While there’s one Memphis, TN, there are so many different experiences of the same city. Depending on where you live within it, where you go to school, what you do in your free time, we all develop these increasingly complex views on the city we live in. Which is why, when we see someone else’s take on it, it can be both disorienting and a little bit fascinating.
After searching through a good bit of quotes about Memphis, I picked the most interesting and the ones with history behind them. Sometimes the importance of the quote comes from who is saying it and the story behind it, so I tried to include that when I could. Sometimes also the quote was just so insane that I threw it in.
“The thing about Memphis is that it’s pleasingly off-kilter. It’s a great big whack job of a city. The anti-Atlanta. You go there, and you can’t believe the things people will say, the way they think, the wobbling orbits of their lives. There’s an essential otherness.” — Hampton Sides
Hampton Sides is an accomplished guy with a very particular view of the city. A Memphis-born historian, author, and journalist, he has written for the likes of National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker. One of his books, Hellhound on His Trail, recounts the assassination of MLK Jr. and the resulting largest manhunt in United States’ history, in pursuit of James Earl Ray. I didn’t know any of this when I picked the quote, I just really liked what good ole’ Hampton had to say.
“Anytime I was in Memphis with my dad and at the house, I was happy. That was, like, a given. It was what I lived for. And I still feel the same excitement and warmth.” —Lisa Marie Presley
Her last name is a bit of a giveaway, but Lisa Marie Presley is the daughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. She’s had an eventful life, from being born here at Baptist Memorial to releasing two of her own albums. Notably, she was married to both Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage.
“The first time I saw my wife, Marjorie, I was doing stand-up in Memphis, and she was sitting in the front row. Afterward, I walked up and said, ‘Ma’am, I’m going to marry you one day.’ And 15 years later, I did.”
Steve Harvey did stand-up in Memphis! Where? When? What brought him here? Also, did he date his future wife for fifteen years or just kind of forget he had seen her for a while? There’s a lot to unpack here!
“That was the big thing when I was growing up, singing on the radio. The extent of my dream was to sing on the radio station in Memphis. Even when I got out of the Air Force in 1954, I came right back to Memphis and started knocking on doors at the radio station.”—Johnny Cash
Memphis is where Johnny Cash got his start. A year after he moved to Memphis, he was recording his first tracks for Sun Studios, and a year after that he would have an impromptu jam session with Elvis that would later become the Million Dollar Quartet. All iconic things, all here.
“Many cities make music, but no city breathes music quite like Memphis. The songs and sounds that come from here are uniquely American.” —Shawn Amos
Son of the woman who sang “The Name Game” and the man who founded Famous Amos cookies, Shawn Amos comes from a weird blend of history and influence. And, he has thoughts about Memphis!
“The Labor Department’s Hall of Honor recognizes men and women – like Cesar Chavez, Helen Keller and the Workers of the Memphis Sanitation Strike – who have made invaluable contributions to the welfare of American workers.” —Tom Perez
This just got me a little, because in the horror of what followed the sanitation strike of 1968, the sacrifices and the struggles of the sanitation workers who had been protesting for their right to a safe workplace and fair pay got a little lost. Yet, in Washington, DC, the sanitation workers of Memphis were apparently inducted in 2011 to the Labor Department’s Hall of Fame (which is huge!).
“Any opportunity I can get to come back to Memphis, I try to get it.” —DeAngelo Williams
DeAngelo Williams is a former NFL running back who was once a Memphis Tiger. For a long time, he played for the Panthers, then briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers before retiring. I don’t know much about football, so this doesn’t mean a lot to me, but he seems like a cool guy.
“Memphis don’t bluff. It’s a tight knit community.” —David Fizdale
David Fizdale is the current head coach of the Knicks and the former head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Again, sports, not my strong suit, but I like the quote.
“Growing up in Memphis and listening to all kinds of music and dreaming… So that was one of the first times I wrote a complete song and set it to music and the whole bit. From then on, I was busy with it.”
A close friend of Otis Redding and a Grammy-winning artist, William Bell grew up and recorded a good bit of his music in Memphis. He was a huge artist in a time when the music coming from Memphis dominated the soul scene, and is credited with writing the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
“I keep a $2 bill rolled up in every pair of boots I own because one time, an older guy came up to me at a farmer’s market I was playing in Memphis, handed me a $2 bill, and said, ‘Stick this in your boot.’ And when I stood back up, he handed me a $100 bill and said, ‘Thanks for listening to me. Stick this in your pocket.’”
This one doesn’t need much comment, just know that if an older guy tells you to stick money in your boot, you should really do it.
Memphis is a fantastically unique place, but sometimes, living in it, you forget how others see it. Given some perspective, Memphis can be, has been and will continue to be a city of opportunity, history, great music, and the best barbecue.
Cover image by Adarryll Jackson, adarrylljacksonsr.