A Music Nerd in Memphis (aka Saddle Shoes on Beale Street)

As a lifelong southern-ish Midwesterner, I can confidently say that in the United States, more big draws for tourism are located on the country's east and west coasts than toward the middle. It would be hard to find someone in the world who had never heard about places like California, New York City, or Disney World in Florida. However, it would also be hard to find someone who had never heard about Elvis Presley. Those who have heard of Elvis might have also heard of Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. Yet Graceland is just one of many stops in this Mississippi River city, which many consider to be an origin point for rock and roll music.

Beale Street

Elvis spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Memphis, but the music of this town far predates the mid-20th century. The city's music scene began around Beale Street during the early 1900s, especially blues drawn from influences around Mississippi (hence the delta blues genre). "Father of the Blues" W.C. Handy even penned the song "Beale Street Blues" in 1917. Jazz music then rose to prominence in the 1920s. Soon after, more musicians like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Louis Armstrong began making their mark on the Memphis scene.

Today, Beale Street is a bit overtly touristy. There are restaurants and bars named after the city's hall of famers like B.B. King's Blues Club, Jerry Lee Lewis' Cafe and Honky Tonk, and Club Handy. Many of the restaurants have artists performing regularly just as so many have done in the past. They're good musicians too. When I had dinner at B.B. King's Blues Club, the band of the night featured Grammy winning bass player Leroy Hodges who once worked with Al Green and even Snoop Dogg.

Sun Studio

Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950. Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats used the recording studio to cut "Rocket 88," which is now thought to be the first rock and roll song ever made. Other patrons included B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf. Phillips launched his record label Sun Records in 1952.

Ok, now we can talk about Elvis. It was the music that he heard on Beale Street and throughout his childhood growing up in predominantly African American neighborhoods that helped him create his sound. He cut his first recordings with the help of studio assistant Marion Keisker at Memphis Recording Service in 1953 just for fun, but Phillips stayed in contact with him. Inspired by "That's All Right" by Arthur Crudup, Elvis released his version of "That's All Right." This was his first song with Sun Records. Phillips helped get the song on the radio and local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) received request after request to play it over and over. Elvis began performing all around the country, surprising audiences with his blend of blues, country, pop, and gospel (which is what rock and roll is) -- not to mention controversial dance moves, but that's a whole other story. 

Also in the second half of the 1950s, Sun Records released "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins, "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash, "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. Phillips and Elvis's infamous manager Col. Tom Parker sold Elvis's music to RCA in 1955. The rest is quite literally history. Sun Records is no longer a record company, but the recording studio is still open for musicians to actually use for recording.

The building is now called Sun Studio. The walls are covered with artifacts from all of the rock and roll pioneers who once frequented the studio. Tours include the perfectly intact and seemingly humble studio itself. In a world of "nepo babies" and internet influencers, a visit to Sun Studio makes it hard to believe that more than one American cultural icon got their start in such a "normal" place. Of course there are still home grown celebs in the entertainment biz, but the stars really aligned in Memphis during the 1950s. Anyway, Sun Studio might be one of the coolest places I've ever visited. I don't want to spoil too much of what you get to see but it's incredibly worth the trip.


At 22 years old, Elvis purchased Graceland in 1957 after releasing hits like "Heartbreak Hotel" and making his first appearances on national TV. While he eventually got a place in Beverly Hills as well, Memphis remained a home base and much more. Five generations of the Presley family have been laid to rest at the Meditation Garden in the mansion's backyard. Visitors come from all over the world and leave mementos here. Luckily I managed to keep myself together during this part of the tour.

Since opening to the public in 1982, Elvis Presley Enterprises has added museums across from the mansion called Elvis Presley's Memphis. Here is where you'll find all of Elvis's accolades, his cars (including the famous pink Cadillac), a career timeline chock full of gold records and personal artifacts, his private planes, belongings from his daughter Lisa Marie Presley, and of course case upon case of iconic outfits. Ticket options include the museums and Graceland mansion or just the museums. If you're going to both, go to the museum complex first because mansion tours depart from here.

A visit to either or both show what was important to Elvis like family, friends, home, music, and what is important to his generations of fans (which is literally everything at Graceland and the museums). Those who knew Elvis knew that he loved making fans happy with his music and felt that some sort of higher power chose him to do just that, but he was not always sure why. Perhaps this existential questioning was why he was always quick to shift the credits of rock and roll pioneering to other artists whom he admired, especially African Americans like Fats Domino. He usually even brushed off the nickname "The King of Rock and Roll." Fame at levels never seen before was rough for "The King." But again, that's a whole other story that plenty of other people have already written about. Regardless, Graceland is the second most visited house in the United States, second only to the White House. Not bad for a guy who wondered if anyone would remember him after he died.

Other Music History Locales

As previously mentioned, Memphis was integral to the rise of rock and roll. As most music moguls know, rock and roll is a blend of the genres enjoyed by white and black people in the United States who converged in Memphis in the early 1900s. The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum walks you through this perfect storm and the influence of Sun Records, but pays special attention to soul music in Memphis and Stax Records. This record company rose to prominence in Memphis with artists like Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Otis Redding. I left the museum already making a mental playlist of the stars and songs discussed at this museum.

One of the many displays in the Rock 'n' Soul Museum

The former location of Stax Records is now Stax Museum of American Soul Music as well. Another home-grown business, its founders were bankers who simply decided to pursue their musical passions in the late 1950s. It only took a few years for Atlantic Records to partner with the company and for its aforementioned stars to emerge.

A few steps off of Beale Street is the Memphis Music Hall of Fame with more artifacts which change as new artists are inducted. While the obvious icons are all inductees, you will learn about a few more pieces to the city's continuous puzzle. The Blues Hall of Fame is in Memphis too, and hosts the annual Blues Music Awards.

Sorry for word vomiting

If you can't tell, I'm a sucker for pop culture history because it so often intertwines with history as a whole. A culture shift was born out of Memphis in the 1950s -- once thought to be immoral, if not dangerous. Rock and roll?! Clutch your pearls! It was not the first time this had happened and was definitely not the last, but these shifts rightfully find their way into textbooks. You can't learn about major historical events without also knowing a little bit about what regular life was like way back whenever, and music is in it all.
And in case you're wondering, these are saddle shoes

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