Hwy. 51 Revisited: Memphis, Tennessee pt. 1

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STARTING POINT- Owned by Sam Phillips in the 1950s, Sun Studio is considered to be where the first rock-n-roll record was made, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. Eventually, a label formed, Sun Records, which launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and more. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

Leaving Oxford on Highway 278 West heading towards Highway 51 northbound is an exit from the hilly wooded land that keeps the realm of Ole Miss tucked away like a secret clubhouse. Back on the highway, there’s a view of forestry on the eastbound side and lush marshy land on the westbound side, the edge of the Mississippi Delta. Memphis is calling like it has for centuries to travelers on the path, but there are still considerable miles to go, most of it through unincorporated communities and acres of wildlife.

Though the towns we pass are small, music history holds a small presence as blues markers are found in Coldwater, Senatobia, and Hernando. Even nearby Batesville gets a footnote for being the home of rapper Soulja Boy while he was a teenager. Still, many of these artists left these towns for something else at one point. Many of them went to Memphis, Tennessee.

Something about Memphis pulls people in. Seen as the head of the delta, it has served as an important mainland port city, situated alongside the Mississippi River and its tributaries. First, it belonged to the ancient Native Americans, and then eventually the Spanish and future United States, who would see the location as an economic asset sitting on the borders of Arkansas and Mississippi. Memphis was founded in 1819 by future president Andrew Jackson, Judge John Overton, and General James Westchester after a treaty with the Chickasaw Tribe. They saw their future hub as an important location for trade and commerce so they named it after the ancient Egyptian city that rested on the Nile River.

Moving into the 20th century, Memphis grew and called out to those looking for work. The railroad systems and highways brought in the tired, the hungry and poor. Driving into the city on the south side of the highway, the faded glory of Memphis’ roadside attractions greet travelers with irony as the rusted out garages, food shacks, and nearly abandoned motels share spaces with Graceland, the home of rock-n-roll’s king, Elvis Presley overlooking it all on a hilltop.

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COUNTRY, RYTHM, & BLUES – The ingredients of Rock-n-Roll came together at Sun Studio in Midtown Memphis. Photo by Jesse Brooks. 

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Moving further in, the swell of history is overwhelming. Midtown, a former medical and industrial district, is home to Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock-n-roll. Visionary Sam Philips opened the studio as a public recording service and later started a label with a feeling he was on the verge of discovering music that would change the world. Beale Street became the home of Mississippi bluesmen that moved to the city looking for work. Philips broke the color barrier by recording these artists for the first time and openly marketing their music. Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ Rocket 88 at Sun in 1951 is credited with being the first rock-n-roll recording, a mix of blues and country rhythm. A 19-year-old Presley was discovered there in 1953 and was eventually scouted by the label for being the crossover artist Philips was looking for. Philips later filled his roster with future legends like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Today the site serves as a museum that offers daily tours for $12 admission and children 11 and under are free. Recordings are still made at Sun by appointments in advance. Most everything in the studio is original, including the taped ‘X’ on the floor where countless numbers of musical giants stood to record their vocals.

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Stax, a soul label that served as the South’s rival to Motown, is another testament to the “Memphis Sound.” After the label was founded in 1957, the combination of gospel, blues, jazz, and funk led to what we know as soul today. With the discovery of artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T and the MGs, Stax put Memphis at the peak of its musical output. Unfortunately, Stax experienced a steady decline in 1968, the turbulent year that saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same city. However, the tradition of Stax is preserved as the studio now serves as a museum dedicated to the legacy. Tours are daily except Monday, adult admission is $13, seniors and military are $12, and children 9-12 are $10 and children eight and under are free.

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The site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. now serves as the National Civil Rights Museum. 

The assassination of Dr. King in Memphis in 1968 sent shockwaves throughout the world. The riots came, and for several days it took the presence of Tennessee National Guardsman to restore order in the city. Memphis healed as the nation did, having to accept the loss of Dr. King who promoted peace and equality. The site of the assassination, the Lorraine Motel, was made into the National Civil Rights Museum through a joint effort by the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation and Smithsonian Institution that was completed in 1991. The museum features highly interactive and visual exhibits aimed at documenting the history of African-Americans in the U.S. Tours are daily except Tuesday and admission $15 for adults and $12 for children.

Though Memphis is heavily rooted in the past, it is alive and well today. Next week we’ll explore more about what everyday life is like in the “Home of the Blues.”

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