Find Out More on the Memphis Music Scene

Booth, Stanley. “The Rebirth of The Blues: Soul.” Saturday Evening Post 242, no. 3 (February 8, 1969): 26-61. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2011).

Focuses on the origin of soul music in Memphis, Tennessee. Difference of soul music from other kinds of music; History of soul music popularized by African Americans in the 1800s; Popularity of Sun Records, a rhythm-and-blues recording company owned by disc jockey Sam Phillips.

–––. Rythm Oil: A Journey through the Music of the American South. New York: Pantheon, 1991.

Here are Stanley Booth’s acclaimed writings about the South and the music that emanates from it. Rythm Oil—you don’t have to know how to spell “rhythm” to have it in your body and soul—is a potion sold on Beale Street in Memphis. The home of Sun Records, B. B. King, Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Memphis is also the home of fantastic stories and broke-down dreams. As Booth makes his way from Memphis to the Mississippi Delta to the depths of the Georgia woods exploring the sounds, the music, and the culture of the American South, “he has produced some of the most gracefully written, thoughtful, and thought-stirring musings on the characters—the famous and the forgotten, the infamous and the unknown—who command the kingdom or drift through the shadowland of the South’s rich-chorded patrimony” (Nick Tosches, Los Angeles Times).

–––. “Memphis and the Beale Street Blues.” In Gadfly Online Archives, May 1998.  (accessed November 23, 2011).

Brooks, Damon A. “The Music of the Colorblind: How Integrated Music Was Created in a Region of Political and Social Segregation.” master’s thesis, Humboldt State University, 2005.

The importance of Memphis, Tennessee in the history of popular American music cannot be overstated. If Memphis had produced just the Sun recordings of Elvis Presley in the fifties alone, its status as a city rich in musical tradition would be secure. But there is so much more music that came from Memphis: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, Booker T. and the M.G.s, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Sam and Dave, and Al Green to list just a few.

Memphis helped shape almost all subsequent rock and roll. The synthesis of black and white musical styles that occurred there in the fifties was unique. The Stax recordings of sixties soul music and seventies funk continued Memphis’ history of mixing black and white music together. Perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city also deserves credit as a historical locale for blues music, the predecessor of rock and roll. Gospel music helped to define the sound of the music that came from Memphis as well.

This thesis project attempts to detail the geographic and cultural origins of the different types of music that blended together to become the “Memphis sound.” The project will also explore the elements of Memphis that made it such a unique musical petri dish. Why was it that in a city afflicted with racial tension, and in a region stricken with racism, that the musical worlds of black and whites could be fused into new art forms? The presence of gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, country, funk and soul music in Memphis, and its location as a river trading port are important factors that will be explored as well.

The importance of Memphis radio, and the individuals who spoke over those airwaves are also vitally important and will be discussed. An entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Memphis and Sam Phillips’s unique vision of racial harmony are also factors that shaped the music, and are parts of the story that will be told. The project will also illustrate the evolution and synthesis of black and white musical styles in Memphis. A classroom lesson plan is included that explores the importance of not only Memphis, but also other cities that have made important contributions to American musical history. Using both primary and secondary documents, as well as the wealth of recordings from Sun, Stax and Atlantic studios, conclusions about Memphis’ cultural uniqueness and contributions to the history of American music will be made.

Brooks, Tim and Richard K. Spottswood. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

The first in-depth history of the involvement of African-Americans in the early recording industry, this book examines the first three decades of sound recording in the United States, charting the vigorous and varied roles black artists played in the period leading up to the Jazz Age. Applying more than thirty years of scholarship, Tim Brooks identifies key black artists who recorded commercially in a wide range of genres and provides in-depth biographies of some forty of these audio pioneers. Brooks assesses the careers and impacts, as well as analyzing the recordings, of figures including George W. Johnson, Bert Williams, George Walker, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, W. C. Handy, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Booker T. Washington, and boxing champion Jack Johnson, as well as a host of lesser-known voices.

