On the other side of town from the infamous Beale Street in Memphis lies Sun Studio on 706 Union Avenue, the same studio where Elvis regularly hung his hat and recorded tunes at the beginning of his career.
It has been said that “if music was a religion, then Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun Studio its most holy shrine.” As a tourist spot, it’s incredibly unpretentious — in fact, it looks as it has remained untouched for the most part since the 1950’s, and that’s just inside.
Of course, as you walk through the studio, it’s not just the recording studio itself that is awe-inspiring and authentic but they have a number of historical guitars, microphones and original records on display to marvel at….and it’s not just Elvis of course.
There were original recordings by Johnny Cash (see my Johnny Cash Museum write-up including a special video interview and tons of photos), Elvis and others. It was of course Elvis who changed what Memphis meant to the world and to the rock-and-roll industry as well as gospel and country.
In 1954, an unknown Elvis Presley, grabbed a mic and sang his heart out making Sun the most famous recording studio in the world. Below is the original mike he used at Sun Studio.
The impressive guided tour starts at the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll where you will experience outtakes from recording sessions and hear the real story of the studio that launched the careers of not only Elvis Presley, but other greats as noted above Johnny Cash, as well as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and many others that signed with the Sun label.
The area itself looks and feels like a working class section of Memphis and while mostly urban brick buildings, many run down with graffiti on its exterior, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were in parts of the hometown where I grew up in upstate New York.
What I loved about the area and the studio is just how raw and authentic it was — it wasn’t as if they were trying to paint a sugar coated story to glorify and glamify what it was, making it about as pure as it gets as a recording studio. In fact, at night, it is still used to record songs by up and coming artists today.
I personally got to wind back the clock a bit – they give you an opportunity to touch the original mike that Elvis used when he first walked through the doors in the 1950’s and well, even sing into it if you’d like. Pianos and guitars surround you in the original studio as do photos of musical greats who have inspired all of us at some juncture of our lives regardless of our age.
The entrance to the Sun Studio “museum” and studio itself is a retro diner with red and silver bar stools and tables from the 50’s and 60’s. Behind the counter sits a chalkboard of daily specials, original Coca-Cola signs, posters, retro ketchup and mustard bottles and old fashioned coffee cups.
Adjacent to Union is Sam Phillips Avenue, a sign at the corner says so, named appropriately after the infamous Sam Phillips who started the studio to capture the raw talent of Beale Street at the time and others who rolled in from other parts of the country to record there later on as the studio took off. Two thumbs up! If you love music and history, then this is a must stop on your travel agenda for Tennessee.
Below is a short video clip I shot during the tour – it will give you a flavor of the place. Enjoy!
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