Road Trip Through History: Memphis and Music

Two days in Memphis. Two visits to iconic recording studios.* Two very different experiences.

Just to remind anyone who doesn’t have the history of rock music in their heads: Sun Records, which bills itself as the place where rock and roll was born, was the label that launched Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison–I don’t need to go on do I? Stax Records, founded only seven years later, was home to Otis Redding and other stars of soul, funk, and blues. Between them, these two labels provided a big chunk of the sound track of your life if you are an American baby-boomer, plus or minus a few years. As far as My Own True Love and I were concerned, both were a must-see.

Sun Studio, Memphis

Sun Studio

A visit to Sun Studio is a low-budget, low-tech, highly satisfying experience. A passionate, knowledgeable (and in our experience at least, very funny) docent led our tour group upstairs into an exhibition space (once an informal flophouse for impoverished musicians) where he told the story of how Sam Phillips founded the label in 1952, stopping to play relevant musical clips that had the multinational, multi generation wiggling to the music.  The exhibits had the “run up by loving hands at home” feel of a small town historical society museum.  We moved down into the recording studio itself, where the story and the music continued:  Elvis winning a contract with a last-minute save,** the night  the Million-Dollar Quartet jammed at the studio, the closing of the studio and its subsequent re-use for a string of non-music businesses,  and the re-opening of the original studio as a recording space where music notables such as U2 and Bonnie Raitt come to record as an act of pilgrimage.  The tour ends with the opportunity to ham it up with a vintage mike.  Over the course of an hour and a bit I shared an excellent vanilla malt with My Own True Love, got choked up, laughed, and wriggled to the music.  I think it’s fair to say that I was not the only happy human walking out the door at the end of the tour.

Stax Museum

Stax Museum

On the surface there was every reason to believe that a visit to the home of Stax Records would be just as satisfying.  Like Sun Records, Stax has great music to draw on, an engaging built-from-the-bootstraps story with founders*** who were passionate about what developed into soul music, artists whose own rags-to-riches stories are as appealing as the story of the company, and a history of cooperation across racial lines.  Like Sun Records, Stax has a feel-good second act.   The Soulsville Foundation, which owns and operates the museum in the old movie theater where Stax produced its iconic records, also runs the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School, both of which provide music education to kids. From my perspective, the Stax Museum was a missed opportunity.

Unlike Sun Studio, the Stax Museum is highly produced, using all the tricks of modern museum technology.  It could have been spectacular.  At the purely visual level, it was spectacular.  But they lost the thread of their story.  Instead of using their artists and the music to illustrate the central story, they tried to squeeze all the individual stories into a single exhibit.  Worse, from my perspective, they had music and interviews running continuously so that they ran together into a muddy background of sound.  It was a shame.

When I left Sun Studio, I was bouncing in my bop-around shoes. When I left Stax Records, I felt like I’d been bludgeoned with a recording mike. Luckily, if you are interested in the history of rock, the Stax Museum website does exactly what I had hoped the museum would do and does it really well.  It tells the Stax story clearly,  gives you opportunities to listen to the music and butt-dance in your chair,**** and makes an appeal for support for music and education program in a depressed neighborhood that produced an astonishing number of major musical talents in the mid-20th centuries.

And speaking of dancing around the room…..

* Not mention the Cotton Museum, the Ornamental Metal Museum, a few strolls along Beale Street, and some fabulous BBQ.

**Phillips turned him down twice.

***Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton.  St + Ax= Stax.  A minor revelation.  I had always assumed that Stax referred to a stack of 45 singles waiting to drop onto the turntable of a small record player like this one:

[If you’re reading this in your email, you may not be able to see the record player.  Click the post title and it will take you to the browser, where all will be revealed.]

****Or get up and dance around the room. Always a good idea in my opinion.


“Sun Studio, Memphis” by David Jones – Sun Studio, Memphis. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Staxmuseum2005” by No machine-readable author provided. Wisekwai assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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