You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.
The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King, Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.
Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.
There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).
He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.
Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.
Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.
Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.
“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.
“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”
What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.
Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.
With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.
Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.
The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only one ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.
And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.
This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.
In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.
In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.
That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.
Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.
Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.
Crudup’s 1946 original of “That’s All Night (Mama)” kicked up the pace of the traditional Delta blues; Elvis, most likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, took that as a template and mixed in some rockabilly for his own white interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; it was exactly what he’d been waiting for. The genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.
Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.
Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.
That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.
Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.
To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.
At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.
Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.
He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. As Hal tells the story, most likely for the millionth time, his father had some supernatural premonition that this shy young man was about the change the world and staked him his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.
When Hal was a child, he’d often spend Saturday mornings riding horses at Graceland or accompany his father dropping off new outfits to Elvis. Hal fondly remembers Elvis as never less than welcoming.
“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. Elvis never forgot what my father did for him.”
In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.
In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.
Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that during his lifetime Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).
(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.
Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.
Further suggested reading:
Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)
Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)
Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)