It's certainly no secret that Memphis boasts a vibrant music scene. Since the beginning, the Bluff City has been an important hub for everything from rock to jazz to gospel. Routinely compared to its sister city of Nashville, Memphis is often preferred for its more accessible, working-class vibe. The raucous streets of Midtown are lined with trendy-yet-divey rock clubs, and the walls of local restaurants are plastered with old concert posters. From the glitz of Graceland to a church's chorus on Sunday morning, every inch of the cultural landscape here is touched by music.
To immerse yourself in Memphis' rich musical heritage, head to one of the city's main tourist attractions: Beale Street. For decades, the lively thoroughfare has been an influential gathering place--a haven for urban and rural musicians from throughout the South. As an unofficial gateway to the Mississippi Delta's scene, the street became a melting pot of sounds and ideas. W.C. Handy, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters were only a few of the many musical legends who found their first footing on Beale Street. Blues, rock-and-roll, soul and jazz songs flowed from the various nightclubs and bars each evening--and they continue to do so to this day.
Although the music scene of Beale Street and Memphis in general arguably started with the city's large African American population, other communities quickly followed suit. The soulful sounds first generated in the humid night air of Memphis were eventually morphed into what we think of as early rockabilly. Five iconic artists stepped into the spotlight then: Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. While none of these men were actually born in Memphis, they all share a common tie to the city--each made his first significant recordings at Sun Records, located a few short blocks away from the nightclub district. The famous studio is actually still open and available for guided tours.
Another important landmark in the world of Memphis music is the city's Mid-South Coliseum. The grand venue single-handedly led Tennessee's "arena rock" movement and was the only place in the state to feature live concerts by the Beatles and Elvis. In 2000, the Coliseum was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Strangely enough, though, live music is not what put Memphis on the map. Instead, the city became better known for its influence on radio and recordings. While WNBR-Radio was broadcasting its weekly Amateur Night from the Palace Theater on Beale Street, WDIA-Radio was making the groundbreaking decision to hire Nat D. Williams. In 1948, the region's first black DJ on a white network played an influential role in the rise of black gospel music and other genres. Later, in the 1950's, WHBQ-Radio was the first to play Elvis on local radio.
Along with Sun Records, Stax Records (originally called Satellite Productions and later transformed into the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) and Hi Records found great success in Memphis. These studios are responsible for bringing us the likes of Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes, Tina Turner and Al Green.
Follow in the footsteps of these immortal artists while you walk the friendly streets of Memphis today. Along with an always-packed calendar of concerts and events, the city is home to some of the country's most exciting music landmarks. The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and the Center for Southern Folklore are especially interesting. The first celebrates the entire history of Memphis music (with special attention to soul) through interactive displays and exhibits. The second incorporates all aspects of the region's culture and is home to the annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival (held each September.)
Of course, we would also be remiss if we did not mention Graceland. Whether or not you choose to visit the destination during Elvis Week, you are sure to find amazing attractions dedicated to the King of Rock & Roll. No trip to Memphis would be complete without a visit. Start planning your own customized tour on Graceland's official website, and get ready to experience one of the country's most fascinating music scenes!