When researching our trip to Memphis, it soon became apparent that the city has much more to offer Elvis fans than simply a trip to Graceland. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that Sun Studios, where Elvis made his first records, was still operating and could now be visited. But did you know that there was a second recording studio in Memphis, where Elvis recorded three of his later albums, which could also be visited?
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Perhaps surprisingly, that studio was Stax Records, which was much more known for its Soul music, and stars such as Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding. It was at Stax, however, where the King recorded 28 songs in 1973, which were subsequently released over three albums – Good Times, Raised on Rock, and Promised Land.
Needless to say, these two recording studios, now museums, were woven into our Memphis itinerary. We also considered visiting the American Recording Studio, where some of Elvis’ most famous songs were recorded, such as my personal favourite “Suspicious Minds”, as well as “In the Ghetto” and “Rubberneckin”. However, the American Recording Studio continues to operate solely as a studio, and does not offer the opportunity to visit as a fan.
Elvis - the early years
The musical story of Elvis may have started in his early years when growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi (which we also visited and will blog about soon), but his recording history started at Sun Studios (or the Memphis Recording Service as it was originally known). In 1953, a shy 18 year old Elvis arrived at Sun Studios, which had opened just three years earlier. It was probably an obvious place for the young Elvis to go, since this was the studio where the first ever Rock ‘n’ Roll song was recorded – “Rocket 88” was laid down by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in 1951. The studio could also claim a host of RnB future hall of famers who recorded there in the early 1950’s, artists like Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton, and B.B. King.
The Sun Studios Sessions
Sun Studios was run by Sam Phillips, who had set up his studio in order to continue his quest to lay down the rich RnB sounds which were permeating the clubs in and around Memphis. However, it was an inauspicious start for Elvis’ career, because his attempt at recording did not impress Sam at all. Thankfully, Elvis persevered and did not give up his dream, but it wasn’t until 1954 when Sam asked him to sing for him again, but this time he backed Elvis up with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Still Sam was unimpressed – until Elvis sang out an old blues song, “That’s Alright, Mama”. The rest is history! This sped up version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song, was backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and was the first of five singles Elvis released on the Sun label.
Visiting Sun Studios
Sun Studios opens daily at 10 am, and we arrived about twenty minutes after this. This was almost a mistake, as even that early, the small studio reception / café area was packed with visitors, and we only just managed to get tickets for the first guided tour of the day. We had also struggled to get a car park space, which are situated at the back of the studio. If you don’t have your own transport, it is worth noting that there is a free shuttle bus which connects the studio with Graceland and also the downtown Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum.
The tour takes you through a small and informative museum, which is jam packed full of Sun Studios memorabilia, then down to the studio’s front office, which then leads into the studio itself.
The Sun Studios Museum
The museum reminds you of the massive part that Sam Phillips and the Sun Studios had to play in the story of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Not only was Elvis discovered here, but the studio can boast that artists such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis also recorded here and were developed into the successful artists that they became. If the museum displays were not enough to convince you of Sun Studio’s importance, we were also reminded that U2 chose to record three outstanding tracks from their “Rattle and Hum” album in reverence to the studios history - "Angel of Harlem", "Love Rescue Me" and "When Love Comes to Town".
Marion Keisker and the Front Office
We found the front office to be quite plain, but true to the original look. It was exciting to think that it was here that Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips assistant, had her desk and met the young Elvis when he first walked through the studio door. It was worth noting that the persistence of Marion in persuading to Sam to give Elvis a chance was probably key to allowing his “That’s Alright, Mama” session.
The Recording Studio
The front office leads directly into the recording studio. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, when entering the studio, but found a large room, quite empty other than a piano, some instruments and various framed pictures on the wall. On first inspection, it was visually unimpressive, however, there was just something in the atmosphere, something that you couldn’t quite put your finger on.
My eye was quickly drawn towards the microphone towards the back of the studio. It looked like a good replica from the rock ‘n’ roll years. However, it turned out that this was an authentic microphone used by, amongst others, Elvis! Not only that, X marked the spot quite literally – an X on the floor showed where the microphone would have been placed during Elvis’ recordings. Even more exciting was the fact that you could pose with the microphone. I’m not sure we did it justice though!
In total, Elvis recorded at least 24 songs at Sun Studio between 1953 and 1955. These songs would eventually be released on the albums “Elvis Presley”, “For LP Fans Only”, “A Date with Elvis”, and “Elvis for Everyone”, and then on a variety of compilation albums later. It was amazing to think that we were at the very place they were recorded.
The ‘Million Dollar Quartet’
Also in the studio was the iconic piano at which Elvis sat when he was joined by Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Amazing rock ‘n’ roll history! The ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ as they were dubbed, met in a spontaneous informal session on December 4, 1956. What a band they would have made if they had stuck together!
Perhaps surprisingly, the meeting between these great performers occurred after Elvis had left Sun Records for RCA, so it is nice to see that he kept on such friendly terms with Sun Records and their artists. Elvis was signed to Sun Records for little over a year, but it had quickly become apparent that he would outgrow the label, and on November 20th, 1955, Elvis signed to RCA for an unprecedented $40,000, with a $5,000 bonus for Elvis. On the face of it, this seemed a great loss to Sun Records, but according to Sam Phillips, it was actually a great deal for the label, and allowed them to cultivate more great artists and the money sustained the label for many years.
It was a great guided tour around Sun Records and lasted about an hour, but it was amazing how much information and history we took in. From there, it is only a fifteen-minute drive to our next iconic recording studio, Stax Records.
Visiting Stax Records
I must admit that prior to researching our Memphis itinerary, I was unaware of the history of Stax Records. I knew that it played a major part in the story of Soul and the Blues, but I did not know the details. I was surprised to learn that it was only operational from 1957 till its closure in 1975 due to insolvency. What a fantastic impact it had over those short 18 years launching the careers of such artists and bands as Booker T and the M.G.s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and RufusThomas.
Stax Records is quite a large museum (17,000-square-foot), and we had left it late in the day for our visit. We took around an hour to look at all the exhibits and take in all the information, but had the museum not been closing for the day, I think we could easily have doubled the amount of time that we spent there.
Hop on the Soul Train!
It was fascinating to walk around a replica of the original recording studio that has been recreated - even down to the sloping floor, as well as an authentic 101-year-old Mississippi Delta church, which shows the gospel roots of soul music. There was also a chance to see and even try out on the Soul Train dance floor. Needless to say, we did not attempt this!
Another highlight of the museum is Isaac Hayes’ 1972 gold-trimmed, peacock blue Cadillac El Dorado – what a stunner of a car! I must admit that the music of Isaac Hayes was a little before my time (unless you do not discount his music career as Chef off the cartoon series South Park!), but who remembers that he actually received an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1971 for the Theme from Shaft?? Well, you can actually see the Oscar at the museum.
The Elvis Sessions
We would thoroughly recommend visiting the Stax Museum if visiting Memphis. It has great displays and really conveys the fascinating history of the record label and its artists. The only downside for me was that there was no recognition of the recording sessions made by Elvis (perhaps there was, but we missed it due to available time and the sheer number of things to see and do). Still, it was a great visit and it was nice to know that songs such as “Raised on Rock”, “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” and “My Boy” were recorded here by Elvis.
Join us next time when we visit many of the significant sites around Memphis related to Elvis Presley.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.