Memphis doesn’t gladden the eye: it has a duller downtown than most major US cities, a preponderance of 1950s buildings, and streets that fan out from the centre in alternating stretches of tree-shaded mansions and strip malls. But it is a treat for the ears.
The staff of the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum used to argue that their city was name-checked in more songs than any other on earth. Now they don’t bother; they just point you to the list on their website and ask you to top that.
The celebrated Blues City Cafe on Beale Street
Among the 1,074 there last time I checked was, of course, Memphis Blues (1912) by WC Handy, believed to have been the first published composition to use the word “blues”. Handy also penned The Beale Street Blues, a tribute to a Memphis thoroughfare where, in the early 1900s, the field hollers of sharecroppers began evolving into new urban forms. Those forms, in the 1950s, were fused with country and pop to create what would be the dominant sound of western music in the second half of the 20th century: rock ’n’ roll. The museum is a good place to trace that development, to get an introduction to the various strands of Memphis music and to the Holy Trinity of record labels: Sun, Stax and the lesser known Hi.
Graceland may be where Elvis Presley lived in Memphis, but Sun Studio is where his spirit endures. If stories and records spun in two tiny rooms constitute a tour, then a visit to Sun is one of the best tours in the city.
From the office the 19-year-old Presley walked into in 1953 to make a “record-your-own” disc of a couple of pop ballads, a dim cave stuffed with old recording gear and memorabilia, you’re taken into the studio to which the label’s founder and renowned producer Sam Phillips summoned him back a year later. It was in this room that Presley began fooling around. After an early take, the producer concluded: “Fine, man. Hell, that’s different – that’s a pop song now, just about.”
The "Million Dollar Quartet". From left: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash
The song, That’s All Right, was the first of five hit singles Presley would record in 1954 and 1955 at Sun, where Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash also made rockabilly classics. How did Cash get those train-like clickety-clacks? Your guide will demonstrate, having first slid a dollar bill between the strings and the neck of a guitar. You can stand where Elvis once stood (an X marks the spot); mime for pictures with a microphone he used. From a photograph on the wall behind you the “Million Dollar Quartet” – Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash will appraise your performance.
Memphis’s USP has long been “Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll”. Since 2003, the tourist board has also laid claim to “Soulsville USA”. That was the slogan at the front of the building of Stax Records, a label that, unlike the bigger Motown in Detroit, made no attempt to sweeten its soul for a white audience.
In a decade and a half from 1957, Stax notched up 166 hits in the top 100 of the pop charts, 265 in the top 100 of the R&B charts. Some of them, such as Sam and Dave’s Soul Man and Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay, are never off the airwaves. Others, by way of commercials and theme tunes, have insinuated themselves into the consciousness of millions who know nothing of rhythm or blues. The BBC’s Test Match theme, the one that opens with a sound like a wooden spoon being tapped on the bottom of a saucepan – that’s Soul Limbo by Booker T & the MGs, the Stax house band.
Stax collapsed in a financial mess in 1975 and its home was torn down 14 years later, but in 2003 the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened on the same site. Between its introductory film and its souvenir shop, you make journey from roots to riches: from a one-room delta church, built around 1906, in which everything but the fancy pulpit was hand-made by members of the congregation, to the turquoise- and-gold Cadillac that Stax bought Isaac Hayes in 1972 after he won his Grammies for the soundtrack to Shaft.
“Soulsville” is two square miles or so of south Memphis. It takes in the museum and the Stax Music Academy, the house where Aretha Franklin was born and Royal Studios, home of Hi Records, where Al Green recorded Tired of Being Alone, Let’s Stay Together and Call Me, and Ann Peebles declared: I Can’t Stand the Rain. Green, now the Reverend Al Green, and close to 70, still offers what some regard as the best live music in Memphis – at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, a mile or so from Graceland.
Visitors, who often take up half the pews, can expect hugs as well as encouragement to join in the hallelujahs. Green, a portly figure in black robes, is there to preach his sermon rather than give a concert, but he will occasionally break into song as the mood takes him. “If people can raise hell on Saturday,” he has said, “I can dance for Jesus on Sunday.” For more information on Memphis, see memphistravel.com.
Joanna Lumley: Elvis and Me is on Wednesday 4th November on ITV