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Memphis

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(back to Music Travel)

Memphis stands at the crossroads of the Mississippi Delta, a vast region of fertile farming land. For a century or more, poor people from all over the Delta came to Memphis looking for work, bringing with them the African traditions of the blues and the Celtic traditions of country and bluegrass.

Some of them passed through Memphis and headed up Highway 61 to Chicago and the other cities of the industrialised north, where their musical traditions evolved into a tough urban brand of electric blues.

But many stayed on in Memphis, and their cultures and music began to mix in the bars of Beale Street and the dance halls of West Memphis. The result was a mutant musical style called rock and roll.

Ike Turner’s Rocket 88, recorded at Sun Records in 1951, was probably the first record that assembled all of the essential ingredients that came to define rock and roll. Bill Haley covered the song, and it inspired him to switch from a career in country and western music, to recording versions of tunes by R&B artists, a strategy that paid off a few years down the track.

The sound of rock and roll was quickly spread across America by powerful radio transmitters located in and around Memphis. These radio stations, which were far from the corporate control of the big conservative radio networks, transmitted the raw sounds of R&B and blues straight into teenage bedrooms all around America, where kids would listen to the strange forbidden sounds at night underneath their bed covers.

Since then, Memphis has produced some great moments of rock and pop music: the early recordings of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, the Stax soul classics, the Rev Al Green’s silky funk, and Alex Chilton’s chiming Big Star melodies.

Graceland Estate (3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard)

It only took a couple years to transform Elvis Presley from a quiet teenage Memphis truck driver with a deep love of gospel music, steamy Rhythm & Blues, and a really sharp dress sense, into the wild man of jungle music, the figurehead for world teenage rebellion, and the nemesis threatening to destroy civilisation as we knew it.

With these qualifications, Presley quickly became the most popular human being on the planet, and as the royalty cheques rolled in from the RCA conglomerate, Elvis suddenly had enough money to get anything he desired: a gold lamé suit, a pink Cadillac, a private aeroplane. But one of the very first things he bought with his newfound wealth was Graceland, a modest mansion on the outskirts of Memphis, which he bought it in 1957 for $100,000.

The Presley family had moved house 5 times in the 6 years before the teenage Elvis suddenly hit the big time, and in the years that followed he was seldom off the road - touring America continually. But Graceland remained one of the few constants in Presley’s life: although he bought other houses, he never sold Graceland, and this is where he died in 1977, and is buried (together with his mother, father, and his stillborn twin Jesse).

Full Gospel Tabernacle (787 Hale Rd, Whitehaven)

This church is lucky enough to have as its minister, the Reverend Al Green, one of the great soul singers. In the early 70’s, Green recorded a series of records in Memphis that oozed with the smoothest sensuality and longing, and was backed by a band that boasted the punchiest and funkiest rhythm players outside of James Brown’s band (courtesy of the Hodges brothers on drum and bass).

Green turned his back on worldly success in the mid seventies, and entered the church. Since them he has released a series of excellent gospel recordings.

Services at the Tabernacle include a good dose of gospel music, and the 11 am Sunday Services are open to visitors. However, it is advisable to check first whether the Rev Green is in town; the churches phone number is 396 9192.

Graceland Too (Randolph and Cholston Streets, Holly Springs)

This homage to The King sets out to document every conceivable reference to Elvis every made in any medium, and it must come close. It is the labour of love of a father and son, and is open 24 hours a day.

Elvis’ Childhood Home (Apt 328 Lauderdale Courts, 185 Winchester)

When Vernon Presley arrived in Memphis in 1948, looking for work, he had trouble finding a suitable home for his family. Over the next 6 years, until Elvis went on the road with his rock and roll band, the Presleys moved 5 times.

The closest they had to a permanent home over that period, was their 2-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of Lauderdale Courts, a large public housing project, which they rented for $35 a month. The Presley family lived there from September 1949 to 1953, but had to leave when Vernon finally got a job and they lost their eligibility for public housing.

Lauderdale Courts was located near the mainly African American Beale Street area. However, despite the size (there were more than 430 apartments in the complex) there was a strong spirit of community among the tenants in the 50s, and it was more like a self-contained village.

Elvis became quite popular with the other residents, and - although he was usually a very quiet teenager - he was well known for his impromptu street performances around the block.

The Courts are still standing today (the only one of the Presley homes still standing in Memphis except for Graceland), in a fairly risky neighbourhood. There has been recent talk of demolishing the apartments, but this has triggered bitter community debate about their status as a national monument.

Other Presley homes in Memphis included: 370 Washington St (where they lived immediately after arriving from Tupelo in 1948); 572 Poplar (a rooming house where the family cooked ate and slept in a single room, until they moved to the nearby Lauderdale Courts in Sep 1949); 698 Saffarans (a rooming house not far from Elvis’ high school; they moved here when his Vernon got a job in 1953) and 462 Alabama (a large 19th Century house near Lauderdale Courts).

Sun Studios (706 Union Avenue)

Sam Phillips opened the studios in 1950 with the aim of recording the great black musicians of the South. His recordings included Howling Wolf, Junior Parker (who wrote and recorded Mystery Train), BB King and Rufus Thomas.

Ike Turner worked for Phillips as a talent spotter before recording Rocket 88 at the studio in 1951 (the song was covered by Billy Haley and his band the Saddlemen).

However, Phillips sensed that there was restlessness brewing in white teenage America. He knew if he could find a white singer who could somehow tap into the wildness and authenticity that the great black R&B musicians routinely plugged into, that he would sell a lot of records. Then he discovered Elvis Presley, a young church going truck driver who had a knack with a gospel tune.

