Memphis TN—Touring Sun Studio is, along with Graceland, arguably the most authentic of Memphis' music-related attractions.
Beale Street's strip of music halls, bars and gift shops do not reflect the historical significance of what was one "Main Street" for Memphis' large and relatively prosperous black population.
Working recording studios like Ardent (since 1966!) are generally not accessible to visitors.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum are carefully-curated exhibits, and both were built in the past decade.
Sun Studio is tiny, weathered, cramped, nicked-up, and worn, but not worn-out. (It's also one of the National Park Service's "National Historic Landmarks" and on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Touring the studio has an emotional impact that the other sites can't match. While Stax and Rock'n'Soul both present facts to support the assertion that "this is history", Sun loudly exclaims, "this is where history was made!"
The Sun tour covers just a handful of rooms. Despite the small amount of space covered by the tour, the entire facility is full of original artifacts, from the water-stained ceiling tiles to the antiquated microphones and recording instruments.
Sun Studio itself is preserved to reflect the era when the studio was discovering and recording the artists who would make rock 'n' roll the most significant form of popular form of music in history.
The facility consists of a reception office, the recording studio, and the control room. The adjacent diner is now a combination gift shop/snack bar/ticket sales/gallery. It gets cramped when more than a few people are waiting for a tour, but the t-shirts and souvenirs and photos and 45 RPMs give you a lot to look at while passing the time. During my visit, about half the patrons were foreign, primarily from the British Isles, so people-watching is also an option.
Upstairs, a one-time boarding house is now the tour's museum gallery.
I visited Sun Studio on July 5th, the 56th anniversary of the date Elvis recorded his first single, "That's All Right (Mama)." My tour was led by a live (and lively) tour guide, Jane.
She first led us upstairs to set the stage for the founding of the Memphis Recording Service, a studio-for-hire founded by Sam Phillips. While the studio's clientele were primarily country and western performers, Phillips was a fan of the blues and the up-tempo music that was slowly turning into early rock and roll.
The upstairs gallery includes era recording equipment, from tape decks to turntables where master records were cut. Everything was low-tech, but very mobile.
Jane's story carried us through Ike Turner's "Rocket 88", cited by Phillips as the first rock'n'roll song due to distortion of the guitar work (due to a damaged speaker) and the "discovery" of Elvis Presley.
Downstairs in the actual studio, the story picks up with Elvis' first professional recording, "That's All Right (Mama)", the selling of Elvis' contract to RCA, the discovery of Jerry Lee Lewis, the establishment of the Sun Records label, and the "Million Dollar Quartet" recording session.
Jane demonstrated how Johnny Cash got the "drumbeat" sound from a guitar on "I Walk The Line" and played music clips from the Sun Records cannon.
The Sun story ends in the mid-60s, when Phillips established his larger recording studio. The Sun facility lay fallow from the end of the '60s until the mid-'80s, when the "Million Dollar Quartet" (minus Elvis but with several other legendary acts) returned to record the "Class of '55" album.
From that time, Sun has continued as a working studio at nights for acts hoping to connect with the mojo and cachet of the studio's history (U2 and John Mellencamp for example).
Visiting the Sun Studio was a interesting contrast to visits to the Stax/Soulsville USA Museum and the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Those museums are located in new buildings with expansive galleries. They present carefully-curated exhibits that broadly cover an era of rapid cultural and social change. They use audioguides, which allow visitors to access hours of interviews, performances and recordings, but also isolate visitors from one another.
The Sun Studio tour has an almost completely opposite approach, resulting in a more satisfying and authentic experience. The tour has carefully assembled the Sun story: A little information about Sam Phillips and his vision for operating a recording studio, a little about the recording process in that era, a few stories about some of the notable performers who propelled Sun Studio/Records into music history, and a smattering about the studio today.
Just as important, the tour is led by a live tour guide, who answers individual questions, generates enthusiasm, and engages visitors in interacting with the exhibit and each other. If Stax and Hi records had not made Memphis a center of the soul music industry, the Sun tour would still be worth a visit as a historical site of cultural significance.
Touring Sun and Stax together puts both the rock and roll and soul music movements into context, and demonstrates how quickly Memphis and its music industry were changing. It's also a chance to hear a lot of great music from an era when a recording was nothing more than a reflection of the passion and talents of the writers and performers.
For more about the Sun studio and record label, see the "Sun Records" entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. For more about the Sun Studio tour or to plan a visit, see sunstudio.com.