Memphis is known as the birthplace of the Blues, a uniquely American sound. The city’s prime location on the Mississippi River, circumstances of history, and an entrepreneurial spirit led to the evolution of the legendary music genre and the beginning of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The fledgling town on the Mississippi started out as a supply hub for river workers plying the river and settlers making the difficult a journey westward into frontier America. By 1840, the growing and trading of cotton, put Memphis on the map as the largest inland cotton market in the world.
Working the cotton fields were slaves whose chanting songs, “field hollers,” became the root of the Blues. Enduring hardship, strife and sacrifice in the aftermath of the Civil War and through the 1960s, freed slaves became a significant part of the growing community. The entrepreneurial merchant environment and trade access thrived in Memphis until a yellow fever epidemic struck first in 1873, and again five years later. Over half the population perished or left. These devastating human and financial losses led to the city’s bankruptcy.
In 1862, a wealthy African American entrepreneur, businessman and land owner, Robert Church, Sr. began buying up properties on now-famous Beale Street. He built Church Park Auditorium specifically for the city’s black residents. Beale Street became an integral part of African American life. It was in Beale Street clubs and juke joints that locals, many of whom were cotton field workers, gathered to enjoy good music. They brought with them the unique sound of field hollers. In 1912, William Christopher (W.C.) Handy was the first to record these songs with their unexpected flattened notes called “blue” notes. It was the beginning of an art form. Handy, who become known as the Father of Blues, published the first Blues song in America, “Memphis Blues.”
During the 1940s, the Memphis Sound was heard along Beale Street. It was also played on WDIA Memphis, the first radio station in the country with an all-black line-up. Early DJs were legendary blues men Rufus “Funky Chicken” Thomas and Riley “B.B.” King. During the 1950s and 1960s, some of the best of Memphis Sound was created. Recording studios sprang up in the city. Stax Records and Hi Records brought the unique sound of legendary musical artists through great early tunes such as “Soul Man,” Dock on the Bay,” “Love & Happiness,” “Let’s Stay Together.”
Several terrific Memphis museums tell the story of the music of this period. Stax Museum of American Soul Music pays homage to Memphis Soul and the Stax Record label. The Smithsonian’s Memphis Rock n Soul Museum tells the story of musical pioneers, beginning in the 1930s, who overcame social, racial and economic barriers to create innovated music. Both museums have wonderful exhibits, videos, stage costumes, photos, instruments and memorabilia, and both are offered by Trusted Tours & Attractions at discounted prices.
While white and black musicians worked together in the 50s and 60s to create great music, the Civil Rights era of the mid 1960s was a challenging time for Memphis. Tensions were high as the city began integrating public facilities. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Memphis on April 3, 1968 to give one of his most passionate speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at the mason Temple in support of striking sanitation workers. The next day, Dr. King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine is now the National Civil Rights Museum which offers insight into the Civil Rights movement.
For an interesting and comprehensive tour of important landmarks that shaped Memphis, from Beale Street and Sun Studio to the Lorraine Motel and the Stax Museum of American Soul, the unique, music-filled 90 minute Memphis Mojo Tour on a vintage 1959s transit bus, is the ticket. Check out the details and the discounts at Trusted Tours & Attractions.
As music attracted more musicians, multiple sounds flourished in Memphis – blues, gospel, country, hillbilly, boogie and Western swing. Sun Records came on the scene in 1952 as an influential force in the diversification of the Memphis Sound. It was through unknowns who recorded at Sun that Rock ‘n’ Roll evolved. Sun launched legendary greats Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Ike Turner. Turner’s band is credited with recording the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88” at Sun Studio. One of Sun’s greatest finds was Elvis Presley who got his start there in 1954, recording “That’s All Right.” Memphis Sun Studio Tour, available through Trusted Tours, is the place to journey through the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll and experience how the “Sun Sound” was made in the studio, now a National Historic Landmark. A highlight is listening to jam session recordings of legendary musical artists.
Elvis was influenced by growing up surrounded by the Memphis Sound. Before being signed by Sun, a young Elvis found his voice hanging around the sound, vibe and style of the musicians playing clubs along Beale Street. He adapted it and made it his own. The rest is history. Two forces came together with perfect timing – Elvis, with his distinctive sound, good looks, gyrating hip action and seductive gaze, and the introduction of television into American homes. Elvis’ controversial TV appearances were deemed scandalous. The more the controversy, the greater his global fan base became. Families were glued to their TV sets, young people packed venues, screaming at the sight of him. Record sales soared. Elvis changed the direction of music and the marketing of musical artists, leading the way to the star-studded, media-savvy, fan-based pop culture of today.
After a long, often rocky career in music, TV, movies and Vegas shows, Elvis Presley died in 1977 in Graceland, his Memphis home. Fans from all over the globe have mourned him ever since. At first they streamed to Memphis just to stand outside his home. When the mansion and grounds were opened to the public, visitors came by the thousands per day for tours and to visit his graveside, Meditation Garden.
There is much to see on the 14-acre property. Start with an audio tour of the mansion, whose original 50s, 60s and 70s décor gives insight into the life the King of Rock n Roll. Watch wonderful videos, see photos, personal mementos, movie memorabilia, and stage costumes. Walk through his collection of 33 vehicles. See his custom jets. Several Graceland tours available through Trusted Tours and Attractions. Elvis Experience Plus Planes and the Elvis VIP Tour Plus Planes are slightly different. Graceland Platinum Tour Experience transports you there on a live music-filled vintage bus ride. Wrap up a day in Memphis enjoying the Historic Beale Street Entertainment District where it all began and where clubs still offer music 7 days a week.