Sure, one could make a strong case for Nashville as the nation's musical epicenter. Or Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, San Francisco or Chicago, for that matter. But there's something very special about the music that has been written, recorded and performed in Memphis these past 50-plus years.
The difference in the musical legacy between Memphis and these other cities I mentioned? For one thing, the incredible variety. Memphis had a hand in the birth of everything from country, blues, jazz and gospel to rockabilly and rock and roll.
If for no other reason, Memphis could be declared America's Music City because it's where the "King of Soul," Otis Redding, first rose to fame with those amazing early recordings on Stax Records.
Memphis is also home to Graceland, the second most-visited home in America. As most everyone knows, Graceland gives visitors a look at the private the life of "The King," Elvis Presley.
Memphis is also home to producer Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records, where they say rock and roll was born. Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all recorded their classic early works there. The studio is now a museum.
And Memphis also has the world famous Beale Street, where W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," was reportedly the first person to write blues music down on paper. Beale Street, a Mecca for African American culture throughout the second half of the 20th century and still, has been called a northern gateway to the rich culture of the Mississippi Delta.
Way back in 1945, radio announcer and Memphis history teacher Nat D. Williams observed, “Come what may, there will always be a Beale Street, because Beale Street is a spirit … a symbol … a way of life … Beale Street is a hope.”
Williams was so right. Beale Street is still hopping, with live music nightly.
All of this and much more will be celebrated on Thursday when the first 25 inductions into the new Memphis Music Hall of Fame are honored. A creation of the Memphis Rock-N-Soul Museum, The Memphis Music Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony & Celebration at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts will celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of some of the most beloved and gifted musicians in history.
The 2012 inductees include Redding, Elvis, Phillips, Handy, Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton, Bobby Blue Bland, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Lucie Campbell, George Coleman, Al Green, Jim Dickinson, Isaac Hayes, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Lunceford, Professor William T. McDaniel, Memphis Minnie, Willie Mitchell, Dewey Phillips, Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, three 6 mafia, Nat D. Williams and ZZ Top.
Among those scheduled to perform Thursday are inductee Bland, as well as Dexter and Otis Redding III, who'll play for Redding. In between the performances, a group of storytellers will recall the careers of the honorees through words and a series of video mini-documentaries
If you're anywhere near Memphis on Thursday, check out this event. Here's the phone number, 901-205-2536, here's the website, and here's where you can make reservations.
Here's the lineup of honorees:
Estelle Axton & Jim Stewart - The brother / sister duo did everything necessary, including borrowing against a home and renting a South Memphis movie theatre, to transform Satellite Records into the one of the greatest soul labels in music history. Stewart and Axton, whose last names merged to form Stax Records saw equality in all people. That perspective, combined with their business acumen, led to the label which launched the legendary careers of Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many others.
Bobby “Blue” Bland - Robert Calvin Bland has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Starting as an original member of The Beale Streeters, Bobby Blue Bland has had 23 top ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts, and continues to perform today. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame welcomes “The Lion of the Blues,” Bobby Blue Bland!
Booker T. and The MG’s - Originally the house band at Stax Records, this band backed hundreds of recordings for the Stax roster, defined the label’s identifiable sound, and symbolized music’s power to unite. Originally Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr. and Lewie Steinberg, replaced by Duck Dunn upon his departure, the band became one of the most prolific, respected and imitated bands of the 60s, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in ’92, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Lucie Campbell - Born to a former slave in 1885, Campbell bridged gender and racial divides in the world of gospel music, and became one of the most regarded composers of African American religious song. She served as the acting music director for the National Baptist Convention for 47 years, and is credited with writing over 100 gospel songs before her death in 1963. Fifty years later, The Memphis Music Hall of Fame proudly honors 2012 inductee, Lucie Eddie Campbell Williams.
George Coleman - Jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader born in Memphis in 1935, and still recording and performing today, based in New York City. Widely known for his work with B.B. King in the 1950s and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock in the 60s. He’s also appeared in several movies, including “Freejack” with Mick Jagger and “The Preacher’s Wife” with Whitney Houston, and is involved in jazz music education for students. The Memphis Music Hall welcomes home jazz great George Coleman.
Jim Dickinson - Musician, songwriter, producer, Dickinson embodied the spirit of independence in Memphis music. He fronted Mudboy & the Neutrons, studied Sam Phillips and Furry Lewis, backed Aretha, Albert Collins and others, performed with Arlo Guthrie, Dylan, the Rolling Stones and others, and produced and inspired Big Star, The Replacements, Lucero, Mudhoney and many, many more. Inducting him, The Memphis Music Hall is proud to borrow from Jim’s own 2009 epitaph… “I’m just dead; I’m not gone!”
Al Green - The Reverend has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has been included in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Artists of All Time.” He teamed with Willie Mitchell to spawn the golden era of Memphis’ legendary Hi Records, he has won 11 Grammys, and he has sold more than 20 million albums… and still counting. In 2002 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2012, he enters the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
W.C. Handy - William Christopher Handy took the blues from a regional music style with limited audience to one of the dominant forces in American music. As a composer and orchestra leader, despite his death over 50 years ago at age 84, he is still considered one of America’s most influential songwriters. Countless posthumous awards include induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grammy Trustees Award.
Isaac Hayes - Isaac Lee Hayes, Jr. became the first African American to win Grammy’s “Best Original Song” for the theme from Shaft. Songwriter, musician, singer, and producer for Stax Records. Throughout his unequalled career, he also became a TV and big screen actor, a Grammy winner, a humanitarian, a cookbook author, a South Park cartoon character, and even a king in Ghana. This year he will become a Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductee… and he will forever be The Black Moses, Mr. Isaac Hayes.
