Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden describes Memphis as a place where there’s a special something in the water supply that “makes everybody pick up an instrument or stand on a corner and sing.” Having said that, he then shares a bleaker memory from his own early days in Memphis during the summer of 1982, when Graceland first opened its doors to the public.
“We opened in June, and Beale Street was still all boarded up,” Soden says somewhat uncertainly, like someone trying to recount the peculiar events of a vivid dream. “The Peabody had just reopened in the previous year,” he says. “And I think Gray Line Tours had leased the space where Sun Studio was, and were taking people by, but that was all. Not much else was happening …”
As the primary creator of today’s well-established Elvis Presley “brand,” Soden acknowledges that Graceland itself was launched with modest expectations. He and his small staff were hoping to attract fans of the recently deceased superstar, potential visitors who, if given a chance, might want to visit the place where Elvis lived.
Thirty-three years later, upwards of 600,000 people visit the Whitehaven mansion annually. They’re the kind of tourists every city wants to attract, since they tend to come from far away, and they spend considerable money in hotels, restaurants, and retail establishments while they’re here. Additionally, 150,000 yearly visitors tour Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, which is once again a functioning, full-service recording facility, as well as a powerhouse tourist destination giving music fans the unique opportunity to soak up an authentic 1950s vibe in the room where rock-and-roll was born.
Honky-tonk torchbearer Dale Watson, for example, lives in Austin, Texas, but he’s been recording at Sun Studio for 20 years now. Watson — perhaps the quintessential “Texas country” singer — describes the sessions there as “magical.” “A lot of it’s because of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee having been there,” he says. “But even more, it’s just the sound that you get. It’s like nowhere else.”
Development has been gradual, but the once-questionable prospect of Memphis music tourism has blossomed into an interesting, symbiotic industry for our city. By some standards, that business is booming. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, comfortably housed in an exact replica of an old movie theater that was torn down in 1989, treats more than 60,000 visitors annually to the sounds of Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Booker T. & the MGs. The Smithsonian-affiliated Rock ’N’ Soul Museum, which opened in the Gibson Guitar Factory in 2000 and moved into its current home in FedExForum in 2004, sees similar numbers. And far from being boarded up, Beale Street has evolved into the single most visited tourist destination in Tennessee, boasting nearly 6 million visitors annually.
Meanwhile, the syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan now reaches 2.4 million public-radio listeners weekly. Show host Pat Mitchell says tourists looking for things to do visit the show’s downtown office space, even though it isn’t open to the public. “People the world over know the show and just want to see where things happen,” she says.
Figure Bass Pro, NBA basketball, and barbecue into that mix and it’s easy to see why, in spite of the city’s own historically negative self-image, national travel writers are paying attention and penning glowing articles with headlines like “Memphis Gets Its Groove Back,” as the Virtual Gourmet’s John Mariani did last month. In a follow-up article Mariani’s headline said it even more plainly: “Memphis Unmatched for American Music History.” “There are American cities with more art museums and natural history museums than Memphis,” he wrote, “but none has the cultural breadth and depth of museums devoted to American musical history.”
Sun Studio’s public relations director, Jayne Ellen Brooks, has an explanation for this positive attention. “When you do something right, it pays off,” she says. While reluctant to place a specific dollar value on music tourism, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau President Kevin Kane concurs. Visitors to Memphis pump $3.2 billion into the local economy yearly, and music, Kane speculates, might be responsible for as much as 20 percent of that pie. “I can’t say for sure if it’s that much; that’s just shooting from the hip,” he allows. “But I do know it’s a strong foundation.” The safe answer, he concludes, is that the music tourism business is, at the very least, “worth hundreds of millions of dollars” to Memphis.
From the Beale Street blues to Big Star’s Third and all the grace notes in between, music is Memphis’ defining brand. It’s a calling card that opens doors for world travelers and a funky sort of beacon, attracting more diverse visitors to this city with each passing year. This has come to pass in spite of the city’s spotty record of preserving cultural resources it doesn’t abandon and/or tear down. Important sites like Chips Moman’s American Studios, and Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios have only recently been honored with historical markers. The Levitt Shell, now an immensely popular music venue producing free events on the stage in Overton Park where Elvis once worked as a warm-up act for Slim Whitman, would have been demolished long ago if not for a 20-year vigil by Save Our Shell preservationists.
But new music tourism opportunities seem to be popping up all the time. In the spring of 2014, the dilapidated home of piano legend Memphis Slim was renovated with help from the Community LIFT program. It has since reopened as a “music magnet” and gathering place for community residents. It’s not expressly a tourist destination, but the renovated home provides another music-related point of interest in the Stax/Soulsville neighborhood.