Because they were viewed as “novelty” or “folk” artists, nearly all of these African Americans were allowed to record commercially in their own distinctive styles, and in practically every genre: popular music, ragtime, jazz, cabaret, classical, spoken word, politics, poetry, and more. The sounds they preserved reflect the actual emerging black culture of that tumultuous and creative period. The stories gathered here give a previously unavailable insight into the early history of the recording industry, as well as the racially complex landscape of post-Civil War society at large. “Lost Sounds” also includes Brooks’ selected discography of CD reissues, and an appendix from Richard K. Spottswood describing early recordings by black artists in the Caribbean and South America.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

In 1895, “Stag” Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a St. Louis bar. From this incident has come over a century of song, with each new decade adding new meaning to it. The author’s exploration into the facts behind the song, seeking the true story (here presented for the first time), show the complexities of both the society of the day and the desire of the following generations to define their place.

Gordon, Robert. It Came From Memphis. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Perhaps no other city in America has provided more grist for the music sociology mill than Memphis, Tennessee. While Memphis has been the muse for some truly classic books (Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, to name just one), the rhetoric surrounding The Birthplace of Rock & Roll–also The Home of the Blues–can be as daunting as a walk down the ravenously gentrified blues theme park that is Beale Street.

Enter Robert Gordon, a Memphis native and keen chronicler of the city’s secret history. Gordon’s It Came from Memphis all but ignores the Bluff City’s oft-cited musical hierarchy–B.B. King, Elvis, Al Green et al.–in favor of its great unheralded eccentrics. You might not be familiar with the Insect Trust or Mudboy and the Neutrons, but Gordon argues–with empathy and wit–that you should be.

But music is only part of the story here. Whether it’s Memphis’s wrestling legend Sputnik Monroe, or the city’s esoteric patron saint, artist-professor John McIntire, Gordon’s shrewd eye sees the mojo in them all. In a way, Gordon’s book is even more vital than the classic volumes on Memphis music that predate it. Where Guralnick interprets a musical tradition that is already firmly embedded in the American psyche, Gordon gives voice to a clandestine tradition that otherwise might go forgotten. –Matt Hanks

Guralnick, Peter. Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.

This masterful exploration of American roots music–country, rockabilly, and the blues–spotlights the artists who created a distinctly American sound, including Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef. In incisive portraits based on searching interviews with these legendary performers, Peter Guralnick captures the boundless passion that drove these men to music-making and that kept them determinedly, and sometimes almost desperately, on the road.

–––. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1999.

Like Robert Palmer’s superb Deep Blues, Guralnick’s extensive look back at the roots of R&B and soul music combines criticism, biographical profiles and social history into one rich, printed tapestry. Meticulously researched, the book shows its author’s deep love of the music without sacrificing objectivity.

Guralnick provides plenty of background on the “race music” that spawned R&B and the great soul music of the sixties and early seventies, on which much of the book concentrates. Like most, if not all, of the great blues musicians, the early pioneers of soul came from humble, mostly southern beginnings, and made little or no money from their work, which was liberally sampled by white musicians.

A good portion of the narrative revolves around the fascinating rise and fall of Stax Records, the tiny Memphis-based label that brought together white executive leadership and musicians with raw black talent from the South. Despite initially primitive recording conditions, Stax developed into a powerhouse that was home to some of the greatest musicians in soul music, from Otis Redding to William Bell to Carla Thomas to Sam and Dave to Johnny Taylor. The label became representative of the growing sense of black pride that defined the era, one in which civil rights, of course, moved to the forefront of America’s consciousness.

All of these musicians and many more, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and James Brown, to name a few, are given finely drawn profiles by Guralnick, and he treats their contributions to American music with the respect that they deserve. Throughout, he is intent on letting the artists tell their stories in their own words, and remains content to use his own fine writing to direct and bind together the narrative.

Another great accomplishment of the book, for me, was Guralnick’s successful effort to illuminate the ties between white and black musicians during this period. Yes, many of the most successful producers, notably Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, were white, but so were many of the musicians. Most had grown up in the south around blacks and were intimately familiar with African-American music. The Stax house band, which included Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn, was white, and they performed on many songs penned by great black songwriters such as David Porter and Isaac Hayes. Think of the great, ominous organ introduction to Aretha Franklin’s “I Ain’t Never Loved a Man.” The white player is Spooner Oldham. This musical cross-fertilization is a notable point, one not often brought into considerations of the era.

