Rock 'N' Soul Museum Spotlights Memphis' Musical Past

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With two of B.B. King's "Lucille" guitars, Ike Turner's first piano and a wealth of other Memphis-related artifacts on display, this city's new Rock 'n' Soul museum looks to become a mecca for enthusiasts of both styles worldwide.

The museum, a 10,000-square-foot display that opened April 29 on the second floor of Memphis' new Gibson Guitar manufacturing plant, was designed to chronicle the city's rich heritage of gospel, blues, jazz, rock and soul.

Visitors are greeted by walls lined with vintage concert posters, records and photographs. Charlie McGovern, curator of the museum, as well as the National Museum's division of cultural history, said one item could symbolize the collection's "ground zero."

"There's a hand-painted poster advertising Elvis [Presley]'s 'That's All Right' (RealAudio excerpt) that was hung in one of the local record stores," he said.

Other artifacts from Memphis' rich musical history are in abundance at the museum, from antique radios, jukeboxes and 78s, to instruments played by local luminaries, such as Isaac Hayes, Turner, Scotty Moore and Booker T. and the MG's bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, whose Fender bass was obtained from former Presley bassist Bill Black.

Along with the mixing board from the legendary Sun Records — surrounded by vintage master tapes of early Sun recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash — the collection features stage costumes worn by Charlie Rich, Al Green, Billy Lee Riley and Sam the Sham.

McGovern was pleased to find one particular piece of Memphis history: Turner's first piano. "It had been sitting in his parents' house," McGovern said. "His mom scrimped up the money together to get him that because wanted to play as a kid."

Handful Of Contributors

Most of the exhibit's items were donated by individuals, McGovern said, while others were ferreted out by the Smithsonian staff over the past decade. Along the way, there were several key benefactors. Presley's Graceland Mansion donated some Elvis-related memorabilia. The Hard Rock Cafe lent other artifacts.

The Rock 'n' Soul Museum was conceived by the Smithsonian Institution as part of an exhibit on everyday life in the U.S., but government funding cutbacks prevented the collection of artifacts from being displayed at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., as originally intended.

"We just couldn't give up on this story. It was too good," McGovern said. "That led us right to Memphis. It's an exceptionally rich place to see that history. There were these demographic changes that reshaped American society in the 20th century that had all these cultural consequences, particularly in the South."

More than just a collection of instruments, clothes and arcana, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum also puts the city's musical heritage into a social and cultural context.

Through a compact disc audio guide, visitors are educated on the impact of radio in the South, the rigors of sharecropping and the harsh realities of rural life in the Memphis region. A special section covers the civil rights movement and the development of soul.

Another area of the museum focuses on the musical collaborations that took place between whites and African-Americans in Memphis. For instance, visitors learn that, before moving on to rockabilly artists such as Presley and Lewis, Sun Records producer Sam Phillips worked with blues musicians from the region.

Funding for the museum arrived in the form of a $50,000 grant from the Memphis' Plough Foundation, and about $2.4 million in loans from various sources. Jimmy Ogle, the museum's general director, said a traveling exhibition of the museum is in the works.

More To Document

McGovern said the curators hope to track down more elusive items on their wish list.

"I would have loved to have gotten a set of Isaac Hayes' gold chains ... but we weren't able to find any," he said.

McGovern also would like to document the vital role played in the city by promoters and club owners, as well as find some space for some of the city's more obscure soul artists. "We're painfully aware of the things that could be construed as missing," McGovern said.

Still, the curator said he's pleased with what has been done.

"It's important to appreciate that all of this culture came out of pretty oppressive circumstances, and people not letting [those things] get them down," he said. "They were all poor, and they were all working people. The polite society can ignore that, but this is the culture of poor people, and this culture of the working people is what went around the world."