It is said that some art lovers who visit Florence, Italy experience Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition whereby one becomes so overwhelmed in the presence of famous art that they get physically ill. The phenomena is named after the French writer Stendhal, who, upon visiting Florence for the first time in the early 19th century, described being “in a sort of ecstasy … close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … life was drained from me … and I walked with the fear of falling.”
Perhaps more than a few visitors to Graceland and Sun Studios have felt this. And though we didn’t exactly faint when walking by the Jungle Room and reflecting on the delights of a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, it’s hard not to be overtaken by Memphis, and all it has to offer music fans.
Simply put, we had a blast hanging out in the Bluff City while researching this issue. Our trip included a visit to Al Green’s church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where we took in an inspiring session of largely improvised gospel (though Rev. Green was not in attendance that Sunday) before moving on to Presley’s estate just down the road.
We got a private tour of Ardent Studios, the place where Alex Chilton’s band Big Star cut all three of its records. We hit Goner Records and Shangri-La Records, two must-see places for any serious record collector. Later, a trip to Sun Records served as a good reminder of the genius of Sam Phillips and just how visionary (and crazy) this man was. As the writer Peter Guralnick told American Songwriter last year, “Sam envisioned [early rock and roll] long before it existed — before it had a name or expression.” If Memphis only had Sun Records to claim, that alone would be enough.
Downtown nightspots like Earnestine & Hazel’s, a former brothel that is purportedly haunted and offers live jazz and blues, did not disappoint. And neither did Raiford’s, a raucous, family-owned late-night disco that first opened its doors nearly 40 years ago and is still going strong.
Tennessee residents are lucky to have two world-class music cities within its borders. No other state can make such a boast. But Memphis is very much its own entity, musically speaking, and shares little cross-pollination with its more countrified cousin Nashville.
So much of Memphis’s musical history draws from the blues tradition of the Mississippi Delta. And many a Memphis native will tell you that, culturally, the city is as much a part of Mississippi as it is Tennessee. But as Luther Dickinson, guitarist for the North Mississippi All-Stars and a solo artist in his own right, points out, what constitutes Memphis music is not bound by geographical lines. And it’s not so much the Memphis sound (as that is a wide pretty wide cosmos unto itself) as it is “the Memphis attitude … it is underground, outsider music that transcends where it comes from.”
The body of work put by Stax records during its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s certainly transcends region. This issue’s cover story looks at the Stax songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, a serendipitous pairing that yielded such iconic soul classics as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” to name a few.
Hayes passed away in 2008 but Porter continues to work on behalf of Memphis’ musical legacy. He now serves as the president of the Consortium MMT, a non-profit organization that is working to create and develop a sustainable music industry in the city. He has also been in involved with the Stax Music Academy, an after-school music program that offers music education and mentoring for at-risk Memphis youth. Be sure to check out our story on the academy later in this issue.
We also explore Memphis’s sometimes-ignored indie-rock scene, with a particular focus on the long-running underground punk extravaganza GonerFest and the music of its patron saint, the late Jay Reatard, whose madcap sound and persona functioned as a refreshing juxtaposition to the usual Memphis fare. And we talk to confessional folk songwriter Julien Baker, who at just 20-years-old is making a name for herself with a debut album whose maturity belies her young age.