someone recognized the importance of that place and is doing something with it because it needs some major TLC. Memphis Slim, for those who don’t know, was an incredible blues piano player from Memphis. Here he is playing his own (very, very famous) song “Everyday I Have the Blues.”
So that was day one. Rather than wax poetic or gush anymore since I’m pretty sure I overflowed quite a ways back, I have a better idea for summing up. I will do it quite appropriately with song, one by Frank Turner to be exact. A friend of mine recently turned me on to him, and his song “I Still Believe” seems to fit the nature and themes of this post astonishingly well. I think it also shows how important the people, places, and events I got a brief glimpse of this past week were and how they extended so far beyond Memphis and continue to have this brilliant snowball effect across the world and generations, but I’ll stop there. Listen to Frank (an Englishman, in case you couldn’t tell). He gets it.