Even more recently, a host of new attractions has been unveiled, ranging in scale from two ambitious new “halls of fame” downtown (the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, on Second Street, and the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main) to various public artworks celebrating the lives and legacies of local performers. Each new addition becomes a bullet point on a tourist’s to-do list, lengthening stays and sweetening the economic impact of our region’s sweet music. As Kevin Kern, Graceland’s public relations director, explains, Memphis has finally grown into something “more than a long weekend destination.” Adds Kern’s boss, Jack Soden, “Every time another music-related enterprise comes along, whether it’s Rock ’N’ Soul, or the Blues Museum, it’s [part of] a tide that raises all the boats, Eventually, it hits a critical mass.”
Tad Pierson says the tide hasn’t touched his boat yet, but he blames that fact on his being a one-man band, answering the phones, booking and conducting tours, and fixing his vehicle when it breaks down. Pierson is the sole proprietor of American Dream Safari tours, and he knows the sights and sounds of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta better than just about anybody. His thoughtfully imagined excursions through Memphis’ best and worst neighborhoods upend traditional tourist industry models and can even make you rethink the value of superlatives like “best” and “worst.” “I’ll tell you something I love to see,” Pierson says. “I love to see people hanging out on the bench with Little Milton.” Obviously, he’s not referring to the real Little Milton since the “Grits Ain’t Groceries” singer died in 2005. Pierson’s talking about a seated, disconcertingly life-sized statue situated on the sidewalk in front of the new Blues Hall of Fame museum at 421 South Main. Pierson’s tours are unlike any other. Instead of shuttling large groups of visitors from one attraction to the next, he boards only as many passengers as can fit comfortably in his beautifully preserved 1955 Cadillac. He dutifully drives clients past Graceland, Beale Street, and other name-brand attractions, but his destination is almost always some off-the-beaten-path neighborhood bar with cold beer and a hot band.
“Memphis is a photogenic town,” Pierson says, expressing reservations about “history under glass,” pining over the loss of authentic things like Elvis’ favorite wooden roller coaster, the Zippin Pippin. He worries about the fate of the empty Mid-South Coliseum. As a guide to the city rather than its tourist attractions, Pierson stakes his reputation on an ability to deliver good tunes and authentic experiences. But he also loves to see people stop by for a selfie with Milton on his bench, or to grab a shot of a nearby op-art mural dedicated to the late punk-rock wunderkind, Jay Reatard. “You know, they want to build a statue of Johnny Cash in Cooper-Young,” Pierson says. “I hope they do it.”
The statue to which Pierson refers is part of a bigger effort dubbed “The Johnny Cash Memphis Legacy.” That project is spearheaded by Memphis filmmaker and preservationist Mike McCarthy, working in conjunction with entities like Cooper Walker Place, Rhodes College, and the Visible Music College. If the project is fully funded, a bronze artwork by Mississippi-based sculptor Bill Beckwith will be unveiled soon at the corner of Cooper and Walker, near the church where Cash and his band, the Tennessee Two, played their first gig for a group of little old ladies in 1954.
According to the project’s mission statement, “[the Beckwith sculpture] gives us the unique opportunity to celebrate the location of Cash’s first performance with the Tennessee Two by erecting a statue and historical marker that can serve, not only as a source of civic pride for Memphians, but as a location for tourists to visit as they come to Memphis.” McCarthy says he wants to unveil the Cash statue May 1, 2016, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Man in Black’s iconic first Sun single, “I Walk the Line.”
McCarthy has a long history of promoting missed music tourism opportunities in Memphis. He led the team that salvaged Red Hot & Blue dj Dewey Phillips’ booth from the mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel, prior to the derelict building’s much-needed renovation. Phillips was the manic WHBQ record jock who famously introduced most Memphians to Elvis, and the real-life inspiration for the strange-talking Huey Calhoun character in the Joe DiPietro/David Bryan Tony-winning Broadway extravaganza, Memphis: the Musical.
With a Dewey-esque zeal, McCarthy also labored to save the Zippin Pippin, which avoided demolition only to be acquired by the Bay Beach amusement park in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2010, where it’s frequently described in the media as a successful attraction and local favorite. McCarthy is currently front and center in the battle to resurrect the Mid-South Coliseum, a storied music venue that has been closed since 2006. In addition to its historic role as the home for the United States Wrestling Association, the Coliseum hosted concerts by many of the classic-rock era’s most important artists, including Elvis, whose gloriously excessive RCA release Live on Stage in Memphis, was recorded there on March, 20, 1974.
