the memphis sound

Highway 72 begins in the east in Chattanooga, runs through Alabama and Mississippi before reaching its western terminus in Memphis.  In fact, it is the only US highway to have both termini in the same state but pass through other states in between the end points.

Worlds collided in 1965 when the Beatles, on tour in the states, had a meeting with Elvis Presley in LA. But other than memories and conflicting stories about what did and didn’t occur…

John Lennon: “We all plugged in what was ever around and we all played and sang.”

George Harrison: “I never jammed with Elvis at all.”

Paul McCartney: “No.”

…no tangible record of the event exists; no pictures, no film, no tape. The moment which held so much potential was logged as a disappointment in the journals of both camps.

If you’re one of those who has to find organization in the midst of chaos, you could divide the history of Hi Records into roughly three parts, defined by three artists. The first would be marked by the instrumental hits, primarily recorded by either the Bill Black Combo or Ace Cannon. The third, and most commercially successful period, was the run of hits by Al Green in the early 70’s. But in between, the man who bridged those dissimilar chapters would step out from behind the board to the other side of the glass, and be the star on his share of hits from the 60’s.

Folk music enjoyed a revival of sorts in the mid 20th century.  Springing from the Greenwich Village epicenter of the movement in the late 40‘s, The Weavers were among the first to gain acclaim by making socially conscious statements with their original compositions, and breathing new life into older songs from diverse sources. 

From early on Memphis musicians have had no problem making a statement without the encumbrance of words. As a young  man, W.C. Handy found music in the wordless sounds of the tapping of shovels, as his co-workers wove complicated rhythms to pass the time on the shovel brigade at a Florence, Alabama iron furnace. His musical genius allowed him to distil the sounds he discovered while touring the rural south. The essence he extracted enabled Handy to refine the music he described as “not really annoying or unpleasant…” but “perhaps haunting,” into a palatable form which found appeal to new audiences. If not the actual birth of the blues, it was at least the assignment of a birth certificate.

As Luck Would Have It

Jan 24, 2012

It’s easy to say Elvis Presley had a career run of good luck as he headed into the sixties. From his first Sun Records single, he created a stir, and fostered a following that would set records and inspire a new youthful direction in the whole sphere of entertainment. But any carny worth his salt can read people like a book, and Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker was perhaps the greatest since Barnum. In the new decade, he set new course was based on making movies that made money, fulfilling the RCA Records contract, and keeping Elvis off the TV and tour bus.

In 1960, America was on the verge of exploring the new frontier, getting ready to pass the torch to a new generation. Who would imagine that two of the year’s biggest hit melodies would be written in 1898 and 1926? And, who would imagine that they would both be recorded in the same session?


Memphis was the summit of success for many singers, and a jumping-off point for others.  Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, and grew up in Wink.  He went to North Texas State to study geology, but after seeing Elvis in concert in Dallas, it was another type of rock altogether that had his attention. He left behind the country and western swing direction of his first band, the Wink Westerners, and started another called the Teen Kings.  Johnny Cash shared a bill with that band, and suggested Roy contact Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

A couple of hundred miles can sometimes make all the difference in the world.  When you look at it, even among the members of the million dollar quartet, Elvis came from Tupelo, Jerry Lee Lewis from Ferriday, Carl Perkins from Jackson, and Johnny Cash from Dyess, Arkansas, to make it big in Memphis.  So it stands to reason some Memphians would find their place in the sun by moving on down the line.  Two transplants in particular helped shape and define Nashville’s Music City reputation.

Many an arena was rocked by the strains of the song Aerosmith chose to close their shows, a tune with a long legacy known as “Train Kept-A-Rollin’.” Long before the first Aerosmith fans lit their Bics for an encore, the song was a staple of the hard rock scene.

It was the first song Led Zeppelin played when they formed in 1968.

Led Zeppelin formed, of course, from the remnants of blues-rock innovators The Yardbirds, who had their own go at the song in 1965.