Memphis Blues

Memphis Blues - Memphis

The bright lights of Beale Street and thepromise of musical stardom have lured bluesmusicians from nearby Mississippi since theearly 1900s. Early Memphis blues luminarieswho migrated from Mississippi include GusCannon, Furry Lewis, Jim Jackson, and MemphisMinnie. In the post-World War II era manynative Mississippians became blues, soul, androck ‘n’ roll recording stars in Memphis,including Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker,B.B. King, and Elvis Presley.

Memphis blues was discovered by the rest of the world largely via the works of Beale Street-based bandleader W. C. Handy, who began using blues motifs in his compositions shortly after encountering the music in the Mississippi Delta around 1903. By the 1920s many musicians from Mississippi had relocated here to perform in local theaters, cafes, and parks. The mix of rural and urban musical traditions and songs from traveling minstrel and medicine shows led to the creation of new blues styles, and record companies set up temporary studios at the Peabody Hotel and other locations to capture the sounds of Mississippians who came to town to record, such as Tommy Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt, as well as some who had settled in Memphis, including Robert Wilkins, Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, Memphis Minnie, and Joe McCoy.

In the decade following World War II musicians from around the Mid South descended upon Memphis, and their interactions resulted in the revolutionary new sounds of R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Riley King arrived from Indianola and soon became known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” later shortened to “B. B.” Many of King’s first performances were at talent shows at the Palace Theater, 324 Beale, co-hosted by Rufus Thomas, a native of Cayce, Mississippi, who, like King, later worked as a deejay at WDIA. King and Thomas were among the many Mississippi-born artists who recorded at Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service, where Tupelo’s Elvis Presley made his historic first recordings for Phillips’s Sun label in 1954. The soul music era arrived with the Stax and Hi labels in the 1960s, and again many Mississippians were at the forefront: Stax’s roster included Little Milton, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples, while Hi producer and bandleader Willie Mitchell, a native of Ashland, oversaw recordings by soul and blues artists Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Big Lucky Carter, Big Amos (Patton), and others with Mississippi roots.

The revitalization of Beale Street as an entertainment district, beginning in the 1980s, resulted in new performance venues for Mississippi natives including Daddy Mack Orr, Billy Gibson, and Dr. Feelgood Potts. The Mississippi-to-Memphis blues tradition has also been promoted by the Center for Southern Folklore, radio stations WEVL and WDIA, and labels including Inside Sounds, Icehouse, Memphis Archives, Ecko, and High Water. Mississippi has been well represented in the Memphis-based Blues Foundation’s International Blues Competition and Blues Music Awards (formerly W. C. Handy Awards), and thirteen of the first twenty artists inducted into the foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 were born or raised in Mississippi.

content © Mississippi Blues Commission


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