As a young kid coming up in the mid-60s, I loved the music that Guralnick writes about here, and I could tell — even if he hadn’t said so — that he did too. He goes beyond that love to really dig into its roots and understand it, and succeeds admirably. _ Tyler Smith

Katz, Jamie. “The Soul of Memphis.” In The Smithsonian, May, 2010 (accessed October 30, 2011).

Jamie Katz is a longtime magazine editor and writer. In the fall of 2007, he served as a consulting editor to Smithsonian’s special issue, 37 “Under 36: America’s Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences”, and he continues to write for the magazine, both print and online. His interest in music, particularly jazz and blues, landed him his latest assignment, a travel story about Memphis.

“Fascinating. Deep. Real. The most singular thing about Memphis in a word, I think, is its realness. We have a tendency to make places into theme parks and to sanitize everything. That sort of leaches out a lot of the history and humanity out of places. But Memphis is somewhat untouched by that tendency, and that is a great treasure.

I hope that readers get the feeling of loving the underdog cities of America and rooting for them a little bit more. I hope people won’t feel that they have to distance themselves from places that have had troubles. We can embrace those cities as part of our society that needs to be cherished.”

Knox, Ray and David Stewart. The New Madrid Fault Finders Guide. Marble Hill, MO: Gutenberg Richter Publications,1995.

The most active earthquake zone in North America, outside of the West Coast, lies along the Mississippi-Ohio River Valleys between Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana. Even now, more than 300 little earthquakes occur there every year–some felt, most only recorded on seismographs, and an occasional tremor that causes damage. This seismic zone is known as “The New Madrid Fault.”

The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12 were the greatest burst of seismic energy released in the history of the United States. Felt throughout all of the States east of the Rocky Mountains, these cataclysms damaged wine vats in Virginia, rang church bells in Boston, rattled dishes and windows in Quebec, Canada, and were felt from Cuba to Mexico.

Hundreds of these earthquake features are still visible in the landscape today. This book is a set of seven field trips you can take to experience the turbulence of the land of that tumultuous time. The book contains a geologic history of the area along with many photographs, plus maps and detailed road logs of each trip. Each trip includes commentary by the authors, Dr. Ray Knox,and Dr. David Stewart, who are your personal field guides on the tours. The book, itself, provides a vicarious visit to the area even if you never get to physically be there.

Lauterbach, Preston. The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

A definitive account of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in black America, this book establishes the Chitlin’ Circuit as a major force in American musical history. Combining terrific firsthand reporting with deep historical research, Preston Lauterbach uncovers characters like Chicago Defender columnist Walter Barnes, who pioneered the circuit in the 1930s, and larger-than-life promoters such as Denver Ferguson, the Indianapolis gambling chieftain who consolidated it in the 1940s. Charging from Memphis to Houston and now-obscure points in between, The Chitlin’ Circuit brings us into the sweaty back rooms where such stars as James Brown, B. B. King, and Little Richard got their start. With his unforgettable portraits of unsung heroes including King Kolax, Sax Kari, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lauterbach writes of a world of clubs and con men that has managed to avoid much examination despite its wealth of brash characters, intriguing plotlines, and vulgar glory, and gives us an excavation of an underground musical America. 34 black-and-white illustrations

Light, Alan. “Memphis.” Rolling Stone, no. 1030/1031 (July 12, 2007): 109-110. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2011).

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of Rock ‘N’ Roll Music. New York: Penguin, 1997.

A music reviewer, editor, and lecturer on popular culture, Greil Marcus is above all a critic. It is not surprising, then, that he begins Mystery Train, his first in a series of books that examine the politics of pop culture, by providing his own critical assessment of the work that follows. “It is not a history, or a purely musical analysis, or a set of personality profiles,” he writes. “It is an attempt to broaden the context in which music is heard, to deal with rock ‘n’ roll music not as a youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American Culture.” And that, in a nutshell, is precisely what he does.

