The musical history of Memphis, Tennessee, is akin to what cosmologists refer to as The Big Bang. It was there that an amalgamation of African-American slave chants slowly fermented in a heady brew of jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, folk and gospel…and eventually exploded into rock 'n' roll. At the center of the River City's Big Bang was Beale Street, where musical idioms merged in a cultural collision so powerful, the reverberations are still felt to this day.
Set in the 1950s, Memphis depicts both the good and the bad of this storied town, the good being the music — a distinctly American sound that blended "race music" and hillbilly music (later called rhythm & blues and country) — and the bad being the vitriolic racism that came to define the era. This was, after all, the city where the father of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. While Memphis doesn't shy away from the city's troubled past, it is ultimately the music — a soulful, bombastic, bring-down-the-house joyful noise — that defines the show.
To fully appreciate Memphis the musical, you should get acquainted with the city and the sounds that emanated from its storied streets. Beale Street was Memphis' version of New Orleans' famous Bourbon and Basin Streets — a red-light district where locals went in search of all forms of diversionary activities. In its heyday, this three-block den of iniquity promised a cavalcade of characters, all in want of whatever nightly adventures the gas-lit street might hold. In your inner-ear, imagine the sounds of Beale's exotic rhythms teeming from smoke-filled clubs and you begin to understand the DNA that gave early rock 'n' roll its sense of danger — a feeling that comes to dominate Memphis the musical.
Today, at one end of the famed avenue stands a statue of the Father of the Blues, William Christopher (W.C.) Handy. At the other end stands another statue, almost beckoning Handy to join him in song. The figure is a young man, acoustic guitar in hand, upper lip curled and pompadour slicked back. Hail to the King…Elvis Presley.
From Beale Street it was a few short blocks but a universe away to Sam Phillips' "Memphis Recording Service" studio and its Sun Records label on Union Street. That's where Elvis went in 1953 to record two songs as a belated birthday gift for his mother Gladys. For the worldly sum of $3.98 he had both songs pressed onto a vinyl demonstration record. Today that disc has an estimated worth of over $500,000.
Coincidentally, this legendary spot is the setting of another Memphis-based musical set to hit the Main Stem this spring: Million Dollar Quartet, heading into the Nederlander Theatre. This time, we hear the music of Elvis, along with other Phillips-groomed rock 'n' roll legends Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, re-created in a jukebox musical named after a real-life, one-night-only jam session.
Downtown Memphis today is something of a paradox. Chain restaurants now flank the still regal Peabody Hotel. Everything is 24/7 Elvis — his cloned likeness always on display, ready for sale on everything from T-shirts to beer mugs. Beale Street still has its share of nightclubs, notably B.B. King's House of Blues. There are a handful of shops from days gone by that use the iconography — the original names, signs and logos — to evoke the feel of another time, but they're far outnumbered by souvenir shops and theme restaurants designed to sate the palates of bused-in tourists.
Metaphorically referencing the name of Elvis' famous Memphis home as a cultural touchstone, Paul Simon lyrically observed, "Poor boys and pilgrims…I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland." Ask musicians and early rock 'n' roll fanatics like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bono or Eric Clapton and they'll tell you what that phrase means to them. As teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney understood it too when they listened to an urgent sound each night on their cheap transistor radios. That musical bloodline continues today through countless soul singers, hip-hop artists, pop stars and now Broadway composers.
As the saying goes, the melody lingers on long after the party has ended. The music of Beale — inspired by the sweat of slaves, the sanctified sounds of the gospel choir, the wail of the bluesman, the hillbilly square-dance barker, the trumpet blare of the jazzman and the eternal search-for-salvation growl of the great R&B singers — still endures with the power to fire the imagination and reach into the depths of our soul. That fire now burns brightly on Broadway in the musical Memphis.
Jay Landers is a longtime music industry executive known for his work with Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Bette Midler, Miley Cyrus and countless others. He has also supervised the original Broadway cast albums of Company and Carousel. He is currently senior VP of A&R at Columbia Records.