Walking on Beale

One of America’s most famous musical streets, Beale is located in the heart of downtown Memphis with three blocks of more than 30 nightclubs, restaurants, and retail shops. Music includes traditional blues, R&B, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Catch a concert at Handy Park or attend one of the annual festivals or parades.

Provided by Memphis Tourism, Vasha Hunt

Rufus Thomas isn't the most famous musician to emerge from Memphis.

His name hasn't transcended generations like those of his contemporaries: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Isaac Hayes, among countless others.

But, there's no denying the crucial role Thomas played in the city's musical heritage - his release of "Bear Cat" marked the first hit single for Sun Records, he and daughter Carla climbed the charts as a duet at Stax Records, and he became a fixture on WDIA, the nation's first all-black radio station.

Thomas lived and performed at a time when music was different, when racial divides stopped at the door of the recording studio. He stood out as an icon of the era, a relatable face and a recognizable voice.

On a brisk December night, friends, family and admirers of Thomas gathered for a reception commemorating the 10th anniversary of his 2001 death. But, they weren't just honoring one man; they were celebrating a legacy that will continue forever, a story of racial resiliency and the birth of a musical artform called rock and roll.

"Just like they said in the movie, ‘Just because I'm leaving don't mean I'm gone,'" said Thomas' daughter Carla, referencing a new film debuted the night of the reception. "We really are a legacy. We're not just passed and gone."

A city of music

While a visit to Memphis by the uninitiated can serve as a baptism-by-fire into the city's rich heritage, entering the Mecca of musical legend, equipped with historical perspective, allows for a much deeper appreciation of one's surroundings.

A simple drive through downtown exposes a visitor to many iconic sights - from the bright lights of Beale Street to the signage of recording studios, museums and guitar manufacturing plants honoring and continuing the traditions of the past.

Head to the other parts of the city and discover more treasures, such as Elvis Presley's legendary Graceland mansion and a world-class music academy built on the site of one of the city's most historic recording studios.

But, in Memphis, experiencing history isn't schoolwork; it's an opportunity to be part of a living heritage and gain an almost-surreal sense of insight into a generation not long in the past, chronologically, but a world apart socially.

Guests can stand in the back room of Sun Studio, on a spot marked with a black X, and pretend to be Elvis, laying down his first hit single, "That's All Right," or they can pay homage to "the King" by visiting his gravesite at Graceland, leaving behind flowers and notes, as thousands do each year.

Visitors can also walk the slightly sloped floors of Studio A at Stax Records Museum, built in 2003 to celebrate the magic that happened there in the 1950s and '60s, or they can take in the modern rhythm, blues and rock and roll emanating from nearly every bar, club and restaurant lining the famed Beale Street.

In Memphis, opportunities exist for everyone. That philosophy has long been a cornerstone of the city, even in the days when whites and blacks were segregated in schools, churches and public businesses.

That spirit, possessed by pioneers like Stax Records founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, can still be felt today, resonating from the buildings, the instruments and the people of the city.

"Stax was a huge cultural phenomenon," said Tim Sampson, communications manager at the Stax museum. "It was started in the segregated South by a white man. It was integrated completely from the beginning. Musicians were in here together, even when they couldn't eat at the same lunch counter."

And, Stax wasn't alone in pushing boundaries and challenging the societal norms of the time, both in the record studio and out.

Rising Sun

Music has been a part of Memphis for generations, with influences mainly imported from the South. In the earliest of days, country and gospel reigned supreme, and those genres influenced the stars who defined a generation of their own.

As early as 1912, William Christopher "W.C." Handy was creating waves with "Memphis Blues," the first blues song ever published in America. Considered to be the "Father of the Blues," he followed up with "St. Louis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues."

It was on Beale Street that Memphis' musical revolution really began, as workers from the cotton fields would bring their chanting songs, called "field hollers" to the establishments there, inspiring more to follow in Handy's footsteps.

The famed tales of Memphis, though, really began with Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Studio, where Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats - featuring Ike Turner on keyboards - recorded "Rocket 88," heralded as the song that gave birth to the rock-and-roll movement, in 1951.

A few short years later, a white teenage boy known for begging, and often convincing, security guards on Beale Street to admit him into night clubs and bars, despite his age, arrived at Phillips' studio, looking to lay down some tracks of his own.

He didn't exactly blow away Phillips, who had since turned his studio into a full-blown label, but he showed promise. A year later, Phillips invited the boy back. And, just as he was about to give up hope, the young man busted out a sound no one had ever heard before.

