Sun Studio in 2024, a major stop on any music tour of Memphis, Tenn. Here owner Sam Phillips reluctantly welcomed a young wannabe ballad-singer named Elvis and, in doing so, changed the course of pop culture history. The studio also helped jump-start the careers of so many now-legendary performers, including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbinson and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Sun Studio in 2024, a major stop on any music tour of Memphis, Tenn. Here owner Sam Phillips reluctantly welcomed a young wannabe ballad-singer named Elvis and, in doing so, changed the course of pop culture history. The studio also helped jump-start the careers of so many now-legendary performers, including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbinson and Jerry Lee Lewis. (Jim Harrington, Bay Area News Group/TNS)

I don’t have any good excuses for why I went so long without visiting Memphis.

I mean, I had been to Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, Chicago and a number of our nation’s other great music capitals multiple times over the years. Yet, I had somehow managed to skip over Memphis — a city with a musical heritage that’s as rich as any place on the planet.

It’s a big omission for any music fan, yet even more so for someone who, like me, goes by the title of music critic.

Thankfully, I was recently able to correct the situation and finally visit this amazingly vibrant city, which is so deservedly known as both “The Home of the Blues” and “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

I treated the trip like a mission of sorts and, eschewing many of the other reasons for visiting Memphis, tried to soak up as much musical history as I could during my stay. (Of course, I did make time for the city’s famed barbecue— I may be focused, but I still get hungry.)

I’m going to Graceland

The first stop on my itinerary was the city’s most famous musical attraction — Elvis Presley’s Graceland — which draws some 600,000 pilgrims, from all over the world, each year.

Now, I am no more than a middle-of-the-pack Elvis fan, so it took me a bit by surprise just how moving an experience it was for me to visit Graceland.

The house, which Presley purchased in 1957 for a little over $100,000, isn’t the grandest mansion — especially not by today’s standards. Yet, it’s absolutely bursting with dreams and ambition, with the frequently remodeled interior properly reflecting the owner’s whimsical ideas and pretty much endless financial resources.

I had my first (of many) “wow” moments of the trip as I walked through the doorway and into the home of the “King of Rock and Roll.” It felt almost surreal to be in the fairly simple kitchen area, thinking about all the peanut butter and banana sandwiches that were made for Elvis there, and then make my way from one kitsch-centric room to another.

Oh, and there’s something sad about a pool that is no longer being used — like the whole purpose of its existence has vanished, but no one thought enough to tell the pool itself. That feeling was amplified at Graceland as I remembered all the videos of young Elvis enjoying the pool area with his friends.

Also, it’s certainly a strange juxtaposition to have the pool area right next to the grave site of Elvis as well as the final resting places of his mother and other family members.

As I stood in front of Elvis’ grave, I felt a sense of closeness with my own mom — a massive Presley fan — who died in 2012. It was like I wasn’t just here for me, but for her as well.

Beyond the home and the grounds, the massive property also now includes many other Elvis-oriented attractions, including a wonderful display of the music legend’s cool classic cars and a museum that features a mind-blowing collection of flashy jumpsuits.

I spent about three hours there, and could’ve stayed even longer. In all, Graceland turned out to be so much more meaningful to me than I would’ve ever predicted.

Following the Sun

Sticking on the Presley trail, the next major stop on my tour was Sun Studio, where owner Sam Phillips reluctantly welcomed a young wannabe ballad-singer named Elvis and, in doing so, changed the course of pop culture history. Yet, it didn’t happen with a ballad, but rather with Presley combining forces with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black on a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” in 1954.

It was straight up chills time as I got to stand right where Presley stood and croon “Well, that’s all right, mama” into a microphone that the King himself once used. Some of the other folks on this tour were reserved in their approach to the microphone. I, however, was not.

Of course, it’s not just Presley who recorded his early material here. This studio helped jump-start the careers of so many now-legendary performers, including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbinson and Jerry Lee Lewis.

It also lays claim to be being the actual birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, given that Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded “Rocket 88” — the tune that many consider to be the very first rock song — at the studio back in 1951.

And the recording studio remains in use today, with the likes of Chris Isaak and John Mellencamp stopping by in recent years to borrow a bit of this Sun Studios magic.

This is a can’t-miss tour for basically anyone visiting Memphis.

How it Stax up

The great triumvirate of Memphis music attractions would also include the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which delivers the same type of a jolt of excitement for soul music fans as Sun Studio and Graceland do for Elvis fans.

The original Stax was torn down in 1980s, but this current museum is an amazing replica and does stand at the same site as the old building.

You might not get chills just by walking inside the door, like you do at Sun and Graceland, but you certainly should as you continue on through the museum and see the huge collection of archives from the record label’s storied history.

