Memphis is often overlooked by its more glamorous neighbors. It lacks the polish of Nashville, or quirky bohemian vibe of Austin. But beneath its humble exterior lies one of America’s most musically influential cities. Blues, rock and roll and R&B could all claim Memphis as an early parent. The city was instrumental in the development of American popular music, and this playlist shows all the icons that not only shaped Memphis, but the larger musical globe.
1. Green Onions – Booker T. & the M.G’s – 1962
The Booker T. & the M.G’s were an early R&B funk band that focused on instrumentals. They are credited with helping to shape the sounds of Southern soul and especially, soul and funk music in Memphis. Their single Green Onions was their most successful composition and remains a classic of the genre. Arguably the most popular rock and R&B instrumental ever, Green Onions also brought the organ into the family of popular music.
2. Hound Dog – Elvis Presley – 1958
Regarded as the king of rock and roll, Elvis often went simply as “The King”. One of America’s most influential cultural icons, Elvis brought African American rhythm and blues to a global audience. His provocative performance style also helped bring about widespread cultural transformations as well as influencing a future generation of artists and musicians. Universally the best-selling musician of all-time, he was successful in pop, blues, country and gospel. Though he died in 1977, he remains a Memphis icon with his Graceland mansion a common tourist attraction.
3. Walk On By – Isaac Hayes – 2000
An American legend in Southern soul, Isaac Hayes was responsible for many of the biggest hits in the genre. He was awarded both three Grammy’s as well as an Oscar for his work in music and remains an enduring legacy in R&B and soul music.
4. Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash – 1968
Another American icon of multiple genres, Johnny Cash had chart-topping hits in country, rock and roll, blues, folk and gospel. He has been inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Gospel Music Hall of Fame’s and remains one of his generation’s best-selling artists. He was also noted for his unique stage demeanor. In contrast to the rock stars of the period, Cash was noted for his somber and humble disposition as well as his all-black outfits. He routinely gave free prison concerts and used Folsom Prison Blues as one of his signature songs. He wrote over one thousand songs and released dozens of albums. He was award the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and remains one of the most critically acclaimed artists of all-time.
5. St. Louis Blues – W.C Handy – 1955
Cited as the “Father of the Blues”, W.C Handy was one of the most influential songwriters in American history. One of the first to transcribe blues music for a larger audience, W.C Handy brought Mississippi Delta blues to a much wider level of popularity.
6. Groovin’ – Willie Mitchell –
A noted trumpeter, bandleader, record producer and arranger, Willie Mitchell was one of the most popular Memphis soul artists of the 1970’s. He released over a dozen albums and collaborated and produced countless more.
7. Sprained Ankle – Julien Baker – 2015
A rising star from Memphis’ DIY scene, Julien Baker has won accolades for her clear vocals, honest emotional songwriting and cathartic performances. She has released two studio albums along with a third with her side project, super group boygenius.
8. I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over – David Porter – 2008
Consistently viewed as one of the greatest songwriters of all-time, David Porter collaborated on hits such as Soul Man, Dreamlover, Getting Jiggy wit It, and Hold On, I’m Comin. He has over one thousand, seven hundred songwriter credits and worked as a singer, arranger and producer.
9. Judge Harsh Blues – Furry Lewis – 2005
A country blues guitarist and singer from Memphis, Furry Lewis was one of the first musicians from the 1920’s to reexperience success during the 1960’s folk blues revival.
10. Hey! Little Child – Alex Chilton – 2005
Starting out as a teen vocalist for the Box Tops, Chilton later developed into an influential rock artist who had a later influence on a generation of musicians.
11. Drink ‘Till We’re Gone – Lucero – 2001
Alternative country band Lucero has been called “one of the hardest working bands today”, noted for their lengthy tour schedules and prolific recording histories. They have released twelve albums in just under eighteen years of being together.
12. Ring My Bell – Anita Ward – 1979
Singer and musician Anita Ward is best known for her song Ring My Bell which reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for both the US and UK.
13. Let’s Get Happy Together – Lil Hardin Armstrong – 1940
Pianist, composer, arranger, singer and bandleader Lil Hardin Armstrong was the second wife of Louis Armstrong and a common collaborator for the jazz sensation. She also wrote many of her own compositions and was inducted into the Memphis Hall of Fame.
14. The Letter – The Box Tops – 1967
Formed in Memphis in 1967, The Box Tops were one of the first American pop rock groups and combined elements of pop with soul music. They released five studio albums in their time together.
15. Milestones – Booker Little – 1958
A jazz trumpeter and composer, Booker Little was one of the most successful jazz artists to come out of Memphis. He worked as both a musician and bandleader.
16. Don’t Give Up – Southern Avenue – 2017
A blues and soul band from Memphis, Southern Avenue has been one of the most successful contemporary blues bands. Their debut album came out in 2017 and reached number one on many blues billboard charts.
17. Call the Police – Oblivians – 2013
Garage punk trio Oblivians has been releasing music since 1993. They have recorded four studio albums along with a number of singles and EP’s.
18. Speed of Sound – Chris Bell – 1978
One of the forgotten icons of pop music, Chris Bell was a successful guitarist and singer-songwriter. Although he was commercially unsuccessful and died tragically young at the age of twenty-seven, Bell’s work continues to influence artists and musicians today.
19. What’d I Say – Steve Cropper – 1969
Considered one of the greatest guitarists in history, Steve Cropper worked in R&B, soul, funk and blues rock. He was a guitarist for the Stax Records house band, Booker T & the M.G’s, Otis Redding and the Blues Brothers band.
20. Workin’ Woman Blues – Valerie June – 2013
Valerie June’s music draws from elements of folk, blues, gospel, country and bluegrass. After self-releasing her first three albums, June finally broke through with her 2017 album The Order of Time. It won her critical acclaim and plaudits from luminaries such as Bob Dylan.
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