5 Star Stories: A look into the gems of Memphis’ Rock 'n' Soul Museum

Museum honors Memphis' musical roots

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum has been a Memphis gem for 20 years now although many of you may know little about it, except for its rockin’ signage outside FedExForum.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, most guests who visited the Memphis Rock 'n’ Soul Museum were tourists but the museum’s executive director is hoping that might change.

Located just south of Beale on B.B. King Boulevard at FedExForum, the Rock 'n’ Soul museum shows how Memphis music changed the world!

“We oftentimes focus on the bad parts of who we are, this is the great part of who we are, as a city,” claims John Doyle, the executive director. “The only time the Smithsonian has ever put together an entire museum for the city in which it exists.”

It’s also the only museum in Memphis that tells the complete Memphis music story. Beginning with musical migrants who moved to the Bluff City in the 1930s.

“From the early rural sharecroppers who, because of the Great Depression and because of the New Deal Initiatives were forced off the farms, came to the city to try to find jobs and fortunately for Memphis and our long world shaking legacy, they brought their music with them. And it was black musicians, it was white musicians,” says Doyle.

The museum showcases the cultural blend through seven galleries covering nine decades -- a legacy of which Memphians should be proud.

According to Doyle, “If you’ve ever boasted about your hometown being a music city, you’ve gotta come through this museum. 'Cuz it tells you how it happened, and how a pretty medium-sized American city, had one of the largest cultural explosions on the entire planet in modern day history.”

To make his point, Doyle points to the impact music had during the civil rights movement.

“Because we tell about a time when Dr. King was leading a social civil rights movement that was sweeping across the United States, Memphis was leading a civil rights movement in studios like Stax and Hi and even Sun Records that began recording black artists before they began recording white artists," said Doyle. "And really brought those musicians together. They came together to create music that not only put Memphis on the world map, but it completely shook the entire planet. Over at Stax Records, when bands like the Marquees, and Booker T and the MG’s and they came together and they recorded music. When they toured, as they did 'cuz it was one of the hottest things happening around the country, they stayed in black hotels. Because, Steve Cropper could stay in a white hotel, but Booker T. Jones could not stay in a white hotel. And so the support of that band and other bands, they stayed in black hotels they toured together as brothers and sisters and that is monumental.”

In addition to the many incredible displays and artifacts, the museum tells the story of rock and soul with a digital audio tour guide that’s filled with 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs. And you can move at your own pace. And for all of you worried about COVID-19, the audio guides and headphones will be disinfected and re-racked to dry between every use. Or you can use your own ear buds or headphones.

Either way, Doyle says you’ll want to hear it all.

“You hear the story, you listen to the music that carries you through the story,” he said. “You can hear an early Blue Moon of Kentucky from the Grand Ole Opry, Elvis’ Blue Moon of Kentucky and how that explosion happened. But, being a music museum you can also see the guitar that Elvis serenaded Priscilla with when he was in the Army in Germany. You’ll see Ike Turner’s piano on which he wrote Rocket 88. You’ll see costumes by Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas and Estelle Axton, part of the Steward Axton that formed Stax -- Reverend Al Green."

“Also hopefully, that it can inspire that same sort of drive, that same sort of creativity, that same sort of “nothing’s gonna stop me” that was a part of the nature of folks like Isaac Hayes, or Rufus Thomas. Or legendary musicians that run all the way from W.C. Handy and before W.C. Handy to today’s Three-6 Mafia, Timberlake and all of the artists that are making music in our studios today. You know it’s really who we are. Our kids should know about that, our students should know about that, our grandkids should know about that.”

The Rock 'n' Soul Museum is certainly a source of Mid-South pride celebrated one note at a time.

“Rock and Roll started right here, soul music started right here," said Doyle. “That’s something that we should carry like a moniker with pride of who we are as Memphians.”

And, since the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum reopened almost two weeks ago - it’s following a strict protocol for the protection of museum guests and employees.

All visitors are asked to wear masks, just like employees - and there are temperature checks. Best of all, tickets are half-price through the end of June. Museum hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

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