My jaw dropped a bit when I saw a case containing Steve Cropper’s Fender Telecaster guitar, leading to thoughts of how the fabled backing musician — who was a member of both the Mar-Keys and the MGs — performed with such greats as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett at Stax. And right next to Cropper’s guitar was a Fender Precision bass owned by fellow Mar-Key/MG Donald “Duck” Dunn.

It was just one cool soul/R&B momento after another — an elegant red dress worn by Carla Thomas; a near-exact re-recreation of Stax’s legendary Studio A; the gold-plated, peacock-blue Cadillac owned by Isaac Hayes; the Hall of Records displaying so many great Stax album covers.

This should probably be stop No. 1 for big soul fans visiting Memphis.

Nothing but the blues

You can’t really talk Memphis without talking the blues, which is really the musical lifeblood of this city. Everything that we have already covered here — from Elvis to soul music to Sun — really stands on the foundation that blues musicians built early on in Memphis.

To really understand the city that proudly (and rightfully) bills itself as the “Home to the Blues,” one should definitely visit the great Blues Hall of Fame Museum.

The chills were back in full force as I walked through the museum and saw such sights as Pinetop Perkins’ piano, a Muddy Waters Blues Band World Tour ’82 jacket, Lowell Fulson’s 1969 Gretsch White Falcon guitar, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s snakeskin boots (complete with a worn-through hole in the right boot) and the Gibson Custom Lucille Guitar carried at the front of the B.B. King’s funeral procession down Beale Street in Memphis in 2015.

Beale Street, of course, is a big tourist destination, filled with bars, restaurants and a variety of souvenir shops. Yet, it’s also one of the few such spots that I wouldn’t steer people away from. It’s actually a really good place to go hear live music, especially at the club named after one of the city’s most famous residents — B.B. King.

While on Beale, also check out the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum — especially if you want to get a musical overview of the area — as well as the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. And, if you’re lucky, you might also be able to catch a major concert in the area at the FedExForum or the Orpheum Theatre. (Unfortunately, Pantera was playing the Forum a few nights after I left Memphis — or else I would have totally tried to catch those thrash kings while in town.)

Even more music

With so many museums and attractions celebrating the city’s vast musical heritage, it’s easy to lose sight that Memphis is still producing a lot of new music these days.

I got the reminder by visiting a couple of working studios, which don’t normally give public tours. Both of which are heavily rooted in music history as well.

The first was Royal Studios, which was established in 1956 and stands as one of the oldest continuously operated studios in North America. Such significant artists as Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Ann Peebles, Otis Rush, Keith Richards and Bobby Blue Bland have recorded there over the years.

The studio — which has been long owned and operated by producer/musician “Boo” Mitchell — is particularly well known for the work that Al Green did there in the 1970s. And, indeed, the highlight of my visit was the chance to sing a few lines of “Love and Happiness” into Green’s signature “No. 9” microphone (a RCA 77DX ribbon microphone, to be specific).

I also went to Sam Phillips Recording, which is the studio that Phillips opened after he outgrew the Sun location in 1960. Over the years, it’s hosted such top talents as Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alex Chilton, Booker T. Jones, Hank Williams Jr., Kid Rock, Johnny Cash and John Prine.

I got the chance to hang out there with Scott Bomar, the famed Memphis bassist who formed the soul-jazz outfit the Bo-Keys in 1988 and now serves as the studio’s chief engineer, and had a blast hearing some colorful tales about recording sessions from the past. After the tour, Bomar drove me over to Central Station Memphis so we could listen to some cool soul dance music spun by local DJ Chad Weekley.

Beyond the studios and museums, you can soak up music history in so many other places in Memphis. For instance, I went off the beaten track a bit and searched out Aretha Franklin’s early childhood home (at 406 Lucy Ave.), which is fenced off and pretty much falling apart these days. Still, it was cool to be where “The Queen of Soul” grew up. And playing “Respect” on the drive back was perhaps sweeter than ever.

Also, my first meal in Memphis happened to be at the Beauty Shop, a spot where Priscilla Presley used to get her hair done and now serves as a popular restaurant.

My last meal of the trip happened to be at Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest cafe and former hangout spot for Elvis. It even serves E’s cherished peanut butter and banana sandwich (with or without bacon) — which, to my delight, proved to be delicious.

Before handing to the airport, I did what I usually do on Sundays — go to church. Only this time, instead of Calvary Church Los Gatos, I went to the famed Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, which was founded by Bishop Al Green back in 1976. Green still delivers the message most Sundays — at least when he’s not on tour — and was indeed in the house when I visited. Plus, the gospel music being played — as one might expect from a church associated with Al Green — was superb.

It was a great first foray into the world of Memphis music. And I’m already looking forward to my next trip.

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