On July 5, 1954, Elvis Aaron Presley sang "That's All Right" at Phillips' Sun Studio in a fashion no one could have even imagined, and a new era of musical history was officially born.

Elvis' tenure with Sun wouldn't last long, however. Despite his obvious potential and unique sound, Phillips unloaded the singer's contract to RCA for $35,000, an unheard of amount at the time for such a relatively unknown performer.

"Knowing what we know today, that seems like the worst decision in music history, but the truth is that sale saved this studio," said Jason Freeman, a tour guide at Sun Studio.

Phillips had found himself in dire financial straits, facing the strong possibility of bankruptcy. While selling Elvis' contract cost him one rising star, it also enabled Sun Records to promote a number of other up-and-comers - performers like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

Divisions

By the 1950s, racial tensions had hit a fever pitch in the United States, as segregation kept blacks and whites apart in schools, restaurants and even public restrooms.

But, for those in Memphis recording studios, skin color was left at the door. Blacks and whites joined together to create musical sounds ranging from blues to rock, blending elements of each culture and sending shockwaves through a racially tense society.

Sun Records not only produced and recorded white performers like Elvis and Cash; they also promoted the works of black singers such as Rufus Thomas, B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf.

At Stax Records, the story was much the same. In fact, many of the same artists recorded there, as well, as the labels collaborated and worked together in a fashion almost unimaginable in today's industry environment.

Bands like Booker T and the M.G.'s and the Memphis Horns were biracial, featuring whites and blacks not just sharing a studio space, but playing together and enjoying themselves in the process. At those times, nothing - physical or mental - outside the walls mattered.

"When we were in this room, everything was perfect," said Wayne Jackson, trumpet player for the Memphis Horns, while attending the Rufus Thomas reception at the Stax museum. "It really was."

Performers in those days were more than friends and colleagues; they were family. No matter what horrid events unfolded in the world around them, there was a sense of solidarity in the Memphis music scene.

That all changed on April 4, 1968, when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed at Memphis' Lorraine Hotel. The assassination sent shockwaves through the nation, and had powerful and lasting implications right in the city where it happened.

The residents of the predominantly black neighborhoods were less welcoming of the white musicians, and racial tensions began to flare. That marked the beginning of the end for Memphis as they knew it.

The sense of family began to evaporate, as labels added more and more stars looking to stay afloat. By the end of 1968, Sun Records - the iconic studio - had recorded its last record.

That same year, Stax Records lost its

distribution deal with Atlantic Records, and the company was put under the supervision of a new co-owner Al Bell, who shifted to a more Motown approach, trying to compete with the music coming from Detroit.

The label closed in 1975, and, while there was a slight resurgence a few years later, Stax issued its final new material in the early 1980s.

The Memphis of old seemed to be no more.

A living legacy

The glory days of Memphis' recording hot streak had come to a close.

Sun Studio was sold to a plumbing company, which in turn passed it onto an auto parts dealer. Stax Records headquarters was sold to a church for $10; and, through the years, it fell into a state of dilapidation and was ultimately demolished. Other small labels folded one by one.

So, it continued for several years. But, while the physical nature of things changed, the spirit of Memphis' musical revolution lived on - and continues to

do so - in the hearts and souls of those who lived, performed and enjoyed the peak times of the era.

A desire and passion to preserve that legacy and heritage has motivated a modern-day revitalization of the city's historical assets.

In 1987, 10 years after Elvis' death,

the original Sun Studio was converted back into a recording space and soon became a popular tourist attraction. Today, bands from around the globe continue to record there, coming in after the museum portion of the site closes at 6 p.m.

Stax Records has undergone a similar rebirth, though rock bands no longer make music there. A new campus has been built on the site of the original studio, centerpieced by a large museum with a design replicating the original venue.

The true highlight of the "Soulsville" campus, however, is the educational programs, including a music academy and charter school. Here, the values and benefits of music are passed on to yet another generation of Memphians.

"To see all of this is just wonderful," said Carla Thomas, who has established scholarships at the schools in her family name.

Other attractions like the downtown Memphis Rock ‘n' Soul Museum and Graceland offer guests further glimpses into the life and times of the city's greatest legends.

For guests and visitors, the city and venues offer a number of packages and combination deals, allowing one to take in as many of the city's valuable resources as possible.

Three of the sites - Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Graceland and Sun Studio - are connected by a free shuttle, granting easy transportation for a day on the town.

With so many sites and sounds, planning a trip to Memphis can be a daunting task for any music lover. Whether spending just a day or an entire week in the city, there will always be somewhere new to visit.

If all else fails, just head out on the streets. In Memphis, music is all around.

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