Memphis, Tennessee, is a mecca for lovers of blues, soul, gospel, and rock ’n’ roll—as these 12 must-see music attractions attest.
You simply can’t stop the music in Memphis, Tennessee. No matter what time of day, you’ll always find a beat somewhere in the city, whether in an ornate music hall, in a public park, or on a downtown street corner. Perched on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, Memphis has a long and colorful history as a melting pot of musical genres, including blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul, gospel, country, bluegrass, and rockabilly. And many city institutions strive to preserve that legacy while maintaining an environment in which musicians can thrive.
No matter your preference in genre, Memphis is truly a mecca for lovers of American music.
One of the most iconic streets in the country, Beale Street is the beating heart of downtown Memphis. It played a vital role in music history as artists like B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, and Muddy Waters performed there during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, helping to forge the Memphis blues.Today, the main two-block strip of Beale Street offers more than two dozen bars and live music clubs as well as the Beale Street Music Festival, happening on May 4-6 in 2018.
INSIDER TIPLooking for a local tipple? The Walk Me Down is a classic Memphis cocktail, containing several different types of liquor. But drinker beware: It packs a punch.
To fully comprehend America’s undying obsession with Elvis Presley—the man, the myth, the legend—you must visit Graceland, the Memphis home where the performer lived and died. The 17,600-square-foot mansion and National Historic Landmark, which he purchased in 1957, opened as a museum in 1982, five years after the King’s untimely death.
From the eccentric decor (e.g., the Polynesian-themed Jungle Room) to the collection of bedazzled jumpsuits to the grave of his twin brother, who died at birth, Graceland speaks volumes about the kind of man Presley was offstage.
You don’t need to pay a cover price to hear live music in Memphis. Handy Park, named after “The Father of Blues,” W.C. Handy, has long been a gathering place for street musicians. The park also hosts more formal concerts on its large stage and in a small performance area, and—in line with the park’s tradition—all shows are free and open to the public.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a celebration of the uniquely American musical genre known as soul. It’s located in the former home of Stax Records, a record label and recording studio that fostered such seminal talent as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones, Sam & Dave, and The Staple Singers.
The 17,000-square-foot museum brings the history of Soul to life via interactive exhibits and detailed vignettes, like a reassembled 1906 church, originally from the Mississippi Delta, that illustrates the connection between soul and gospel.
Gibson Guitar Factory
One instrument lies at the heart of the Memphis sound: the guitar. See where the magic begins at the Gibson Guitar factory, where visitors can observe skilled luthiers (makers of stringed instruments like guitars or violins) at work.
This location focuses on semi-hollow-body guitars, which a Gibson tour guide once described as the love child of an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. It’s the favored type of axe among blues artists (B.B. King’s beloved Lucille was one).
INSIDER TIPFor a one-of-a-kind souvenir, design your own custom guitar at the Gibson Retail Store.
In July 1954, an unknown trio of musicians took the stage at Levitt Shell (then called Overton Park Shell) amphitheater. They were only the opening act of the evening, but one of their bandmates stole the entire show: Presley. Reportedly due to nervousness, he vigorously shook his legs in a provocative manner—and the crowd went wild. The concert went down in history as the first rock ’n’ roll show ever. Today, the amphitheater presents more than 50 free concerts throughout the year, featuring national and international artists.
For true rock ’n’ roll fans, Sun Studio is hallowed ground. Helmed by visionary producer Sam Phillips, Sun Records (which was originally based there but has since moved to Nashville) was the first label to record groundbreaking artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The National Historic Landmark has since welcomed the likes of U2, John Mellencamp, and Def Leppard. Another studio-turned-museum, the self-proclaimed “birthplace of rock ’n’ roll” displays memorabilia and recording equipment and offers visitors the chance to stand on the spot where Presley first recorded and snap pics with a historic microphone.
B.B. King’s Blues Club
While working as a disc jockey at a Memphis radio station, Riley B. King earned the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy.” That moniker was later shortened to “Blues Boy” and finally abbreviated to “B.B.”—the stage name that stuck with B.B. King for the rest of his life.
In 1994, the bluesman opened B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street, and it’s been one of the city’s most popular music venues ever since. The two-story club offers live music nightly and serves up some pretty tasty barbecue, too.
Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum
Backed by research from the Smithsonian Institution, the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum seeks to provide a comprehensive musical history of the city, comprising artists of all genres, decades, races, and backgrounds.
The museum’s self-guided audio tour incorporates more than 100 songs into its narrative, often prompting guests to boogie their way through the exhibits, which feature instruments, costumes, and other memorabilia.
The Orpheum Theatre
Originally a vaudeville venue, The Orpheum Theatre opened in 1928 and dazzled patrons with crystal chandeliers, gilded details, artisan millwork, and Wurlitzer organ. It was one of the first buildings in town to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the venue has been historically renovated and restored over the years. Today, The Orpheum hosts touring Broadway productions, concerts, opera, dance performances, and community events like the International Blues Challenge.
Blues Hall of Fame Museum
Honoring the individuals who contributed to blues culture is the mission of the Blues Hall of Fame Museum. Opened in 2015, the facility showcases more than 400 inductees in the categories of performer, individual, album, single, and literature. Three master databases provide visitors a deep dive into the backstories and works of each inductee.
New Daisy Theatre
Everyone from Nirvana, Justin Timberlake, and Prince to John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Ray Vaughan has performed at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street. The venue originally opened in 1942 as a movie theater but was converted to a concert venue in the 1980s and hosts top national acts.