Roadtrip 2020 Day 5: Sun Studio & Memphis

In the history of rock ‘n’ roll there can’t be many more important places on earth than the modestly-sized red brick building almost on the edge of downtown Memphis.

706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee is the legendary site of Sun Studio, where Sam Phillips established his Memphis Recording Service back in 1950.

His purpose was poviding a recording outlet to black blues musicians. His result was producing gospel, blues, country into an evolving concoction of something new.

Sun recorded the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and BB King. Jackie Brenston, along with Ike Turner and the Delta Cats recorded what is now agreed to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record: ‘Rocket 88’ in 1951:

You may have heard of jalopies 
You’ve heard the noise they make 
But let me introduce you to my Rocket ’88 
Yes it’s great, just won’t wait…

Two years later a young Elvis Presley walked in to cut a one-off disc, supposedly for his mother Gladys. In 1954 Presley recorded his historical single, “That’s All Right.

Soon Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison recorded their early singles. Sun Studio can indisputably proudly claim to be the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.

My preconceived idea about visiting Sun Studio was different than the reality of the actual experience. Often, I’ve wondered what the black of the building looked like. So I went there first.

Back of Sun Studio.

Walking toward it felt much as the first time I approached the iconic Lincoln Memorial, strolled on Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, sailed a Maid of the Mist boat below Niagara Falls, or stepped to the edge overlooking the Grand Canyon.

I paused to take savor the moment, A personal bucketlist thrill.

The side of the building looked like a back alley, with pipes and electrical conduits climbing the wall. Several picnic tables for visitors waiting for their tour time slot to begin weren’t needed on this day. The Studio, like so many tourist attractions, were just beginning Phase 2 of a city ordinance allowing them to open with restrictions.

Turning the corner and stepping through the front door, we barely were in the vestibule when a voice called out, “Welcome to Sun Studio folks, y’all come on in out of the heat.”

At a podium to our left was a young, handsome man in his 20s with a cowboy hat peering above the bandana covering his face. He offered to let us join the group that was a 10-minutes into their tour.

I didn’t want to miss a minute. We waited about 50 minutes for the 4:30 p.m. tour.

Dodie and I walked bought our tickets ($15 each) and relished the extra time to explore the memorabilia, shirts, records and pictures.

One thing I didn’t realize was the side of the building we were in was not part of the original Sun Studio. It was a diner, Taylor’s Fine Food Restaurant, where Phillips held court and used as an ad hoc office. One can only imagine the musicians who’ve eaten there.

The former diner is now a gift shop-snack bar worked by the talented tour guides rotating each hour.

The tour first takes you upstairs above the gift shop to a compact, but remarkable display of period artifacts. My favorites included studio equipment, instruments and other historic photos and documents. A recorded message from overhead speakers provide insite.

Our tour guide then walked us downstairs and turning right into Marion Keisker’s (the first person to ever record the voice of Elvis) front office.

I wasn’t prepared for the lightning strike emotion that hit walking into the actual studio. Our guide did a fantastic job of talking us through the history and played segments of music, including that very first Elvis recording: ‘My Happiness’.

He picked up a guitar and used a dollar bill to play along (and sound like a train rolling around the bend with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison.”

Our guide ended the tour by bringing out an original studio microphone from the control room, one that Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison and so many others had all sung into at the start of their careers.

He told us it was donated by Sam Phillips on condition that it wasn’t just locked away in a glass case but that visitors could pose and have their photographs taken with it.

I stepped up to the “X” mark on the floor where Elvis sang and proudly sang! You can’t get a better photo-opportunity than that and it was a great end to a magical tour of such a historic site.

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