Memphis Tennessee is at the root of contemporary music in America. Although the USA is rich with inspiring musical cities from New York’s gritty hip-hop beats to Nashville’s country twang, if you want to go all the way back, you need to head to Memphis to discover the city that gave us rock and roll, soul and the blues.
Music is the lifeblood of Memphis, and its mighty musical heritage can be explored in a myriad of ways – from buoyant Sunday morning gospel services that will have you dancing in the pews to museums offering a crash-course in musical history, or catching some stadium-quality live music in a juke joint on Beale Street. GQ Middle East guides you through the perfect weekend in Tennessee’s Capital of Cool.
Memphis: Day One
Stay at the Central Station Hotel
Check into the freshly opened Central Station Hotel, housed in a former train station. Muso’s will love the décor; featuring walls lined with vintage speakers and an impressive Memphis inspired vinyl record collection. There’s either live music or DJs in the lobby every evening, and in-room you’ll find a daily curated playlist of Memphis-related sounds. Turn the custom designed Eggleston Works speakers up loud and soak up the views of the Mississippi River and the Memphis skyline.
Eat Lunch at Central BBQ
From Central Station it’s a short walk to Downtown Memphis, stopping off to grab lunch at Central BBQ on route, where you’ll often find live music happening.
Hit Memphis’ museums
A great entry-point for understanding Memphis’ history and culture is by visiting some of its acclaimed music museums. Your first stop should be Sun Studio, the birthplace of trailblazing rock and roll. This hit factory brought us the first rock and roll single back in 1951 with the release of Rocket 88, as well as launching the careers of B.B. King, Johnny Cash and The Memphis Flash himself – Mr Elvis Presley. You’ll even get a lip-curling photo-op with Elvis’ original microphone.
Explore the dawn of soul music at the Stax Museum of American Soul, a tiny movie theatre, turned hugely influential recording studio. Otis Redding became one of the label’s biggest stars purely by chance, after he arrived at Stax as a chauffeur and was invited into the studio to sing. The room stood still and a star was born. Stax is also home to Isaac Hayes’ blingin’ gold plated Cadillac. Round off your musical education with a visit to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which tells the story of how Memphis musicians overcame racial and social-economic barriers to create the music that we all know and love.
Fashion-lovers should make like Elvis and stroll over to the Lansky Bros store in The Peabody hotel. The iconic menswear store has dressed Memphis’ finest musicians over the years and is the place to pick up some classic wardrobe staples – think on-trend updates to Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock era, quiff optional.
Listen to live music on Beale Street
From The Peabody, the bright lights of America’s most famous music street are only a few feet away. Dubbed the official home of the blues, Beale Street has been the place to hear live music since it gained notoriety in the roaring ‘20s. At first glance you might write the neon-lined street off as a tourist attraction, but this is still where the locals come to hear some of the best music in town.
Acts to watch out for on Beale Street include the Eric Hughes Band, who can often be found playing at the Rum Boogie Café, and the legendary bluesman Blind Mississippi Morris, who plays at the Blues City Café, amongst other venues across town.
Memphis: Day Two
Eat breakfast at Arcade Diner
Start the day with a peanut butter and banana sandwich at the Arcade Diner, in Elvis’ favourite booth at the back. If you’re lucky enough to be in Memphis on a Sunday, you’ll notice that the air fills with gospel. There are over 2,000 churches in the Greater Memphis Metropolitan area, the majority of which are Baptist. Tourists and all faiths are welcomed – if in doubt, grab a pew at the back and dress smartly. The Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Bellevue Blvd is a particularly friendly and uplifting service, with charismatic preachers, a choir and a live band 10.30 start. Across town, ‘70s soul singer and reverent Al Green leads a fantastically dynamic service at his The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. To witness the Grammy-award-winning legend, preaching alongside his gospel band, is the stuff of lifelong memories 11.30 start. Following the service, lunch at Sunrise Memphis, where young rock and roll singers often keep the crowds entertained.
Take a tour of Memphis’ iconic sites
Hop on-board a vintage Backbeat Tours bus, for the city’s most entertaining musical history guide. Resident musicians lead the tours, cruising around the Memphis highlights whilst singing spirited renditions of local hits. Crowd participation and tambourine shaking is fully encouraged. Some of the tours also include a stop-off at Elvis Presley’s Graceland, to pay your respects to The King. Post-tour, swing by Gus’s Fried Chicken in Downtown for the best chicken in town with a side of Southern style fried green tomatoes.
Close out your trip with live music
Round off your trip with a final dose of Memphis’ world-class live music. Lafayette’s is a bustling music joint with a vintage vibe and an indoor/outdoor patio for balmy evenings. Here, you can hear live music every night, with a particular emphasis on jazz, blues and rock and roll. Jazz-purists should head to Earnestine & Hazel’s on Sunday evening for their live set.
The Memphis-Sound Spotify Soundtrack:
For Memphis History:
- Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenton and his Delta Cats’ – the world’s first rock and roll single, straight out of Memphis.
- That’s All Right by Elvis Presley – Elvis’ debut hit, cut at Sun Studio.
- Soul Man by Sam & Dave – the song that gave soul music its name was recorded at Stax in Memphis.
The Memphis New-Wave Musicians To Know:
- Chilled Hip Hop: Cameron Bethany
- ‘80s tinged Rock and Roll – Faux Killas
- Contemporary Blues – Southern Avenue