Mystery Train, its title taken from Elvis Presley’s last single for Sun Records, is a complex analysis of the relation between rock ‘n’ roll music and America. Rather than providing a general overview of influential bands and artists, Marcus focuses on just five: virtually unknown early rock ‘n’ roller Harmonica Frank; the country blues singer Robert Johnson; and some of the better-known musicians who followed: The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley. Marcus traces the history of each band and artist, peppering his prose with anecdotes and chunks of illustrative lyrics. Ultimately, however, his aim is to weave all the bits of information into a larger social context. His cultural references range from Coppola’s Godfather, to Walt Whitman, to Raymond Chandler, to President Lyndon B. Johnson, to Herman Melville, each serving to illustrate some facet of American (rock ‘n’ roll) culture. Central to Marcus’ conception of this culture is the Huckleberry Finn-esque image of the restless wanderer. Equally important is what Marcus perceives to be an inherent tension in rock ‘n’ roll music: that between America as a land of endless opportunities and as a place of failed dreams; the conflict between optimism and lingering dread; and the juxtaposition of absolute independence and creative collaboration.

Since its first publication in 1975, Mystery Train has garnered mostly enthusiastic reviews, which extolled its scholarly treatment of pop culture. A 1979 Washington Post article called it “an ambitious broad-based study.” In 1991 Boston Globe writer Matthew Gilbert wrote, “Mystery Train is considered by some the best serious book about rock ‘n’ roll to date.” Today, Marcus’ debut remains relevant and has acquired the status of a classic. Rolling Stone, for instance, has called it “a milestone achievement.” But overwhelming academic acceptance and monumental praise may be overshadowing just how fun and enjoyable the book is. Marcus’ love of music inevitably seeps into his prose and infects the reader with a sense of awe and endless possibility. Cultural critique rarely gets this personal and entertaining.

The 1997 paperback reissue contains a new introduction, and the 112–page notes and discography section has been updated to include CDs.

Miller, Jim, et al. editor. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York: Random House,1980.

The ultimate illustrated history of rock & roll–comprehensive, authoritative, and fully updated with coverage of the most important new sounds and artists.

Nix, Don. Road Stories and Recipes. New York: Schirmer, 1997.

Don Nix’s Road Stories And Recipes contains personal music stories of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, dangerous juke joints, traveling tales in the 50s, 60s and 70s as well as over 60 recipes from some of the world’s most talented musicians. Don Nix, musician/songwriter/producer, recounts his singular memories and experiences through the years in Road Stories And Recipes.
John Mayall wrote the Foreword to Road Stories And Recipes. Mayall revealed:

“What you are about to get stuck into is the reminiscences of a truly humorous raconteur and participant in an exciting period of rock-n-roll that might have slipped your attention. Here you will find stories of the road that tell of an era of our musical history that will hopefully give you something to remember and have you on the phone urging your friends to go out and buy it. As if this memoir isn’t enough, you are also getting a cookbook full of recipes from a whole slew of musicians who often don’t get to eat as handsomely on the road as they do in their own kitchens…”

Many of the 45 photographs in this book originate from Nix’s personal archive. Don Nix played an integral role in American music, and these pages verify his talent and influence in the community of first-class musicians. In the Prelude, Nix wrote: “The Memphis music scene has become a phenomenon with literary midgets as well as giants doing interviews, taking notes, and writing books. The trouble with this is, of course, if you ask twenty people the same question, you get twenty different answers, twenty points of view, twenty different memories, and, in some cases, people who were on the fringe or who were not there at all, giving their opinions about what happened.

“I have read books and heard people interviewed about Stax and its glory days when I know damn well they never set foot in the place. I get angry sometimes when people look at it from an analytical point of view. They put it under a microscope, dissect it, examine it, and reexamine it. They try to make it something it ain’t, cause when you get past all the books and labels, it was just people trying to make a living the best they could, creating something that had never been before without even knowing it. People who got paid very little for what they contributed but would have done it for free because they loved it. Making music meant freedom as well as a sense of belonging, but most of all it was fun.”

Road Stories And Recipes celebrates southern music and cooking like no other book.

