A History of the Memphis Music Scene

Music has always coursed through the veins of this southern town that sits atop the bluffs of the mighty Mississippi River. Memphis is a music town. It’s history is rich with fabled characters and stories of jazz, blues, jug bands, rockabilly, soul, barrelhouse piano-pounders, country barn dances, seminal rock bands, hill country boogie, rap, hip hop and classical music— as well as eccentric personalities and adventurous music refusing to fit easily into a boxed-in system.

Memphis was the epicenter of the earliest Delta blues originators in their pilgrimages north from Mississippi to Beale Street and beyond. A few barriers of the tense racial divide began to crumble when a failing classical radio station, WDIA, hired its first African-American radio announcer, Nat. D. Williams, and eventually switched to an all black music format— and the white teenagers and hipsters tuned in! Sam Phillips stumbled onto something transformative when he heard Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black goofing around on Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama”, between takes of something less inspired. Something improbable happened when two Caucasian bank workers decided to start a little recording studio— and the son of one of them, Packy Axton, began dragging in rhythm-and-blues musicians. Something tectonic shifted when a half black/half white rhythm section gave a listen to the singing of a car driver and band roadie from Macon, GA— at the tail end of a recording session. Or Willie Mitchell, Al Green and the Hi Records story. Or Chips Moman, Dan Penn and American. Or Ardent, Alex Chilton and Big Star. Or Honeymoon Garner, Fred Ford— Phineas Newborn Jr. Or Charlie Rich. Or Jim Dickinson and his sons. Or the burgeoning Memphis rap scene. Jerry Lee Lewis! And innumerable others who deserved more respect and notoriety than they ever received.

On the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, his bright dream was almost blocked out by dark clouds. I remember growing up in racially tense times in Mississippi and in Memphis, TN. I remember a lot of murder and violence and hatred and cloudy days. But the music scene in this troubled town gave me a hope for something better— and not just for race relations. A better day for everything. I moved away, but sometimes you can see something more clearly from a distance— after the passage of time. I love Memphis music and the idea of a local and regionally distinct character to its sounds. Dee Gaw! This blog is my tribute to that.

“The forces of cultural collision struck thrice in the Memphis area, first with the Delta blues, then with Sun, then Stax. These sounds touched the soul of society; unlike passing fads, these sounds have remained with us. By definition, most of popular culture is disposable, but Memphis music has refused to disappear. In electrified civilization, even where stripped of the particular racial and social context in which it was born, what happened in Memphis remains the soundtrack to cultural liberation.”- Robert Gordon, It Came from Memphis

youtube: Meanwhile in Memphis

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image credit: Larry Donald, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

  1. Josh Sorheim says:

    Thank the Lord for Memphis Tennessee and the sweet sounds that came from it!

  2. Vivian Chatman says:

    I don’t see Memphis Slim here. How is that possible?

    • Even though John Len Chatman, aka Memphis Slim, was born in Memphis, his musical influence was felt more in Missouri and Chicago in the 1940s. Nevertheless, you will still find a picture of him on the left side of my blog and if you click on it, it will take you to an informative article. Cheers!

  3. Donna Ladd says:

    You didn’t mention Memphis Musician and music store owner Mike Ladd.
    His store built and sold instruments to local musicians and customized several guitars.
    His store customized the Black Guitar for Elvis with his name in mother of pearl in the neck
    of the guitar. Mike’s store was across the street from Graceland when Elvis was still alive.
    There are so many musician in Memphis that never get any recognition. Mike’s store had a live stage that many famous played on including Led Zepplin. Without Mike’s store many local musician
    would not had been able to afford to buy their instruments. Mike even took Billy Gibbson to the Gibson Factory in Kalamazoo Michigan for a tour of the factory when Billy was a young man.

  4. Marcella Graham says:

    Why does an Article about Black Radio Station and Black Disc Jockey have to include Elvis not to mention that he is presented first. Why?

    • Hello Marcella!

      Thanks for reading my blog. If you mean the WDIA article and Nat D. Williams, there is only a brief mention of the station’s influence on Elvis, barely half a sentence. WDIA changed everything for the whole music scene for everybody in my hometown and so far beyond. But Elvis is not presented first on my site, if you’ll read the dates on each post. These blogs go from bottom to top in most recent posts, so generally chronologically you’ll find I started first with W.C. Handy and I’m stuck on presenting the Stax story because it’s a very large story. Anyway, the blog goes in this order from first to most recent:

      W. C. Handy
      Gus Cannon, Will Shade and the Jug Bands
      Mississippi Blues Diaspora
      Beale Street
      Memphis Minnie
      Frank Stokes and the Beale Street Sheiks
      Medicine Shows
      Sleepy John Estes
      Furry Lewis
      Sam Phillips and Sun Records
      Nat D. Williams and WDIA
      B.B. King

      …and then Elvis.

      It’s about history and chronology to me. I’m not personally a big Elvis fan, but I acknowledge how large of an influence he had on the beginnings of Rock and Roll and music culture as a whole. Personally, I’d rather spin up some Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding and Furry Lewis. How about you?


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