Howlin’ Wolf - Chester Arthur Burnett with his booming voice and imposing appearance was one of the leading performers of electric blues, and one of the greatest blues artists of all time. He’s been inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; his music has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone ranked him in their Greatest Artists of All Time. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame welcomes the legendary Howlin’ Wolf.
B.B. King - Recording and performing for over 50 years, Riley B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy has become the preeminent blues player of all time. A former WDIA deejay, he’s been honored as a Rock Hall inductee and as one of Rolling Stone’s greatest guitarists of all time. For most of his career, he performed live over 250 times annually, still performing 100 nights a year at age 87. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame is proud to honor “The King of the Blues,” Mr. B.B. King.
Jerry Lee Lewis - A truly original pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll after auditioning at Sun Studio and setting his piano on fire… sometimes literally. He’s a noted member of the famed “Million Dollar Quartet,” one of the first Rock Hall inductees, is a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, has been named one of Rolling Stone’s Greatest Artists of All Time, and has been performing for over 60 years. And now, at 77, The Killer enters the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Jimmie Lunceford - Orginally in the 1920s, Jimmie Lunceford was one of Memphis’ very first high school band directors for African American students, organizing a student band at Manassas High School, which then received acclaim touring nationally and internationally as the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, recording in 1927 and 1930. The Lunceford orchestra fame skyrocketed after being booked at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club in 1934.
Professor W.T. McDaniel - Transferring between two of Memphis’ blacks-only high schools, Booker T. Washington and Manassas, in the 1930s, music teacher W.T. McDaniel directed two of the leading high school bands of the day. “Mr. Mac” also mentored a class of future top-tier jazz performers and session musicians including Calvin and Phineas Newborn, Charles Lloyd, Fred Ford, Robert “Honeymoon” Garner, Maurice White, Emerson Able and others.
Memphis Minnie - The “Queen of the County Blues,” Lizzie Douglas became the only female blues artist to compare with her male contemporaries. She ran away from home at 13, and headed for Beale Street. She helped form the roots of electric Chicago blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Her music and her legacy continues to inspire artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, and Led Zepplin. She died in Memphis in 1973, but today she rocks her way straight into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Willie Mitchell - “Papa Willie” Mitchell was a trumpeter and band leader who recorded several singles for Hi Records in the 60s before taking over the reigns of the legendary Memphis studio in the 1970s and guiding it through its heyday with a roster of artists that included Anne Peebles, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and, of course, Al Green. He ran Royal Studios until his death in 2010, recording projects for Soloman Burke, Rod Stewart, John Meyer and others.
Dewey Phillips - “Daddy-O” Dewy Phillips was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneering disc jockeys. Starting his career in 1949 at WHBQ Radio, Phillips was the first to simulcast his “Red, Hot and Blue” show on both radio and television. His manic personality, musical diversity and radio popularity helped launch the careers of many of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legends, becoming the first to play Elvis Presley. So when you see him inducted this November, “Tell ‘em Phillips sentcha!”
Sam Phillips - The man who invented rock ‘n’ roll! In 1950 he opened Memphis Recoding Service on Union Avenue, believing if you weren’t doing something different, you weren’t doing anything. On his Sun Records label, he recorded Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich… need we say more about the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sam Phillips.
Elvis Presley - Elvis exploded world culture, becoming arguably the most popular musician of all time. Starting at Memphis’ Sun Studios, his exposure to gospel, country and soulful African-American blues into a new musical genre which shook the planet. He holds the record for the most songs on Billboard’s charts, and his record sales to date have been estimated at one billion copies. I could go on and on, instead, I’ll simply welcome “The King” into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Otis Redding - Otis Redding first entered Stax Records as a valet lugging someone else’s gear, but he left a star. He established his presence on the pop charts even as he reigned atop the R&B world. This “King of Soul” helped establish the Stax Sound, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and induction into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Hall of Fame. World music was changed by the 26 year lifetime of the legendary “Big O,” Mr. Otis Redding.
The Staple Singers - This family of gospel singers from Chicago, under the paternal musical leadership of Roebuck “Pops” Staples, achieved mainstream appeal after recording with Stax and Ardent Studios. Their music expressed themes of equality and self-empowerment, and earned the family induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Rufus Thomas - After recording the very first hit record for both Sun Records and Stax Records, the “World’s Oldest Teenager” taught the world how to walk the dog, do the push and pull, and do the funky chicken. Outside these recording studios, Rufus Thomas also impacted Beale Street’s Palace Theatre and legendary WDIA Radio where, as a deejay, he introduced white teens to black music when, according to Thomas “their parents wouldn’t let them listen,” thus paving the road to rock ‘n’ roll.
Three 6 Mafia - DJ Paul and Juicy J have generated 2 platinum records and sales exceeding 5.5 million albums, and together have brought Memphis’ thriving rap and hip hop recording industry to the world forefront. Formed in 1991, and earning notoriety with a “Best Orignal Song” Academy Award for 2005’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the first Oscar in the rap genre, Three 6 continues to record and has since invaded television.
Nat D. Williams - Initially a teacher at Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School, “Nat D,” as he was known, became long-time host of Amateur Night at Beale’s legendary Palace Theatre, and the first editor of Memphis’ Tri-State Defender newspaper. He was also Memphis’, and one of America’s, very first black radio disc jockeys when, in 1948, he took to the microphone at WDIA radio.
ZZ Top - Together for more than 40 years, this American rock band from Houston is rooted in the blues, and bathed in the waters of Memphis music, having recorded numerous albums at Memphis’ Ardent Studios beginning in 1973. For the next 18 years, ZZ Top was essentially a local band, recording mostly at Ardent and Memphis Sound while living in Downtown penthouses and East Memphis homes.