Righi, Len. “Stacked With Soul: Soulmen Were Spreading the Word About Memphis.” In Pop Matters. 26 August 2008. (accessed November 16, 2011).

Ryan, James G. “The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a Black Community During Reconstruction.” In The Journal of Negro History Vol. 62, No. 3 (Jul., 1977), Published by: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. Stable URL:  243-257. (accessed October 27, 2011).

The Memphis Riots of 1866 refers to the violent events that occurred from May 1 to 3 in Memphis, Tennessee. The racial violence was ignited by tensions during Reconstruction following the American Civil War. After a shooting altercation between white policemen and black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army, mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freed slaves. Federal troops were sent to quell the violence and peace was restored on the third day. A subsequent report by a joint Congressional Committee detailed the carnage, including 46 blacks and 2 whites killed, 75 persons injured, over 100 persons robbed, 5 women raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools burned. Modern estimates place property losses at over $100,000. Public attention following the riots and reports of the atrocities influenced the rapid proposal of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Street, Julian. “What Memphis has Endured.” In American Adventures: A Second Trip “Abroad at Home”. New York: The Century Co.,1917.

Though much has been written of the South, it seems to me that this part of our country is less understood than any other part. Certainly the South, itself, feels that this is true. Its relationship to the North makes me think of nothing so much as that of a pretty, sensitive wife, to a big, strong, amiable, if somewhat thick-skinned husband. These two had one great quarrel which nearly resulted in divorce. He thought her headstrong; she thought him overbearing. The quarrel made her ill; she has been for some time recovering. But though they have settled their difficulties and are living again in amity together, and though he, man-like, has half forgotten that they ever quarreled at all, now that peace reigns in the house again, she has  not forgotten. There still lingers in her mind the feeling that he never really understood her, that he never understood her problems and her struggles, and that he never will. And it seems to me further that, as is usually the case with wives who consider themselves misunderstood, the fault is partly, but by no means altogether, hers. He, upon one hand, is inclined to pass the matter off with a: “There, there! It’s all over now. Just be good and forget it!” while she, in the depths of her heart, retains a little bit of wistfulness, a little wounded feeling, which causes her to say to herself: “Thank God our home was not broken up, but I wish that he could be a little more considerate, sometimes, in view of all that I have suffered.”

Waller, Altina L. “Community, Class and Race in the Memphis Riot of 1866.” In Journal Of Social History 18, no. 2 (Winter84 1984): Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 24, 2011).

The Memphis Riot of May 1-3, 1866 was influential on a national level in winning both Congressional support and public sympathy for radical Reconstruction. Therefore it is surprising to find that it has been neglected by historians. The few scholarly articles in existence describe the brutality of the riot and discuss it in the context of race relations and political reconstruction, but none has examined the riot from the perspective of the participants themselves, rioters as well as victims. I This is all the more astonishing because an exceptional body of documentation exists which reveals the identities of many of the rioters and their victims as well as something of their personal histories and attitudes. The Report of the Congressional Investigating Committee is a rare collection of oral histories, not only of the riot itself, but also of neighborhood conflict.s This essay is an attempt to reassess this important instance of collective violence from a community perspective.

In what follows, then, we approach the riot not as a manifestation of generalized southern racial and political tension, but rather as social conflict within one discrete neighborhood. It was not accidental that the riot occurred in a particular subcommunity within Memphis and not in the city as a whole. The class structure and ethnic characteristics of the neighborhood coupled with demographic and economic upheaval of the post-war period created the fear and frustration which sparked collective violence. The spatial and social patterns revealed by this research confirm other studies both of mobs and social conflict in southern as well as northern cities. Indeed, my methodological models are the community studies which characterize the “new social history;’ especially the work of Leonard Richards on anti-abolition mobs and John Schneider on the spatial and cultural conflict involved in the evolution of urban social geography.

Walter, Ronald A. “Robert R. Church, Sr.” In The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. (accessed November 23, 2011).

Young, Stephen E. “Memphis.” In New Grove Dictionary of American Music. 2nd ed. vol 3. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.,1986


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