Memphis

view of a city from across a wide river, with buildings and a bridge lit up at night

© iStockphoto.com/clintspencer

Memphis lies on the Mississippi River in the state of Tennessee. Local music came from the Mississippi Delta, the nearby cotton-growing region whose wealth had been built on the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The Delta was one of the most important incubators of African-American music, both secular (blues) and sacred (spirituals).

The first person to recognise Memphis as the 'home of the blues' (a slogan later used by the city's tourist office) was a Black bandleader called WC Handy who composed and published a piece called 'Memphis Blues' in 1912. Another piece, 'Beale Street Blues', celebrated the city's main centre of musical entertainment.

From 1927 leading record companies came regularly to Memphis, recording blues singers such as Memphis Minnie and the 'jug bands' of Gus Cannon and the Memphis Sheiks. The jug bands were so called because their rhythm sections included porcelain whisky jugs which gave a deep bass sound when blown into.

In the 1940s and 1950s the local radio and recording industries played an important role in the emergence of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. Radio station WDIA was the first to adopt an all-black music format. Among its DJs was the young BB King. The success of WDIA inspired other stations to attempt similar programming. Dewey Phillips, a DJ on WHBQ, had a popular show called 'Red Hot and Blue', which gave the first airplay to a new singer called Elvis Presley in 1954.

Presley's first records were on the local Sun record label owned by Sam Phillips. Phillips had set up his label and recording studio in 1950 to record the full range of local black music. He made the earliest records of such blues stars as Howlin' Wolf. The breakthrough of Elvis Presley led to hits from Sun's other 'rockabilly' acts such as Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Phillips sold Presley's contract to the much larger RCA company, so Elvis made most of his records in Nashville and Hollywood, although he continued to live in Memphis until his death at his Graceland mansion.

In the 1960s another important recording centre emerged in Memphis: the Stax studios and record company. Stax was a major force in the new music of the time - soul. Like the Motown label and studios in Detroit, Stax had its own teams of songwriters and session musicians as well as its recording stars, including Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs.

Stax was sold in 1975, whilst music venues in Beale Street were demolished or left to decline following the riots of the 1960s and economic recession. But city officials have since commemorated the achievements of local musicians and music industry entrepreneurs. Graceland has become a major international tourist destination and the original Sun Studio is now a museum. Beale Street has been refurbished and attracts tourists to a variety of music venues. Several music festivals have been established including Elvis Week, which became a model for Beatles Week in Liverpool. There is also a Memphis Music Hall of Fame museum. In other words, Memphis has been successfully packaged as a music city in order to attract international tourism.