Sun and Stax

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

Visit the Clash Road Trip hub page for more exclusive content.


The significance of Memphis in 20th century music is indisputable. It was a figurative crossroads where black and white cultures, despite intense segregation, combined to make the most distinctive new sound: “The blues had a baby,” Muddy Waters sang, “and they called it rock and roll.”

Once the world’s largest inland cotton market, Memphis in turn became a major trading centre for slaves. A yellow fever epidemic killed half the population in 1878, while the other half left town to escape the virus. By the beginning of the 20th century, the regeneration of the city had begun and, as black entrepreneurs bought up cheap land, Beale Street became a nucleus of African-American life. The clubs that lined the street played host to local workers partying at the end of long, tough days in the hot and dusty cotton fields, and the work songs (“field hollers”) they sang would come to be known as the blues.

Beale Street is synonymous with developing the careers of dozens of artists including Albert King, Rufus Thomas and B.B. King (known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy”), so it was a disappointment to find the pedestrianised enclave a lurid neon tourist trap, where plastic blues was peddled from every doorway.

This wasn’t so for Elvis Presley, however, who soaked up the sounds of Beale Street in the 1950s, and which famously led him to Sun Studios. Sam Phillips’ studio is now part of a fascinating museum which culminates in the tiny boxed room and the exact spot where Elvis stood to record ‘That’s All Right’ and unwittingly invent rock and roll. The tour reveals how local white teenagers - Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc - mixed blues and country elements to form rockabilly, and commercialise a black sound for white audiences.

Memphis Soul was embodied by the output of Stax Records. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton created Stax in 1961, and from their converted movie theatre studio ran a label that specialised in raw, earthy soul. “Motown was the glitz and the glamour,” The Bar-Kays vocalist Larry Dodson explained to Clash. “Stax was the collared greens, the neck bones, the corn bread, and the stuff that sticks to your belly.”

Their gems included Otis Redding, Sam And Dave, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers, while their interracial ‘house band’ Booker T And The MGs personified the organic integration that Stax enabled.

“To me, it was a breeding ground to get to know other types of people,” John Gary Williams from The Mad Lads told Clash. “We’d see white guys and black guys getting along well, and learning that people are just people.”

Sadly, the ethos that distinguished Stax was ultimately a factor of its downfall. Memphis became the centre of political and racial unrest in the already ferocious civil rights struggle of the ’60s when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated there (at the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum) in 1968. In the aftermath, rioting ensued, and paranoia creeped into Stax life. “They see these black men coming out shaking and screaming and hollering, and blacks and whites getting together,” Williams recounted of the Memphis establishment, “I think it scared the shit out of them!” Subsequently, the congenial family vibe of Stax turned into a more militant operation, and as its most successful artists departed and distribution deals faltered, Stax was declared bankrupt in 1975.

We found Memphis to be a darkly menacing city - its musical heritage is overshadowed by its high crime rates, and local musicians starve as affluent tourists eulogize its glory years. Thankfully, next door to Stax is the Academy of American Soul Music, an institution run in partnership with LeMoyne-Owen College, which is proving a lifeline to the next generation of Memphis musicians. “They have the tools to work with, the education, something to fight back with,” John Gary Williams boasts. “And if that’s the only legacy of the Stax artists, I think that’s enough.”

Beale Street: Beale Street, Memphis 38103-3727
Sun Studios: 706 Union Avenue, Memphis 38103
Stax Museum Of American Soul Music: 926 East McLemore Avenue, Memphis 38106-3338
Lorraine Motel: 450 Mulberry Street, Memphis 38103-4214
Many thanks to Tim Sampson at Stax.

Read our full interview with John Gary Williams and Larry Dodson HERE.

Follow Clash: