Memphis is the birthplace of rock and roll. Situated on the northernmost edge of the Mississippi Delta, the city has long been a musical and cultural magnet for artists from throughout the South. In the Twenties, it lured blues musicians eager to forge a living in the saloons along Beale Street. As the first stopping-off point for black sharecroppers and their families heading north during the Depression and war years of the Thirties and Forties, Memphis’ musical culture was further transformed by transients with diverse influences and styles.
Sam Phillips, who worked at a local radio station, was the visionary who brought rock and roll into the world. Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 and in short order recorded such legendary bluesman as B.B. King, James Cotton and Howlin’ Wolf. In 1951, he cut a single with Ike Turner’s ban, featuring Jackie Brenston on lead vocals. The song, “Rocket 88,” has been hailed as the first rock and roll record.
In July 1954, two years after forming his own label, Sun Records, Phillips released the first single by Elvis Presley. Pairing uptempo cover versions of Arthur Crudup’s blues tune “That’s All Right” with Bill Monroe’s bluegrass waltz ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Phillips found a combination he long had sought: a singer whose style seamlessly incorporated elements of gospel, country and blues powered by unrelenting rhythm. Phillips went on to discover and record new talent at a dizzying pace: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis all began their careers at Sun.
What transpired in Memphis changed popular music and ignited a revolution in popular culture. Despite changing tastes and ever-shifting trends, Memphis and Sun Records still embody the simplicity, the intensity and the individuality common to the most enduring rock and roll.