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Music Row

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Sun Studio in Memphes, Tennessee used as header for Happy Birthday Rock and Roll

Memphis DJ for WHBQ radio, Dewey Philips,  played the recording a few days later on July 8 and a nation of teen-aged girls fell under the spell of the modest young man from Tupelo Mississippi who had moved to Memphis as a preteen. Other singers jumped on the bandwagon and Elvis's brand of Rock and Roll dominated the airways until the British invasion by four young  men from Liverpool changed the style to a more international one.

Rock and Soul musuem sharecropper exhibit in Memphes, Tennessee
Rock and Soul Musuem's sharecropper exhibit
For those of us of a certain age, Memphis with its musical heritage is like a pilgrimage. Start your visit with a tour of Memphis Rock and Soul Museum. John Doyle, executive director explained why Rock and Soul Museum is so important in telling the history of Rock and Roll. "We are the only museum that is a full standing museum outside of D.C. that isn't owned by but is totally researched and curated by the Smithsonian. Kind of a cool story. They were doing a couple of research projects tracing the history of Rock and Soul which they maintained were two true American generas of music."

Black Soul musicians display at Rock and Soul Museum
Black Soul musicians display at Rock and Soul Museum

As in the course of any evolution,  Rock and Roll didn't spring forth on its own. Several earlier music forms contributed. In West Tennessee, in the early- and mid-twentieth century, cotton was still king. The sharecropper system which replaced slave labor kept the families who actually worked the land poor. Both Black and White farm families lived in small cabins where the kitchen with its battery operated radio was the heart of the home. On Saturday night, almost everyone was sitting around listening to The Grand Old Opry. Since many of the farm workers worked together picking and planting cotton, both races were exposed to the other's music. The gospel and soul music that Black farmers sang as they trudged through the fields mingled with the banjo and twanging sounds White farmers had carried with them from their ancestors in Ireland and Scotland.

Rock and Soul Museum offers a audio visual tour where you put on a headset and listen to the stories of how these two forms morphed into a new and explosive sound. The museum is extensive and follows music from the early days of sharecroppers to the present.  Follow Ike Turner in 1951 as he records one of the first songs that led to the new sound, Rocket 88. See how a young Elvis was influenced by the Black musicians of the time. Both of these young musicians recorded their first songs in a local Memphis studio originally called Memphis Recording Studio.

picture of Marion Keisker at Sun Studio in Mamphis Tennessee. She was  first person to hear an Elvis record picture of Million Dollar Quarter, Elvis, Jerry lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, at Sun Studio in Mamphis Tennessee.
Marion Keisker, first person to hear an Elvis record Million Dollar Quartet photo in Sun Studio
Next stop, Sun Studio. This is the high cathedral of Rock and Roll.  Jason, our guide, traced the history of the studio. In 1950. Sam Philips  opened the first recording studio called the Memphis Recording Studio. He recorded anything but was interested in a new sound. Mostly he recorded Blues, his first love. One of his first discoveries was a man named Chester Burnett, better known by his stage name, Howlin' Wolf. Sam Phillips began to realize he needed to have his own label and changed the name to Sun Studio, home of Sun Records. Upstairs is a museum that shows you the history of the studio coinciding with the history of rock and roll.  One of my favorit exhibits is the actual WHBQ radio station booth Dewey Philips used when he played That's All Right Mama.

Author singing on smae mike Elcis used at Sun Studio in Mamphis Tennessee. Guide explaingn exhibits  at Sun Studio in Mamphis Tennessee.
My biggest thrill, singing in the same mike Elvis used Jason explains the workings of Sun Studio, then and now
You might think  Elvis just walked into Sun Studio and immediately soared to star status. Not so. In 1953, Elvis paid $4 to make a record. He saw Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips'  office manager and assistant. Elvis recorded a song called  My Happiness. Marion made a copy and played it for Sam Phillips but Sam was not impressed. The song was just another conventional pop song. Sam was enamored with the Blues.

WHBQ radio station booth where Dewey Philips first played Elvis's record. at Sun Studio in Memphis Tennessee
WHBQ radio station booth where Dewey Philips first played Elvis's record.
In 1954 when Marion convinced Sam to listen to Elvis, Sam put him with Country musicians since he had no band  of his own. They tried a conventional country sound but no good song came out of it. Then Elvis did a version of Arthur Crudup's 1949 blues song, That's All Right Mamma. Sam loved the sound. He quickly signed him to a three  year contract. About a year and half later Sam sold the contract to RCA for $30,000 because he was in financial trouble.

Phillips success with Elvis led the way for other singers. Carl Perkins had a big hit with his Blue Suede Shoes. Johnny Cash had already begun to garner a few hits on the country charts. Jerry Lee Lewis was still a relatively unknown piano man and singer. The four came to be known as the Million dollar Quartet.  While they were just jamming among themselves  in the studio, someone quietly flipped a switch and recorded them, illegally since at this point Elvis was under contract to RCA.

The recording all occurred downstairs in the sacred ground of the original studio. The most important relic you can actually touch is the microphone used by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and other music legends.

 Elvis's exhibit at Soulville in Memphis Tennessee   Issac Hayes gold plated automobile exhibit at Soulville in Memphis Tennessee
Exhibit in Country Church at Soulville Issac Hayes gold plated car
Since Rock and Roll owes so much to Soul don't miss Soulville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music. According to Odis Redding's biography, soul music is "music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm and blues into a form of funky, secular testifying."

In 1960, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, opened Stax Studio. At Stax, the color barrier was ignored. White and Black musicians worked together with mutual respect . Some of the '60s greatest music came out of Stax. Booker T and the MGs. Rufus and Carla Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding Wilson Pickett and many others.

Soulville in Memphis Tennessee
Soulville as it is today
Here you can see a reconstruction of a simple country church recognizing the influence gospel had on this music. Move from simple to over-the-top with Stax Records musician Isaac Hayes' caddie trimmed with gold plate.

Death of Otis Redding just four days after he recorded Dock of the Bay, which became his first number  one hit posthumously, is retold in a poignant video.

Originally theater that housed the studio went downhill during civil

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marches after Martin Luthor King, Jr.'s assignation. One  Stax employee  said "It was never the same after that."

The original building was torn down.  The museum is housed in a perfectly reconstructed building. In its heyday, Stax Records was a highlight of the poor neighborhood  surrounding it. Neighborhood kids came in to buy records from adjourning Popular Records (Pop Records) and asked "Can I see where they make records."

You can still buy records there in the museum shop along with more modern forms of music and other Stax souvenirs. Even if you buy nothing you will come away richer for the wonderful heritage you glimpse there.

 Beale Street in Mamphis Tennessee   Stature of W. C. Handy on Beale Street in Mamphis Tennessee
Beale Street   Stature of W. C. Handy
Of course, be sure to visit Beale Street. It's filled with bars, restaurants and music clubs. The soul of Memphis music still lives there. It is portrayed by the two statures on the famous street. W. C. Handy, known as Father of the Blues, sits in Handy Park. On the South side of Beale, you find a stature of Memphis' premier star, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.



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