Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know. A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.
Traveling to Memphis!
This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee. Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history! While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe. I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful. If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.
MUST DO’s while in Memphis.
National Civil Rights Museum 450 Mulberry St Memphis, TN 38103 http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/
In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit. Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country. Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL www.staxmuseum.com
Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could. From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned. Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists. It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between! You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists. The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor! The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music. Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that. This museum is worth the short trip from downtown. Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.
Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip. This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”. W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale. There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint! He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!
EATING ON BEALE
Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN (901) 526-3637 http://www.bluescitycafe.com/
The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe. Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best. Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love? I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!
The Rock N’ Soul Museum
Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)
This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good. They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church. They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA! If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up! It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.
Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum. Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.
There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service. Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that. Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made. So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records. The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it. During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left. However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.
Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis
Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,
The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)
West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)
Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org. Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened! There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST…
If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi. I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale. If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale. Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY. There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here. So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you. Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river. So see them while you can!