Although many cities can (with varying degrees of veracity) claim the title of The Birthplace of Rock and Roll, there is really only one city in the world that can credibly make the claim without dispute. It is the same city that can claim to have been the place where the greatest dreamer of the 20th century spoke his last words and took his last breath. That city is Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis rises on the banks of the great Mississippi River in the Southwestern part of the U.S. state of Tennessee. It is home to over half a million people and carries a great deal of history and culture that is unique to the area and its residents. The stories this city tells are both fantastic and tragic, carrying the weight of a people who have struggled to gain equality and recognition as they have undoubtedly contributed greatly to their country. These contributions have defined the United States of America throughout it’s existence even though many have tried to deny it or keep it silent. The city also holds stories of dreamers who looked for the ever illusive muse and found her on the streets of Memphis dabbling among the blues, R&B and jazz musicians that the city hosts and keeps close to its heart.
The area began as a home to the Chickasaw Indians. They were known as the “Spartans of the Lower Mississippi Valley” for their valor and strength as warriors. The Chickasaw were highly sophisticated with a complex ruling system composed of laws and religion. The French and Spanish explorers of the 16th century encountered the Chickasaw as they explored the southeastern part of North America, at times trading and at others fighting with them. Eventually, the British would arrive to the area and the Chickasaw would join them in their fight against the French and Spanish. It has been said that the United States speaks English thanks to the Chickasaw Indians because they were so good at making the French and Spanish turn tail and run.
Finally, on May 22, 1819 the city of Memphis was founded by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson (yep… the same one who became President of the United States a mere 10 years later). They chose the name “Memphis” in reference to the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. Indeed, Memphis would become a mayor center for trade and transportation because of its position on the Mississippi River.
By the mid 19th century the cotton industry had blossomed in Memphis thanks to the enormous forced migration of hundreds of thousands of African-American slaves to work the numerous cotton fields and plantations. Millions of these slaves passed through Memphis due to the city’s position as the mayor domestic slave market in the United States. A great number of Irish and German immigrants also came to Memphis with the Irish quickly taking charge of the police force and elected positions. In 1861, Memphis became a Confederate stronghold shortly as Tennessee seceded from the Union at the spark of the U.S. Civil War. It was only one year later that Union forces charged into Memphis and occupied it for the rest of the war. This contributed to the African-American population increasing by the thousands as many escaped slaves came to Memphis seeking protection from the Confederacy behind Union lines. This sparked huge racial problems with the white population of Memphis who were not happy with the idea of a free black person. Many conflicts resulted in riots and lynchings where numerous white people would burn buildings belonging to African-Americans along with many other violent and often deadly acts.
By the year 1900, Memphis was home to the first African-American millionaire, Robert Church who bought a large amount of land around a street in the commercial district called Beale. Robert Church was the son of a wealthy white man and an African- American slave so perhaps the title of first African-American millionaire might not entirely apply, but certainly, Robert Church identified himself as African-American and greatly supported African-American causes throughout his lifetime. Beale Street would soon become a mecca for black music as many African-American musicians from around the country would come to perform at the Grand Opera House (later know as The Orpheum), The Daisy, The New Daisy and Church Park whose 2000 seat amphitheater hosted such personalities as Booker T. Washington and allowed African-American people to visit and participate even though local Memphis laws prohibited them from entering city parks and auditoriums. Beale Street was lined on both sides with a great many clubs, restaurants and shops owned by African-Americans and many of them still stand to this day. The street boasted the title of the Capital of the Blues after the great blues trumpeter, W.C. Handy wrote “The Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”; both songs considered bulwarks of the Mississippi Blues of the early 1900’s Later, the street would host such blues and jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, Rufus Thomas and one young guitarist, Riley B. King who was known then as the “Beale Street Blues Boy” and later became better known internationally as B.B. King.
In time, many more musicians of all races would come to Memphis looking for inspiration and to be discovered. This included a number of southern white boys looking to record at a small record label named Sun Records. Sun Records was founded by Sam Phillips who loved the sound of the music coming out of Beale Street. Phillips started recording many of the musicians who played on Beale including B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. He became aware of greater white presence, specially young white kids at the mostly black juke joints on Beale Street. He saw a way to bring black music to white youth and immediately set out to look for white performers to record blues and R&B. One day, he came upon a young kid out of Tupelo, Mississippi and he set about to record him. During these recordings, the kid was pretty much bombing and Phillips was not impressed. After a few hours, he was ready to let the axe fall on the kid and turn him down. It wasn’t until practically at the end of the session that the kid began to sing “That’s All Right” by Arthur Crudup. He was not playing it in any normal way but instead he was exaggerating the voice and the chord changes and jumping around the studio like a lunatic as he played. This caught Phillip’s attention and he started recording the performance, impressed with what he was hearing. Within 3 days of recording it, the song was played by Dewey Phillips on his radio show, “Red, Hot and Blue”. No one had ever heard this sound before. It was black man’s blues and white man’s country-western at the same time. It was raw, uncontrolled, pure and new. The phone lines started ringing off the hook even as the song was still playing asking the radio station to play the song again and again. That lunatic kid singing the song was Elvis Presley and the sound was Rock and Roll! History was made.