Before long, Phillips had a stable of white musicians who were able to rock with the best of the bluesmen: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. However, before long, his black artists felt neglected and moved on to other labels, and his white stars were offered big money by the major corporations, and also moved on.

A few years later, Sam Phillips sold Elvis Presley’s contract to Colonel Parker, and used the funds to relocate his studio to 639 Madison, which is still being used.

Twenty minute tours of the tiny Union Ave studio are available every half hour from 10.30 - 5.30 (except in the summer months of June to August, when the studio opens an hour earlier at 9.30 and closes an hour later at 6.30).

The Sun Studio Café (710 Union Ave) is located nearby. Elvis himself was known to snack here between sessions; the jukebox features a comprehensive selection of Sun singles (open 10am-7pm).

American Recording Studio (827 Thomas St, cnr Chelsea St)

Nothing remains today of the great record label Stax: the Stax building on McLemore Ave. is long gone, and the American Recording Studio, which was the main studio used by the Stax artists, was bulldozed in the seventies

Some of the best soul music ever committed to tape was recorded here. The list of Stax greats is long: Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Mar Keys, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, the BarKays, Rocky Burnette, Memphis Slim, Junior Wells, Arthur Conley, Joe Tex, many of them backed by local Memphis house band, Booker T and the M.G.s.

Elvis recorded From Elvis in Memphis at the studio in January 1969 (recording 36 songs in 10 days - his best record in 10 years, and maybe the 8 years after that). Dusty Springfield recorded Dusty in Memphis at American and Petula Clark recorded her hit song "Downtown" here.

The Studio was run by local Memphis muso Chips Moman, who moved the whole operation to Atlanta in 1972. The studio was located between a barbers shop and a restaurant; however, when the restaurant did not like the music, they turned up their radio loud, and made recording impossible.

Memphis attorney Seymour "Sy" Rosenburg organized American Recording,and attracted the investment interest of himself and Dr. James Hayes, who owned and operated the McLemore Clinic and Hospital across the street from Stax Records at 915-919 East McLemore Ave. Chips Moman was convinced of the success of the venture and worked for "sweat equity," as the studio got underway in its early days.

Stax (926 East McLemore Ave)

Today, nothing remains of Stax Records, Soulsville USA, except a small metal plaque in the middle of a bulldozed vacant lot, near the corner of College Road and McLemore (pronounced Mackle More) Ave. However, in the sixties, Stax produced just about every great soul artist who was not signed to Motown.

Jim STewart and Estelle AXton founded the label, as Satellite records. Isaac Hayes was the leading producer on the label. The writer of many of Stax’s greatest hits, David Porter worked directly across the road at a grocery store. He used to front up at the studios every day with a new song, until the label eventually caved in and offered him a job.

[1]

Ardent Recording (2000 Madison and corner Cooper)

This is one of the few classic Memphis studios still operating successfully. Over the years, the studio was used by REM, Big Star, Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays, ZZ Top, and The Replacements.

Big Star was formed in 1971 by former teen idol Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. They took their name from the Big Star supermarket, which was located directly accross the road from the studio (but now long gone).

They had little success with their classic pop albums, and broke up in 1974. However, over the years they retained a cult following, and were a big influence on REM, The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, and Primal Scream (who recorded at the studios, recorded by Tom Dowd, and mixed by George Clinton)

The Studios are now run by a Christian recording label.

[2]

Royal Recording/Hi Records (1320 South Lauderdale Ave)

This studio is best known for the string of classic soul-funk masterpieces made by Al Green in the early 70s. Its other claims to fame are a string of hit records by bass player Bill Black (who used to have joint billing with Elvis as “Elvis Scotty and Bill”), and Ann Peeble’s disco classic I Can’t Stand The Rain. The studio was converted from a former cinema (the control room was built in the projection room). It was still operating in 1996.

Humes High school (659 N Manassas St)

Elvis Presley's school.

Assembley of God church (1084 McLemore)

Elvis regularly went to this church from early 1954, even while he was spending Saturday Nights down at the blues clubs of Beale Street, and listening to steamy R&B records at home.

Every Sunday, Elvis and his girlfriend Dixie attended Pastor Hammill’s fiery sermons, which denounced movies and dancing, and then ecstatic church members full of the Holy Spirit would speak in tongues. The sermons were very popular (church membership was close to 2000).

Crown Electric (353 Poplar)

Elvis eventually found a job working as a truck driver, delivering electrical supplies to industrial building sites. A few years later during an interview, Elvis remembered his early ambition to drive a truck, attracted by the glamour of the truck drivers he saw driving around town: with their neckerchiefs and sweaty torsos.... hmmm.

Crown Electric was located just around the corner from Presleys home at Lauderdale Courts. Mrs Tipler, the wife of the owner, took a liking to young Elvis, and sent him regularly to have his hair done at her hairdresser, Blakes Coiffures (Poplar and Lauderdale). However, he would only have his hair done after closing time, because he was too embarrassed to be seen going in.

Bon Air Club (Summer and Mendenhall)

This club was the first public appearance by Elvis in his persona as a rocker. He shared joint billing with his band, as Elvis Scotty and Bill. Another regular early venue was the Eagles Nest.

Java Cabana (2170 Young Ave)

This modern day coffee shop is notable for its Shrine of the Elvis Impersonators, and the small wedding chapel in the back room. The coffee shop is located in the middle of the bohemian part of contemporary Memphis, which is centred on the Cooper-Young intersection, south of Overton Square.

(back to Music Travel)

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