Like a Chuck Berry song lyric, the sign-in roster for visitors to the recently reopened Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum tells a powerful story with economy and precision.
The story testifies to the international appeal of the popular music that spread, with viral efficiency, from Memphis and the Mid-South starting in the early decades of the last century.
On March 18 — the last day before the museum’s two-month coronavirus-mandated shutdown — the guests who signed the roster identified their hometowns as being in England, Ireland, Israel, and, um, Mississippi (Laurel, to be exact).
“Forty percent of our visitors are international tourists,” said John Doyle, executive director of the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the affiliated Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
“Local people don’t know this place as well as we would love them to,” he said. “We really promote the idea that they should go through the museum, to have more of a sense of pride in Memphis as not just a music city but a music city that shook the world.”
That could change over the next few weeks. With international travel curtailed due to coronavirus concerns, the museum — which reopened May 21 — is offering half-price admission tickets to Shelby County residents through the end of June.
Located near Third Street in the courtyard of FedExForum (a basketball arena decorated with a Memphis music theme), the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary May 1 — or would have celebrated the anniversary, if it had been open.
With exhibits, an introductory film, and guided audio tours created in association with the Smithsonian, the museum is “a tourist attraction and an educational facility,” Doyle said.
The museum originally was located in the Gibson Guitar Factory, across the street from its current site. It relocated to its new facility — the first floor of a four-story building mostly devoted to Memphis Grizzlies marketing and sales offices — on Sept. 14, 2014, the day FedExForum opened.
About 60,000 people now visit the museum each year, Doyle said, while admitting that the number will drop by “thousands” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Close to 90% of the museum and Hall of Fame’s $1.1 million budget comes from ticket and T-shirt revenue, Doyle said. “We try to be as self-sufficient as we can be,” he said.
Plus, the museum gets about $40,000 a year in revenue from the state-administered sale of specialty “music” Tennessee license plates that feature a blue Gibson guitar logo and the words “The State of American Music.”
Despite such promotion, the museum-like a rhinestone in the pleat of an Elvis cape — is something of a hidden gem, at least in comparison to such historic Memphis music attractions as Graceland, Sun Studio and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (built on the site of the Stax studio).
Its design is simple and tidy. Visitors follow a U-shaped path through exhibits that trace the history of blues, rock, soul, R&B, country and gospel, from the Mississippi Delta to Sun, Stax, Hi, and Memphis’ other great music studios. The parallel story of the civil rights revolution is touched upon, as is the story of the cultural revolution that brought music to the masses through radios, televisions, and record stores.
Relatively modest in size, the museum does not overwhelm a visitor, yet its display cases and platforms contain dozens of impressive and — if we may use the word — just plain cool artifacts.
With that in mind, here are five things to look for inside the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum:
1. Ike Turner’s first piano: A black upright model, this instrument was used on some historic recordings by such artists as Howlin’ Wolf, and Jackie Brenston, the credited artist on the 1951 Sam Phillips-recorded, Chess Records-released “Rocket 88,” a 45 rpm single that is often credited with being the “first” rock ‘n’ roll record.
2. WDIA baseball jersey: Dating from about 1960, this bright yellow-orange Little League jersey testifies to the community outreach of the popular AM radio station, which in 1948 became the first in the country “to make a total commitment to black listeners” (to quote the museum signage), with black deejays and programs aimed at Memphis’ black residents.
3. Poplar Tunes neon sign: International travelers may be more interested in its colorful design than its history, but longtime Memphians will get a nostalgic kick out of the vintage Poplar Tunes sign rescued from outside 308 Poplar (hence the name) after Elvis’ favorite record shop — the flagship location in a Memphis-based chain that once had stores all over the city — went out of business in 2009, after 63 years.
4. Elvis Presley’s Priscilla-serenading guitar: The museum has on display the 1958 Tsana brand guitar (black, with an apparent mother-of-pearl inlay) that was Elvis’ only guitar during his term of service with the Army in Germany. It was with this instrument that Elvis serenaded his future wife, the 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whose stepfather was an Air Force officer also stationed in Germany.
5. Sam the Sham stuff: Wooly Bully! It’s cool enough that the museum displays a black turban and gold-sequined no-lapel jacket once worn by that great Memphian Domingo Samudio, professionally known as “Sam the Sham”; what makes it even cooler is that Sam wore these items for his guest performance in the 1965 teen romp “When the Boys Meet the Girls,” which also featured Connie Francis and Louis Armstrong. Cooler still: Sitting atop that display case is Sam’s customized Triumph motorcycle — the same bike that Sam posed with on the cover of his gritty 1971 Atlantic Records solo album, “Hard and Heavy.”
The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
Located on the south side of the FedExForum courtyard, at Third Street near Lt. George W. Lee Avenue, south of Beale Street.
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Admission: $13 (adult), or $10 (ages 5-17). Tickets are half-price through the end of June for residents of Shelby County.
For tickets or more information, visit memphisrocknsoul.org.
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