Sam Phillips and Sun Records would go on to start the careers of such music legends as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. Today, you can tour the Sun Studios building and you can even stand in the room where Elvis made his first ever recording. If you are ever in Memphis you MUST do this tour. Take it from me, it is totally worth it. The tour guides are entertaining and very well-informed and the experience is practically a religious one for any music lover.
Another great Memphis music staple is Stax Records which recorded and produced such R&B greats as Booker T & and the M.G.’s, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Picket. Stax stood its ground next to Detroit’s Motown and L.A.’s Atlantic Records, producing some of the greatest southern soul music in existence. Today, Stax is no longer producing artists and instead, has become the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum hosts hundreds of exhibits on the history of Stax and soul music in general.
But not all dreams in Memphis are musical. By the 1960’s, Memphis became a center for the Civil Rights Movement due to continued segregation and rampant voter suppression against African-Americans. In 1968, a peaceful demonstration by the Sanitation Workers of Memphis was joined by the Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He gave his notable “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3rd, 1968 at the Mason Temple where he challenged the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all men as equals. This speech is considered to be one of the most inspiring speeches of freedom and equality ever spoken. It is a chilling speech in which Dr. King, rather prophetically, speaks of his own demise at the hands of those who oppose equality. Yet, he was clear that he had no fear of death as he said, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
A few days earlier, James Earl Ray, who was a fugitive of the Missouri State Penitentiary at the time, had arrived to Memphis with a Remington rifle equipped with a scope. Ray was a white supremacist who strongly supported George Wallace’s Presidential campaign and his segregationist ideology. He believed that by killing Dr. King, he would kill the Civil Rights Movement. On April 4th, 1968 (one day after the Mountaintop speech), while Dr. King was on the second floor balcony in front of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, Ray fired a single shot from a rooming house across the street. The bullet hit Dr. King and felled him immediately. An hour later, one of the greatest men who ever lived, was pronounced dead. His death sparked riots throughout the United States by some of the more militant factions and mournful ceremonies and tributes by the more peaceful groups of the Civil Rights Movement . Dr. King’s death was a cathartic moment in the history of the United States where the ugly head of racism and violence was exposed for the world to see, but Dr. King’s legacy has lived on and proven without a doubt that you can kill a man, but you can never kill his dreams. Today, the Lorraine Motel has been converted into a part the National Civil Rights Museum where visitors can learn of the Movement and it’s leaders starting from the 17th century to today.
One very interesting (and rather strange) place to visit is the Memphis Pyramid. It was originally built as a 20 thousand seat arena in 1991. With a height of 321 feet (98 meters for my rest of the world friends) it stands as one of the ten tallest pyramids in the world. The idea was to create a place for Memphians (seriously… that’s what they are called) to enjoy live sports and concerts but it encountered many issues since day one. On its opening night, the arena floor began to flood due to inadequate drainage pumps and crews had to surround the stage with sandbags to keep the water from reaching the electrical cables. Once the resident basketball team, the Memphis Grizzlies, moved to Vancouver, the Pyramid found itself in disuse. The construction of the FedEx Forum Arena in 2004 was the Pyramid’s final death knell as an arena. At this time, the outdoor sports retail store Bass and Pro Shops was looking for a place to build a super store and the Pyramid found new life. After 5 years of negotiation with the city, Bass and Pro Shops ended up leasing the building for 55 years. Money was poured in for the Pyramid’s reconstruction as well as for the surrounding areas and by 2015, the Memphis Pyramid re-opened as a very special Bass and Pro Shops Super Store complete with giant aquariums (salt and fresh water), an archery range, shooting range, laser arcade, bowling alley and a 100 room hotel as well as restaurant and bar at the apex of the Pyramid. This restaurant and observatory deck (with a beautiful view of downtown Memphis and the Mississippi River) is reached by taking a glass elevator that boasts the title of the tallest freestanding elevator in the United States. If you get vertigo like I do, beware. But even if you do, sucking it up and bearing those initial butterflies in the stomach is totally worth it. The view is breathtaking.
One more thing about Memphis… Gibson Guitars!!!! The Gibson Guitar Factory has an awesome tour of the factory floor where you can see how Gibson hollow body models are built. It is very informative and fun and it pays tribute to what is one of the best guitars brands in the world. The factory also has a small store with the beautiful masterpieces on display. This year, Gibson guitars has declared bankruptcy and the company is not doing too well which is a damn shame. I seriously hope it is able to rise from its ashes and it continues to make the classic treasures that are Gibson guitars.
You could say that Memphis, Tennessee is a city of dreams. Music, recognition, business, fame, equal rights and/or dignity… whatever dreams you may have, Memphis welcomes them and will even show you a few of its own. Though it is true that the line between Elvis Presley and Dr. King is very long, it is also a straight one that passes right through such greats as Al Green, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Chris Bell, Johnny Cash, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Ida B. Wells, Aretha Franklin, Mother Jones and yes, even Tennessee Williams. All of these along with hundreds more, whether born or made in Memphis, are connected by their intense dreams and their contributions to the imagination of generations around the world.
May those dreams live forever.
And speaking of dreams… here’s my own dream made reality. My partner in crime with me and doing some shooting of her own.
See you all soon somewhere in the world!