By Thomas Sellers Jr.
In the southwest corner of the “Music State” is the best musical city in the world.
Memphis, Tenn., is the birthplace of great soul like Aretha Franklin. It’s the home of legendary sounds echoing out of Stax and Sun studios.
And the Bluff City is now identified across the United States and the world by three genres, the Beale Street blues, Memphis soul and rock ’n’ roll.
Legend has it that back in 1909, a trumpet player from Clarksdale, Miss., rode into Memphis, stopped at a club on Beale Street and began playing his signature style of song.
W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” led to influential acts Bobby “Blue” Bland, Muddy Waters and Riley “Blues Boy” King, known across the world as “B.B. King.”
In 1977, through an act of Congress, Beale Street was named the official Home of the Blues. The blues gave birth to the Memphis soul sound.
The rich lamenting sounds of the blues were combined with the intensity of gospel music to create the signature rhythm.
In the 1950s, Memphis started to record songs and sounds at Stax Records. Stax Records recruited and signed talented black musicians during an era where integration was uncommon in entertainment. Soulsville U.S.A. was the home of artists like Booker T & the M.G.’s, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. Then Memphis would say hello to the pipes of Willie Mitchell and Al Green.
Around the same time, rock ’n’ roll started to take shape in Memphis and take over the world. Sam Phillips is credited with creating the genre by accident. The producer goes down in a long line of great M-Town music creators.
Rock ’n’ roll had energy and combined several previous genres, giving the stage to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others.
So who are my best Memphis-based musical acts of all time? You make this list by either being born, creating or living in Memphis. Here are a few honorable mentions: Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Brenston, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Big Star, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Saliva, Eightball & MJG, Playa Fly, Memphis Slim, Project Pat, Lucero, Junior Wells, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, The Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Clara Thomas, Ann Peebles, Egypt Central, Chris Bell, Anita Ward, Aretha Franklin and Maurice White.
10. Al Green
BEST SONG: “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart”
Born Albert Leornes Greene in 1946 just across the bridge in Arkansas, the man known as Al Green shaped his soulful vocals in Memphis. Now the R&B legend is known across the world and identified here locally as The Reverend Al Green.
Green became a soul legend in the 1970s with hits like “Take Me to the River,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Love and Happiness” and his signature classic, “Let’s Stay Together.”
Although I find his library boring and use his music to take a nap, I still recognize greatness. Green has been honored by his peers countless times, including an introduction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
9. Otis Redding
“These Arms of Mine”
The man born in Dawson, Ga., on Sept. 9, 1941, left this world 26 years later on Dec. 10. This music legend was gone too soon, but he packed in a lot of work in that short amount of time. Otis Ray Redding Jr. was a hard-working singer, songwriter, record producer, arranger and talent scout.
He left his mark in Memphis through Stax. It was there Redding affected genres like soul, R&B and even what would become known as pop music.
Throughout the 1960s, Redding was in the studios of Stax, recording classics like “Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay.”
Stax released Redding’s debut album, “Pain in My Heart.” Redding gained a following from Los Angeles to London. Then the shooting star was taken away. Redding’s death led to the demise of Stax. On the verge of bankruptcy, Stax discovered that the Atco division of Atlantic Records owned the rights to his entire song catalog.
Redding received many posthumous accolades, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
8. Kirk Whalum
“A Song for You”
Memphis music reaches all genres. And with Memphis being located in the Bible Belt, gospel is vital to the musical heritage of the Bluff City.
Thanks to Beale Street, learning how to master an instrument is common to the music scene in Memphis. Combine those two, and you get the great Kirk Whalum.
The Memphis native was born July 11, 1958. He rose to fame as a jazz saxophonist and songwriter. His biggest hits are in the gospel genre. In addition, Whalum has worked with music giants across the board.
Whalum has been associated with Jonathan Butler, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathway, Lalah Hathaway and Babyface.
That was Whalum playing on Houston’s iconic hit “I Will Always Love You.” He was also featured on many Luther Vandross albums, most often playing on the singer’s covers of older pop and R&B standards such as “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I (Who Have Nothing)” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.”
His solo work has garnered more than a dozen Grammy nominations, with him winning his first award in 2011 for Best Gospel Song, “It’s What I Do,” featuring Lalah Hathaway.
7. Three 6 Mafia
I was born in 1981. So about the time I was a teenager, the sound of Memphis was Southern hip-hop. And the faces of that genre locally were DJ Paul, Juicy J, Koopsta Knicca, Crunchy Black, Lord Infamous and Gangsta Boo — collectively known as Three 6 Mafia.
The group was formed of these Memphis natives in 1991. They would go on to make history by becoming the first rap act to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2006 with “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” in the movie “Hustle & Flow.”
But us hardcore fans will remember them for spreading the crunk, hardcore hip-hop/horrorcore gangsta rap style across the world. The classic album “Mystic Stylez” still has a great flow and original sound enjoyable today.
