In the constellation of Memphis music attractions, the Smithsonian Rock ’n’ Soul Museum doesn’t burn quite as brightly as Graceland, Sun Studio, or the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
But since its founding more than a decade ago, the museum has served a useful purpose in pulling the different strands of the Memphis music story into one narrative.
Last fall, with the launch of the first Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Rock ’n’ Soul stepped into the spotlight.
The general idea of a Memphis-specific Hall of Fame has been in the air for decades.
“This should have happened 20 years ago. If any city deserves it, it’s Memphis,” says Kevin Kane, the head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, who also serves as chairman of the Rock ’n’ Soul board. It’s an idea that Rock ’n’ Soul first embraced as part of a strategic planning meeting several years ago.
“In just the short nine years I’ve been here, we’ve lost so many Memphis greats,” says museum executive director John Doyle. “When Rock ’n’ Soul did its grand opening, Sam Phillips attended that. Rufus Thomas attended that. Carl Perkins attended that. [We’ve lost] Isaac Hayes, and the list goes on and on.”
To finally make the Memphis Music Hall a reality, Doyle assembled a 12-member nominating committee of music professionals only partly rooted in Memphis, a group that included, among others, authors Peter Guralnick and Nelson George, former Commercial Appeal music critics Larry Nager and Bill Ellis, former executive director of the national Rhythm & Blues Foundation Patricia Wilson Aden, and former Smithsonian curator and Southern historian Pete Daniel.
“We limited it to 25, which was more than we’ll do in other classes,” says longtime journalist and music-industry executive David Less, who was on the nominating committee and in the room for live deliberations.
The class of inductees that emerged — see sidebar for full list — included obvious names (Elvis Presley, W.C. Handy), obscure names (Lucie Campbell, William T. McDaniel), and controversial names (Three 6 Mafia, ZZ Top). With the knowledge that this is meant to be an ongoing process, the group produced more of a representative list of key players in Memphis music history than an attempt at 25 definitive names.
The announcement of the inaugural class was followed by a post-Thanksgiving celebration at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. The ceremony didn’t have the star power it might have, with living inductees such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, B.B. King, and Mavis Staples not among the night’s performers, but it’s hard to imagine any of them wouldn’t have been as graceful as 82-year-old, Beale Street-bred soul-blues titan Bobby “Blue” Bland, who took a seat on stage and sang his classics “Goin’ Down Slow” and “Stormy Monday Blues.”
Bland’s voice was worn but still commanding, with a range that went from his deep “yeah” to quavery high notes. He was helped to the stage and to a chair. When an early bit of feedback disrupted the beginning of his first song, Bland smiled and said, “That’s my fault.” And then he dug into “Goin’ Down Slow,” adding extra gravity to the lines “Somebody please write my mother and tell her the shape I’m in / And tell her to pray for me and forgive me for all my sins.”
Bland wasn’t the only inductee to perform. Be-bop saxophonist George Coleman, 77, did two selections as part of a rare homecoming performance. Booker T. & the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper led the house band through Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” a song that Cropper co-wrote and which, he noted, Booker T. & the MGs backed Pickett up on, adding to the “500 million” worth of records sold, by Cropper’s estimate, that bears the band’s sound. And ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill represented the trio by singing Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” with the house band.
An interactive, informative web site (memphismusichalloffame.com) launched along with the announcement and continues to be expanded, with a physical display within the current Rock ’n’ Soul Museum tentatively planned to launch in September.
Now, Doyle is planning to reassemble his nominating committee in early spring to form a smaller “Class of 2013” group of inductees.
Among the names mentioned by various committee members as potential future inductees are Johnny Cash, Carla Thomas, Justin Timberlake, Big Star, the Blackwood Brothers, the Memphis Jug Band, Chips Moman, David Porter, and on and on.
“There are only a handful of cities that could do this,” observes Less.
The 25 Inaugural Inductees to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton: The brother/sister duo put the “St” and “ax” in Stax as co-founders of the city’s signature soul label.
Bobby “Blue” Bland: The soul-blues titan honed his craft alongside other future stars in the 1950s vocal group the Beale Streeters.
Booker T. & the MGs: The Stax house band and hitmakers-in-their-own-right embodied one version of the Memphis sound.
Lucie Campbell: The gospel composer was a contemporary of the more famous Thomas A. Dorsey and helped shape the black gospel sound of the pre-soul era.
George Coleman: The Memphis jazz great was a saxophone sideman for B.B. King before joining up with the Miles Davis Quintet.
Jim Dickinson: The producer/sideman/bandleader was a musical sponge and bridge between distant eras of Memphis music.
Al Green: The last soul legend was the purest Memphis vocalist since Elvis Presley — and remains productive.
W.C. Handy: The “Father of the Blues” published compositions that popularized the regional form.
Isaac Hayes: A Hall of Famer even before Shaft and Hot Buttered Soul, he evolved from essential sideman/songwriter to superstar.
Howlin’ Wolf: The Delta-bred blues powerhouse cut classic sides with Sam Phillips before migrating north to Chicago.
B.B. King: The “Beale Street Blues Boy” started his career on radio and on stage locally before becoming the blues’ biggest modern star.
Jerry Lee Lewis: The piano-pounding revolutionary traveled up from Louisiana and was introduced to the world via Sam Phillips’ Sun label.
Jimmie Lunceford: The Manassas High School gym teacher evolved into the King of Swing.
Prof. W.T. McDaniel: This segregation-era music teacher at Manassas and Booker T. Washington high schools trained multiple generations of Memphis musicians.
Memphis Minnie: The “Queen of Country Blues” first hit Beale Street as a young teen and emerged as one of the signature blues artists of her era.
Willie Mitchell: The bandleader and producer forged the sophisticated Hi Records soul sound and “discovered” Al Green.
Dewey Phillips: The original wild man of rock-and-roll radio gave Elvis Presley his first spin.
Sam Phillips: The idiosyncratic producer and Sun Records founder cut classic blues sides and then presided over the great wedding ceremony, marrying country and blues to create rock-and-roll.
Elvis Presley: The kid from Tupelo waltzed into Sun Records and announced that he “sang all kinds.” Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
Otis Redding: The soul man supreme gave Stax Records its first true superstar, and then left us too soon.
The Staple Singers: The family band blended soul and country, gospel and blues into a distinctive sound — and had something to say.
Rufus Thomas: The prankster, patriarch, and pop-cultural preacher drove Memphis music from the Rabbit Foot Minstrels to WattStax.
Three 6 Mafia: The Southern rap pioneers graduated from selling self-made mixes out of their trunk to claiming Oscar gold on behalf of crunk.
Nat D. Williams: The “Beale Streeter by birth” took the mic at WDIA to become the first black disc jockey on the country’s first all-African-American radio station.
ZZ Top : The dusty Texas blues band honed their sound and emerged as superstars out of Memphis’ Ardent Studio.