Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On Display

The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum gets it right.

By Chris Herrington

MAY 8, 2000:  Memphis' status as a musical mecca is so often taken for granted that we sometimes fail to acknowledge just how unique the city's history is. What makes Memphis so important isn't just that a set of economic and cultural circumstances conspired at a specific historical moment to produce an explosion of musical activity. Similar eruptions, after all, have happened around the globe in just the last half-century. It happened in the late Sixties and Seventies in Kingston, Jamaica, with ska and reggae, and it happened in England in the late Seventies with punk. In the Eighties, the streets of New York gave birth to hip hop while the townships of South Africa produced mbanqua. So these remarkable products of circumstance continue to happen.

But in no city other than Memphis have there been (at least) three successive musical eruptions -- the pre-war Beale Street blues of the urban migration, the Sun-led rockabilly of the Fifties, and the Stax and Hi soul of the Sixties and Seventies -- and in no other city (save, perhaps, New York's hip hop) have the eruptions been of the same magnitude. Indeed, the story of Memphis music in the middle part of the 20th century and of the social upheaval that spawned it is one of the great stories in American history proper.

The new Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which opened last Saturday inside the Gibson Guitar Plant just south of Beale Street, has charged itself with presenting the fullest telling yet of this remarkable story. Housing the exhibit Rock 'n' Soul: Social Crossroads, which was developed in conjunction with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum conveys a concise yet thorough social and musical history of Memphis from the 1920s through 1970s in a mere six galleries and 10,000 square feet.

At a press conference last Friday, the day before the official opening, Glen Campbell, executive director of Wonders, which is helping oversee the museum, made it a point to distinguish the Rock 'n' Soul Museum from the star-centered aims of similar enterprises. "Most [music] museums focus on artists," Campbell said. "This exhibit focuses on the cultural and social forces that came together and made this happen in Memphis."

A well-organized brew of artifacts, text, photos, sounds, and film, the museum is intended as a "primer" on the city's musical history. And, indeed, much of the exhibit may be achingly familiar for visitors for whom the narratives of Sun, Stax, et al. is old news. But the museum can't be faulted for appealing to a more general audience, and the uniquely user-friendly audio system allows visitors to tailor information flow to their level of expertise or interest.

An engaging, eight-minute introductory film precedes the exhibit. The film, featuring talking-head interviews with essential players such as Stax co-founder Jim Stewart, Jim Dickinson, Sam Phillips, Rufus Thomas, and David Porter, and vintage footage of artists such as Otis Redding, Al Green, and Jerry Lee Lewis, gives visitors a brief introduction to what they will see throughout the exhibit.

The rest of the museum is divided into six galleries that follow the story of Memphis music from the beginnings of the urban migration in the 1920s through the last gasps of Stax and Hi in the 1970s. Along the way, visitors can see artifacts like Ike Turner's first piano, a radio transmitter that broadcast the Grand Old Opry, Sam Phillips' recording equipment from Sun, and a microphone from WDIA. The state-of-the-art searchable audio component of the tour features some fascinating soundbites, like Carl Perkins discussing the role of his father's radio in the family home, and B.B. King likening the glory days of Beale Street to a community college.

The portion of the tour on Sun and the rise of Elvis contains a much-needed audio section that allows visitors to compare Elvis' version of the blues song "That's All Right" with Arthur Crudup's original, and his version of the bluegrass "Blue Moon of Kentucky" with Bill Monroe's. The aural evidence should be enough to sway dullards who still downgrade the King for "not writing his own songs." Only when covering contemporaries like Little Richard and Chuck Berry did the Sun-era Elvis not transform good songs into great records. The museum is also dotted with five listening stations marked by vintage jukeboxes from different eras. Each station offers visitors the chance to sample a range of classics from each era.

Outside of the self-contained pleasures of the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, another important element of the project is how it fits in with other downtown musical and historical attractions. As both Campbell and John Elkington, president and CEO of the company that manages neighboring Beale Street, have pointed out, the museum provides a needed daytime component to a tourist haunt that doesn't heat up until the sun goes down. But, perhaps more importantly, the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum can act as a necessary companion piece to the more substantial National Civil Rights Museum that sits but a few blocks away. Both museums tell essentially the same story through different avenues -- one primarily political history, the other primarily cultural. No true understanding of the history of our city, region, or nation can afford to grasp one without the other.


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