Those who love Southern gangsta rap can thank Three 6 Mafia for giving a bigger platform for acts like UGK, Eightball & MJG, Playa Flay, Project Pat, Frayser Boy, La Chat, MC Mack, Seed of 6ix, Kingpin Skinny Pimp and many more.
6. B.B. King
“The Thrill Is Gone”
This man performed across the world for royalty and presidents. Riley B. King represented his hometown of Itta Bena, Miss. But he also carried the banner for Chicago and Memphis.
There are so many legendary things associated with the man known as B.B. King. The boy born on a cotton plantation grew into a man respected for his singing, guitar playing, songwriting and producing skills. He was an easy selection for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Now his legacy lives forever in Memphis with a street named after him and B.B. King’s Blues Club. The sign outside of the venue is a crucial part of the signature look of Beale Street.
It’s a consistent reminder of how important King is to the musical history of Memphis. And I hope the B.B. King’s Blues Club sign will make the younger generation ask the question, “Who is B.B. King?”
5. Justin Timberlake
“Suit & Tie”
OK, full disclosure, I am not a big fan of Justin Timberlake’s music. I do love his acting and comedy work. Dude is willing to do pretty much anything to get a laugh.
But this former “Mickey Mouse Club” kid rose to fame through music. He used to call Memphis home before moving to Nashville. But Millington and Memphis still claim this media darling.
Known as JT, he first gained our attention as one fifth of NSYNC. All he did there was help them become the best-selling boy band ever.
But as the late 1990s came to an end, the new millennium ushered in Justin’s solo reign. He released his debut solo album, with a more mature R&B sound named “Justified” in 2002. It did well with the public and critics. Hit singles on that album were “Cry Me a River” and “Rock Your Body.” It earned Justin his first two Grammy Awards.
He would later bring “SexyBack” and wear his “Suit & Tie.” He is still producing hits with the 2018 album “Man of the Wood.” It became his fourth No. 1 album in the U.S. The album was supported by the two Top 10 singles, “Filthy” and “Say Something.”
4. Gangsta Pat
BEST SONG: “I Wanna Smoke”
This man is the Godfather of Memphis rap. Patrick Hall overcame tough odds and going back and forth between Memphis and Los Angeles to sharpen his production, rap and marketing skills, becoming Gangsta Pat.
Patrick Hall was born in South Memphis in 1973. He established the Gangsta Pat name throughout the Southeast before taking it the West Coast. Hall blended many sounds and styles to create the Memphis rap style.
Now his legacy is being the driving force to start the Memphis underground rap scene during the late 1980s. He knew the music business because he is the son of Stax Records drummer Willie Hall.
Gangsta Pat is also one of the first rap artists from the city to make the move from an indie label to a major label when signed to Atlantic Records during the start of the gangsta rap era.
He is like the music legend Prince: Pat can do it all. On his earlier albums, Pat wrote, produced and played all of the instruments.
3. Johnny Cash
“I Walk the Line”
Cash was a living legend before his death in September 2003. He was respected by other musical acts like Million Dollar Quartet, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, John Denver, Tom Petty and U2.
Johnny Cash, born in Kingsland, Ark., did most of his creating in the Volunteer State. Of course he made stops in Memphis.
He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide. Although primarily remembered as a country music icon, his genre-spanning songs and sound embraced rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel. This crossover appeal won Cash the rare honor of being inducted into the Country Music, Rock & Roll and Gospel Music halls of fame.
Cash’s legacy lives on today with a movie depicting his life and recent artists covering his biggest hits. I didn’t know notable songs like “Hurt” and “Rusty Cage” were Cash hits adopted by Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden respectively.
2. W.C. Handy
“The Memphis Blues”
Memphis is known as the home of the blues. William Christopher Handy is known as the “Father of the Blues.” That would make W.C. Handy pretty important to the Memphis music legacy.
The man had a theater similar to the world-famous Apollo in Orange Mound. Handy worked across the world, but his signature jazz and blues sound was most celebrated in Memphis.
Handy went down in history as one of the most influential songwriters in the United States. Handy did not create the blues genre but was the first to publish music in the blues form. Handy gave the world Delta blues. Handy gave birth to musical creators like Gangsta Pat, Sam Phillips, Maurice White, Blackout and many others from Memphis.
1. Elvis Presley
This is no surprise. Elvis is No. 1 in another Memphis-related countdown. If I start on why Presley is the No. 1 Memphis-related artist of all time, we’ll be here until the year 2044 when Memphis turns 225 years old.
So I’ll narrow down this entry piece to his achievements in music. To this day, Elvis is still the best-selling solo artist, with sales estimates ranging from 600 million to 1 billion.
He holds the records for most songs charting in Billboard’s top 40 and top 100 with more than 150. Presley retains the record for cumulative weeks at No. 1 at 80, according to Whitburn and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Oh yeah, Elvis is also beloved overseas with the record of most British No. 1 hits with 21, and top 10 hits with 76.
I wonder if Elvis will be No. 1 in my final Memphis 200 countdown next week. One thing is for sure: He’ll be mentioned.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to email@example.com.