I toured Memphis in the summer of 1994.
Memphis sits on the Mississippi just as the Egyptian Memphis sits on the Nile. This makes a fair comparison as both cities overlook massive rivers that had a dominant effect on their history. The Federals needed to subdue Memphis in order to complete their campaign to split the South in half and secure a safe, invasion supply route. Culturally, Memphis always sat half-way along the river and developed its own claims to fame. Jazz migrated up the river to Memphis along the way to Chicago. Memphis, however, can claim to two particularly American forms of music, Memphis Blues. In the forties to sixties, every great bluesman played on Beale Street, the center of the entertainment district, including Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, BB King, and a dozen names probably only known to collectors. Sadly, many a bluesman died poor simply because no one, other than blacks, bought their records, and the market simply didn't have volume to make them millionaires, even thousandaires. The presence of this black blues tradition came into contact with white country music to result in a particular and distinctive form of music known as "Rockabilly." Basically, this sound came out of a single studio, Sun Records. Its owner, Sam Perkins, consciously attempted to find white men who could sing the blues like black ones, for obvious reasons. That's how many would define the sound, and many of Elvis's early (and best) songs simply covered local black hits. However, the five most famous rockabilly singers from Sun: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash show exactly how other elements that black blues contributed to Rockabilly. Jerry Lee and Cash both had no problem making a career out of singing country and western. Elvis and Cash both sang white gospel songs, Elvis, in fact, thought this his more important contribution to music. Roy Orbison, a later discovery of Sun, made a career of singing sentimental ballads mixed with country and rockabilly. Perkins stuck to rockabilly, but his career never compared to the others. Everyone criticizes Perkins for selling Elvis' contract to RCA. He justified this move on the basis that he thought Perkins would be bigger anyhow. One look at the size of Sun Studios (below) should defend Perkins a bit better. Perhaps Elvis would've become no bigger than the black acts that he so admired with a studio of that size to promote him. Besides that, with the exception of the non-rock and roll records, you can make the case that Perkins' miniscule studio recorded all of the best records for all of the above artists, quite a claim. He wouldn't be the first superior artist to fail as a businessman in the music business. Memphis even played a roll in soul in the sixties and seventies. Sam and Dave recorded here. Aretha Franklin, (though she's a Detroit girl) had her career take off only when she recorded in Memphis.
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