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.