Blues Hall of Fame curator/manager Nora J. Tucker doesn’t know exactly how many people have toured the new, $2.5 million attraction since the comfortably appointed facility opened in May, but, as Tad Pierson will testify, she has first-hand experience with the power of a well-positioned sculpture. Tucker describes the museum’s Archimania-designed entrance, with its blue stretch of sidewalk and the Little Milton statue, as a kind of magnet. She says the museum’s opening month was “huge,” and subsequent months have been “strong.” The statue, created by artist Andrea Holmes Lugar, in conjunction with the Lugar Foundry and the Metal Museum, brings a lot of walk-ups to the door.
The Blues Foundation has been inducting members into its Hall of Fame since the 1980s. The new brick and mortar museum was built, in part, as a conveniently located destination for music lovers who are already coming to town for Foundation-hosted events like the annual Blues Awards in May and for the four-day International Blues Challenge every January, which attracts more than 120 acts and a large multinational audience. The cozy, two-story facility boasts a free upstairs gallery and a ticketed downstairs exhibit that showcases a number of stage costumes, instruments, and personal effects once owned by blues giants like Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Muddy Waters.
Tucker says she’s impressed by the number of curiosity seekers Little Milton has brought through the doors. She’s even more impressed by people who say they visited the Blues Hall of Fame because the staff at the Memphis Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum or the National Civil Rights Museum referred them. The attraction industry, she explains, has proven to be far more collegial than competitive.
“Authentic” is the word John Doyle uses to describe Memphis music tourism. Doyle is the executive director of both the Smithsonian-affiliated Memphis Rock ’N’ Soul Museum and its newly opened $1.3 million Memphis Music Hall of Fame exhibit, the latter of which is a deep dive into the real heroes of Memphis music, showcasing folkie Jesse Winchester’s Vietnam draft notice and subsequent amnesty letter alongside flashier items belonging to marquee artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. In the spirit of authenticity, the new museum is also housed on the exact spot where Lansky Brothers, Elvis’ favorite clothiers, once stored its formal wear, and where Johnny Cash was brought when he visited the downstairs shop brandishing a Prince Albert tobacco tin, and wanting to buy a dark frock coat just like the prince was wearing. “That may be the beginning of the ‘Man in Black,’” Doyle speculates. “There aren’t many cities that can support their own music hall of fame,” Doyle says, recalling an early brainstorming session where Rock ’N’ Soul board members easily listed more than 300 relatively well known artists for prospective membership. That was when he knew the project would work. He just wasn’t sure how it might work best.
“I asked myself what it might be like to hang out with the musicians that were being inducted each year,” Doyle says, wondering what a cocktail party with all the inductees might look like. “It would probably be weird,” he says. “So we’re positioning the Memphis Music Hall of Fame as a museum where our exhibits are as outrageous as our inductees. In Europe, they’re protecting Rembrandts. In Memphis, we’re protecting a pink shorts set with a cape that Rufus Thomas wore at WattStax.”
The museum will also protect and display a demolished and decomposing piano, courtesy of Hall of Fame inductee Jim Dickinson, who once told an interviewer that he just liked to “watch shit rot.” When it comes to authenticity, you can’t do much better than Dickinson, the late, great producer and provocateur who placed “decomposition” at the heart of his personal aesthetic. Dickinson worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones, and believed you could hear the sounds of entropy in songs he recorded with Alex Chilton. You can see all this represented visually in paintings he labored over, then left outdoors for nature to complete.
The Memphis Music Hall of Fame’s most eye-popping exhibit has to be Dickinson’s piano, which spent years on exhibit in the yard outside his Zebra Ranch recording studio. In its former life, the crumbling instrument, propped up on cinder blocks like some old jalopy and covered in filth and leaves, belonged to the Stax recording studio. It was there when Isaac Hayes and David Porter were songwriting partners cranking out hits like “Soul Man” and “Wrap It Up.” It was there when time got tight for Booker T. and the MG’s, and when Otis Redding wrote “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The decomposed piano also appears in the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, making it a trivial touchstone for Chilton fans as well. In a figurative flourish, Doyle describes the piano remains as being like “a piece of Dickinson’s soul,” because it represents an essence of the man not easily captured in words or even musical notation. It’s a perfect example of the “authentic” Memphis Music Hall of Fame experience, he says.
Situated just off the corner of Second and Beale, in a two-story space that during the 1990s hosted a Graceland-run club called EP’s Memphis, the Music Hall of Fame doubles as a welcome center for a tourist destination desperately in need of one. Until now, Beale Street’s 6 million annual visitors have had nowhere to go for an in-depth look at the street’s rich musical history, or to learn about Memphis’ other attractions.
