Memphis – Rock & Soul Museum, Sun Studio

Holy cow, there’s a lot of music here. We went to both the Rock and Soul Museum and Sun Studios, and had lunch in places where live musicians playing the blues were there as a matter of course. Despite the drenching rain, it was great.

Memphis, of course, is the home of Elvis, and just in case you forgot that, there’s a bronze of him just off of Beale Street. Really captures him.

The Rock and Soul Museum’s collection of artifacts around the birth of rock and soul music was created by the Smithsonian. It details the early days of soul and rock & roll, and, typical of the Smithsonian, there was so much, it was hard to take it all in. A women’s radio station, the difficulty of getting early rock n’ roll on the radio, early technology, sound samples, guitars, clothing, biographies, everything about the early days of this music. Including my favorite quote, by Sam Phillips: “Without the cooperation of total resentment on the part of the parents, Rock n’ Roll would have had a rougher time makin’ it.” I remember that resistance very well!

Below is an early tape recorder. This kind of equipment, which seems really primitive now, was the way so much was preserved. Besides recording music in studios, these kinds of machines were loaded onto pack animals and carted into the Appalachians and other places to record the old songs and stories, by historians and folklorists like Alan Lomax. Such dedication–these machines are not light!

And here is the “Million-dollar Photograph”: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, from December 4, 1956, in Sun Studios. These guys all showed up at Sun one day and just started jamming. They were all under different record labels, so recording the session was illegal. And Sam Phillips, owner of Sun, did it anyway, surreptitiously. He couldn’t release it, so he sat on it for decades. It’s available now, and I picked up a CD. It’s raw and rough, but just fun to listen to because one of them will start a riff and the others will join in and maybe take it in another direction, harmonizing and then going into another tune. Really interesting story–which I’m hoping is at least partially true!

Sun’s recording room. It’s behind glass, so the quality isn’t that good, but this is where all the magic happened.

There are still interesting leftovers in the studio. U2 used this drum set and just left it there.

And this is “the” microphone used by Elvis and others. Sun left quite the legacy.

We also visited Schwabs, the famous drugstore. I bought a double harmonica there, one side in the key of G and the other in C. And it has a great sound, lots of resonance and harmonics.

It was quite an interesting few days in Memphis, and I would go back again. Hopefully when it was drier. The rain was quite fierce at times.


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