MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- This port city on the Mississippi River calls itself the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Its credentials? The Memphis Recording Service, forerunner of Sun Studio, in 1951 recorded Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, which some people say was the first rock ’n’ roll record.
Several other cities make the same claim, including Wildwood, N.J., where Bill Haley and His Comets performed the first song with “rock” in the title ( Rock Around the Clock) in 1954; Cleveland, where DJ Alan Freed coined the term rock ’n’ roll and organized the first rock concert; and Detroit, home of Motown Records.
It’s hard to argue against Memphis, where some of the earliest practitioners of the blues and rock ’n’ roll got their start at Sun Studio, Stax Records or Hi Records: Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Booker T. and the MGs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and, of course, Elvis Presley.
Supporting evidence abounds. Memphis has the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, Stax Museum, the Gibson Guitar factory and Graceland, all of which document that history — and Beale Street, which echoes with the sound of the blues in daylight as well as at night.
There’s a statue of Elvis on Beale Street, B.B. King in bronze in the visitors center. W.C. Handy, known as the father of the blues, presides over the Performing Arts Park that bears his name.
Music seems to seep out of every building, blare from every speaker, accompany every meal. I hear it when I’m eating tamales in the Blues City Café, and over a pulled pork sandwich at The Pig on Beale, while I’m browsing the kitschy souvenir shops for blue suede shoes, and in my hotel, where a painting of B.B. King is part of the jazz-and-blues theme. At night on Beale Street, the competing music from clubs clashes in the street.
Each of the music-related museums has its own soundtrack, and I could spend days just listening to their playlists of historically significant tunes: the original Hound Dog, recorded by “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952, four years before it was covered by Elvis. Cause I Love You, the first record by Carla Thomas, in a duet with her father, Rufus Thomas, himself a rhythm and blues singer. Early recordings by Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett on which Booker T and the MGs performed as the Stax house band.
On this trip, it’s tempting to visit the Civil Rights Museum, watch the ducks march at the Peabody Hotel, take a dinner cruise on a paddle wheeler, and go to a minor league baseball game, which has charms lacking in the big leagues.
But I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, still own the scratched 45s I collected as a kid, and view rock ’n’ roll proudly and possessively as the music that distinguished my generation from the previous one. So I choose to immerse myself in Memphis’s music- related landmarks, all of which, in some sense, are museums. I will find that in different proportions, all are part bragging, part recounting history and part spreading a love of music.
First stop: the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, located on the party stretch of Beale Street. Created by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of American History, it grew out of the history museum’s traveling exhibition about American music. Unlike the other museums, which generally focus on a particular niche, this museum is an overview of rock and soul. Exhibits trace the history of American music to gospel music, field hollers and work songs of sharecroppers in the ’30s, examining how social and cultural forces shaped music.
Also on display are guitars signed by Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray, a sequined jacket and hat worn by Sam of Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, the organ on which Mark James wrote Suspicious Minds, a speaker cabinet used by U2 and much more..
Across the street is the Gibson Guitar factory. Our tour guide hands out safety goggles and makes it clear that taking them off won’t be tolerated. Neither will stepping outside the lines on the factory floor. This is a factory where chemicals are used, we’re reminded, and wood dust floats in the air. No photography is allowed.
It’s a Saturday, but a crew of luthiers is making hollow-bodied guitars. There are no automated assembly lines here. The top and back wooden panels are cut, rims pressed into shape, center blocks glued on, rims glued on, tops and necks attached and bound. There is sanding, filling, buffing, staining and drying. The process of making a guitar takes three weeks or longer, I learn later; the factory noise drowns out most of what our tour guide says.
Sun Studio, the smallest of the museums, is in midtown Memphis, a mile from the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, which offers a free shuttle. It began life as Memphis Recording Studio, but Sam Phillips soon turned it into a record label. This is where Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, with Ike Turner on piano, recorded Rocket 88, an ode to an Oldsmobile. The recording was distinctive because of the distortion caused by a damaged amplifier. Phillips liked the distortion and kept it.
Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his first record here. Phillips had not been enthused about Presley’s initial efforts, until he heard him casually sing a sped-up version of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right. The song became Presley’s first single on the Sun label.
Phillips also signed Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, who came together with Elvis on one memorable night in an impromptu jam session that inspired the Broadway production Million Dollar Quartet.
The upstairs exhibit includes photos and concert posters of various Sun Studio artists, Elvis memorabilia including his high school diploma and other materials. In the downstairs recording studio, guitars lean against the walls, which are hung with blown-up photos of musicians. Guests are invited to take photos of each other handling the microphone that Elvis once used.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is in Soulsville, a neighborhood about 2 1/2 miles south of Beale Street, close to the spot where the Stax recording studio was built in a former movie theater. The studio opened in 1960 but was later torn down. The museum, opened in 2003, has a touch-screen map that illustrates how the studio was part of a larger community where Aretha Franklin, Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MG’s) and other musicians once lived.
Displays tell the history of Stax Records, an R&B label founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, white brother and sister, most of whose recording artists were black. Among the artists — some in a convoluted arrangement with Atlantic Records — were Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, most of them backed at some point by Booker T and the MG’s.
The museum has the “Express Yourself” dance floor with videos from Soul Train, an authentic Mississippi Delta AME chapel that was disassembled and rebuilt in the museum, and a wealth of memorabilia: stage costumes; equipment trunks; Isaac Hayes’ tricked-out Cadillac; the tape machine on which Otis Redding recorded; the piano used for Green Onions.
Now it’s Friday night, and I’m out with a group looking for music. The pedestrian-only section of Beale Street is crowded with people drinking from plastic takeout cups, wandering through music and souvenir stores, and watching the Beale Street Flippers, athletic young men who perform a sort of combination cartwheel/somersault across the cobblestones for tips. The scene hasn’t reached frat-party status, but on some nights, it does.
With live music, most of the clubs have a cover charge, but they’re still busy. Our group tries Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall first, but it has standing room only, and we end up in Rum Boogie Cafe, where the music is not so loud that it drowns out conversation.
A block away is the Brass Note Walk of Fame, which celebrates more than 100 people who contributed to Memphis’s musical history with brass notes embedded in the sidewalk between Second and Third Streets in the style of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.
Finally, there is Graceland, which will host Elvis Week Aug. 10-18, when fans will mark the 35th anniversary of the death of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Graceland’s importance to Memphis as a musical destination can’t be understated. Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982, five years after Elvis’s death. It wasn’t until after those tours starting drawing in music lovers that Sun Studio and Stax Records followed suit, the Smithsonian opened the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, or that Beale Street began its comeback.
Tours of Graceland are self-guided, so visitors proceed at their own pace, but most stop longest at the Jungle Room, with its waterfall, shag-carpeted walls and jungle motif; the billiard room, in which the walls and ceiling are covered with elaborately pleated print fabric; the displays of gold records and glitzy jumpsuits; and the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents and other family members are buried.