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Memphis: The soundtrack of the country's evolution

The city that launched a thousand careers continues to bring people together and break down barriers with music

Published 23 May 2018, 16:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 13:10 BST


Photograph by Getty

Memphis is the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. It was here in Sun Studios in the summer of 1951 that Ike Turner and his band the Delta Cats recorded Rocket 88, widely regarded as the first rock 'n' roll song. But, like so many visionary moments, it happened by accident — the guitarist's amp malfunctioned during the recording, creating a distorted guitar sound that would become a hallmark of the genre. People didn't know how to classify it, but they knew they loved it. The rest is history.

I take a tour of the studio, a red-brick building on the outskirts of downtown. Upstairs is a museum; downstairs, where the magic happened, a tiny, whitewashed room where Carl Perkins recorded Blue Suede Shoes; Jerry Lee Lewis sang Great Balls of Fire; and Johnny Cash first told the world I Walk the Line. It was here also, in the summer of 1954, that Elvis Presley got his big break. He'd been recording all night. The owner hated all of it and was about to pull the plug, when Elvis started goofing around, playing an old blues song in an up-tempo country style — a random pairing of two different genres. That's All Right Mama was Elvis' first single; by the end of the week he was a star.

But that's not the only sound Memphis invented. Soul music was born here too. At the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, housed in the former Stax Records HQ, I see where Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and countless others launched their careers; at the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, I trace the city's musical evolution, from cotton fields to concert halls; and then, at Royal Studios, home of Al Green and Willie Mitchell, I see how the tradition is continuing today: John Mayer, Snoop Dogg and Bruno Mars have all come to soak up that old soul spirit.

Finally, I head to Beale Street. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was one of the only places in the South where African Americans could own a business. They opened restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Music filled the air. Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, whose club is still one of the hottest on the block, all mastered their craft here.

It's like the ultimate musical pub crawl. I start at B.B. King's Blues Club for cocktails and tunes from his All-Star Band, then jump next door for an eight-piece group with full brass demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T with every horn they blow, and finish at Mr Handy's Blues Hall, an old-school juke joint; one soulful woman singing, "What the world needs now is love, sweet love." In Memphis, you believe it.

That's what music's all about; and that's what this city's all about too: bringing people together, breaking down barriers, dancing like it's your last night on Earth. In Memphis I see poverty and rundown neighbourhoods. But this is a city that defied musical boundaries, fusing rhythm and blues with country for the first time. It was a melting pot, where all the sounds of the South simmered together, black and white. Memphis is the soundtrack of the country's evolution and it's still playing today.

Book ahead to sample gourmet Memphis barbecue at Itta Bena, a fine dining restaurant in an up-scale setting above B.B. King's club. 
Follow @AaronMWriter

Read our complete guide to the top 10 USA music cities.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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