Since the city’s earliest recorded music, Black performers in Memphis have been at the forefront of the region’s most coveted commodity. It’s a story with a long arch, drawing a line from fiddles, jugs and rattling washboards on 1930s Beale Street to the bedrooms and basements where ProTool sessions make new legends today.
So, it is the song which encapsulates so much of our Black essence and our geographical identity through time. And with this playlist, it is my hope the scattered pieces of a cherished oral history better form a realized picture.
While excluding musicians and industry leaders of other racial and ethnic heritages would drastically alter of one of the globe’s most influential recording capitals, it is a commitment to this Black story — through generations — which has made Memphis’ epic musical tale so defining and stark.
What constitutes as Memphis music, at times, can be difficult to define. For the purpose of this playlist, consider many natives move to spread the gospel of the city elsewhere (The Sylvers, Perry Michael Allen, Charles Lloyd). And many non-natives (Syl Johnson, George Jackson, Otis Redding) pass through, drenched in the influence of our area. Furthermore, this list encompasses The Stax Organization’s far-reaching influence, at its heights able to use its resources to fund talent from other soulful cities (Kim Weston, The Staple Singers, The Rance Allen Group).
Photo R to L: The Staples Singers, Ghana, 1971 (Delta Haze Corporation) & Otis Redding, 1967 (Michael Ochs Archives)
However, you can hang your hat on the bulk of this list, its talents and the studios where this material was recorded, as being indisputably and identifiably Memphis — through and through.
After pressing play, you won’t hear a greatest hits compilation Memphis artists. Instead, this list is a meditation on the expression of Black triumph, strife, social justice, community, motivation, self-empowerment and belief in a higher power. And though no one writes about romance like a Memphis soul, here you may be free to interpret songs of unrequited love as an allegory for the tumultuous relationship between Black consciousness and the American condition it has been forced to reckon with.
Perhaps coincidentally, this list is bolstered by as many original recordings as it is numerous examples of traditional songs and spirituals, vital to the vein of Black American music, regardless of where you’re from (“Motherless Child”, “Go Down Moses”, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”) The impression our musicians have left with their innovation, alas, would be nothing without acknowledging the plight of Black people elsewhere and a commitment to walk together, hand-in-hand.
Among the household names on this list, you’ll hear from others whose careers color outside the lines of the conventional idea of stardom or success in music.
For every Al Green or Booker T. Jones, there are hundreds of our neighbors, some still alive and accessible, who have offered contributions, both large and small, to our musical cannon. This Black History Month, consider them with the gravity you might lend to the more familiar entries on this list.
Celebrate Black History with reverence for the Black present. Prepare for the promise of a Black future.
Dance. Cry. Laugh. Love. Endure.
– Jared “Jay B.” Boyd