“We felt like we could assist in doing all that by having a presence here,” Doyle says. Kevin Kane strongly agrees. The Hall of Fame, he says, also gives visitors an excuse to visit Beale Street in the daytime: “You don’t really spend a weekday afternoon on Beale Street. This gives you a reason.”
Further south on McLemore, Tim Sampson, communications director for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Soulsville Foundation, has had a busy summer. “We’ve got people here in the museum from every continent every single day,” he says, crediting the recent boom in music tourism to the collaborative nature of area destinations. Sampson also believes that additions to the landscape such as music-related murals and an increasing number of historical markers and museums also help to boost attendance all around. “We need more,” Sampson says, unequivocally. “We need to start renaming streets. We’ve got an Elvis Presley Boulevard, but we need a B.B. King Boulevard. And an Otis Redding Boulevard, too.”
Jayne Ellen Brooks at Sun Studio is also seeing more visitors than ever before. When she started working there nine years ago, the off-season could drag on for up to four months. During especially slow periods she and her co-workers might even slip outside and throw a softball around. “I can’t even imagine doing that now,” she says. The slow period has been whittled to two months at the most. Even then, she says, weekends can be slammed.
“The South is ‘in.’ Kids who were 10-year-olds when the Johnny Cash movie, Walk the Line, came out are 20 years old now,” she says, offering another reason for the uptick in regional attention. Sessions, a nationally syndicated television program showcasing contemporary artists recording new material at Sun, is airing its fifth season and, according to Brooks, Million Dollar Quartet, the Tony-winning Broadway musical inspired by Sun founder Sam Phillips and four of his most famous discoveries, has made “a huge impact,” helping to bring people to Memphis to see where it all went down. It doesn’t hurt to have a new exhibit either, and Sun is currently displaying a reconstructed portion of the Dewey Phillips booth meticulously salvaged and stored by Mike McCarthy.
So with all of this good news, has music tourism in Memphis finally reached the all-important critical mass Graceland’s CEO Jack Soden has long been looking for? Probably not. That moment may be just around the corner, though, and the last crucial pieces of the puzzle may be put in place by the organization that started the revival in 1982. Graceland, the mothership of Memphis music tourism, is in the midst of a major construction boom (with help from both the City of Memphis and Shelby County) and enjoying something of a renaissance.
“We’re at a time when we couldn’t have possibly dreamed of more,” Soden says, praising the city and county’s $43 million commitment to rebuilding Elvis Presley Boulevard. That dollar amount may sound large, but it represents only a fraction of the amount music tourism brings to Memphis every year. Soden believes the improvements will have “a profound effect” both on the image of Whitehaven and on the self-image of Whitehaven residents.
When asked if there’s one single thing that Memphis needs to do better to seal its reputation as the music tourism capital, one common theme is echoed by everybody from Graceland’s Jack Soden to American Dream Safari guide Tad Pierson. We need more local live music, and those live-music venues need to be more accessible.
“Even that is getting better,” the CVB’s Kevin Kane says, running down a list of newer venues like Lafayette’s Music Room and the Levitt Shell that host earlier shows in family-friendly environments. He’s also intrigued by the possibilities of the Memphis International Rockabilly Festival, a new, soon-to-be annual event that promises to deliver something no other music festival in the world can: two solid days of live music and nostalgia, all taking place a few hundred feet away from Sun Studio, where, on March 3, 1951, Willie Kizart’s water-damaged guitar amp malfunctioned, giving a recording of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” the distorted guitar buzz that would forever separate R&B from rock-and-roll. The inaugural festival last month was promising, and featured a fantastic lineup of early Sun-era performers and contemporary artists.
Rockabilly Festival co-founder Darrin Hillis says he has no idea why it’s taken so long for someone to organize a major vintage-rock event in Memphis during Elvis Week, when tourists flock to Whitehaven to visit Graceland and celebrate the King’s life and legacy. “We sold tickets all over the world, from Australia to Japan,” he says. “A whole movie crew came in from the United Kingdom.” Hillis lives in Memphis but has produced large-scale music events from Seattle to Maryland. He co-founded the Delta Fair and Music Festival with his business partner Mark Lovell.
“We really wanted this to be an experience,” Hillis says of the new old-music festival that also featured a hot-rod show, pin-up girls, a tattoo booth, and lots of vintage vendors. “We wanted people to feel like they are walking back in time.”
In 1982 Graceland was new, Sun was down, Beale was desolate, and the abandoned building that had formerly housed the Stax Recording Studio wouldn’t even be torn down for another seven years. “But even back then something was there,” Soden says. “Even back then I remember telling my friends in Kansas City that Memphis wasn’t like any place else. The whole city was like a museum without walls. There was just so much history.”