Memphis TN—The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum (nominally located at the intersection of US 61 and Beale Street, in the FedEx Forum arena) tells the story of the rise of rock 'n' roll and soul music in Memphis from the 1950s through the 1970s.
The museum does an exceptional job of setting a context for the social changes that converged in Memphis in the early '50s.
As briefly as possible: In the 1930's, Memphis was the largest city in Tennessee, surrounded by hundreds of miles of rural farmland. The farmers and sharecroppers (both black and white) listened to country music on the radio, sang gospel music in church, and played the blues when they gathered after hours.
After the depression, and with the mechanization of agriculture, rural people began moving to the city for work and other opportunities beyond the farm.
The city's fast growth provided the last couple pieces needed to create music history: a sort of unofficial and organic integration of the races resulting from a common socio-economic factors, and an entrepreneurial spirit that primed people to grab any opportunity that came by.
One such opportunity was the growth of the popular recording industry nationally, as people began buying and listening to records rather than live radio programs.
As the doors opened on the Memphis Recording Service (and Sun Records) in 1950, Hi Records (1957), and Stax Records and recording studio (1957), talent was virtually walking in off the street.
Among those who stepped through those doors and into legend were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MG's, Sam and Dave, and the Staple Singers.
And, in every sense of the phrase, the rest is history.
While the exhibition (curated by the Smithsonian Institution as “Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads”) tells this story in a cohesive and persuasive manner, it does not do so in a way that is particularly emotionally compelling.
The first few galleries depict rural life, where music was a part of field work, part of worship, part of celebration. The family radio was the link between a sharecropper's shack and the far-away worlds of the big cities.
These galleries have a sort of static feel, dominated by life-size reproductions of black-and-white photographs, posters and signs, and furniture pieces representing rural life. A dress belonging to Grand Ol Opry legend Minnie Pearl is the only performer's artifact visitors see until they reach the era of Elvis.
Part of the problem is that the exhibit is primarily an aural experience. There are hours of audio guides and songs to listen to, but most of what you see is flat: records, photos, posters, and the like. The experience is much like walking through a book.
Late in the story, you begin to see more costumes and mementos and recording equipment, but there is relatively little video, especially when compared to the Stax/Soulsville Museum's exhibits.
Surprisingly, the recently-installed and restored neon sign for the Popular Tunes record store is one of the most joyous (and brightest) items in the museum.
One of the other unusual exhibits is the 1965 Triumph motorcycle owned by Sam Samudio (Domingo Samudio, popularly known as "Sam the Sham"). The bike was featured on the cover of his 1970 album "Sam Hard and Heavy" which featured Duane Allman's guitar work on a few tracks. Allman died the following year in a motorcycle accident.
The museum's other main failing is that it doesn't bring its story to a close. The story of Memphis' music ends with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of black popular culture in America.
However, at that point, it just sort of trails off with no real explanation why Memphis faded as a power in the recording industry.
While I don't expect the museum to present a negative portrayal of what happened after 1970, it should find another way to end the story than just dumping visitors out from the last gallery into the gift shop. (On my visit to the gift shop, a young woman was showing off her pet skunk. Only in Memphis!)
The Rock 'n' Soul museum tells a more comprehensive story of Memphis music than the Sun Studio tour and the Stax/Soulsville Museum, and the hundreds of recordings included in the audio guide allow visitors to hear the progression from blues and country to rock 'n' roll and soul.
Visitors who want a comprehensive overview of Memphis music (or at least into the '70s) will be well-served by a visit to the museum.
However, visiting the Sun Studio and Stax/Soulsville Museum together will give a similar overview, but with more detail and a number of more unique artifacts from performers.
For more about the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum or to plan a visit, see memphisrocknsoul.org.