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Delta School
Memphis School

In his book Where I Was Born and Raised, author David L. Cohn writes, "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis." In the 1890s Beale Street became the center of fashionable nightlife among blacks in Memphis. Vaudeville theaters such as the Lincoln opened on and behind Beale Street, drawing crowds to the attractions. During the 1920s, these theaters hosted the renowned "classic blues" singers, women who sang the blues backed by orchestras, sometimes made up of classically trained locals. Because of Memphis's large, relatively affluent black population, the great classic blues singers - including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and local legend Alberta Hunter - frequently played Beale Street. These visiting stars introduced the songs of Tin Pan Alley to the Deep South and in turn learned regional favorites.

Prior to the onset of the Great Depression, Memphis was visited by nine different recording units between 1927 and 1930. These field units of northern recording companies scouted regional talent in an attempt to develop new stars. Victor, Okeh, Vocalion, Columbia, Paramount, and many others realized a greater profit from self-accompanied musicians than from female singers backed by expensive musicians' union orchestras. Memphis was the hub of the Midsouth, and advertisements in local papers, on radio, and by word-of-mouth among musicians drew performers trying to get record deals to recording sessions in public venues like the Peabody Hotel and the Memphis Auditorium. Twenty years would pass before blues musicians could record in a permanent studio in Memphis. Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue was built by Memphis sound engineer Sam Phillips, whose Sun Records label became home to B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, and many other blues artists who would become famous during the 1950s and 1960s.

As the largest city on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans, Memphis enjoyed an extensive local blues scene. When W.C. Handy moved there in 1909, he made it the base of his orchestra and publishing company. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the jug band craze that perhaps started in Louisville, Kentucky, captured the imagination of Memphis's musicians and prompted the formation of several talented jug bands. The size and instrumentation differed from group to group, but most included a lead harmonica or kazoo, a guitar, fiddle or banjo for rhythm, and a jug blown for bass. The most popular of these bands, the Memphis Jug Band, made dozens of records in a recording career that spanned nearly a decade. Many well-known Memphis bluesmen, including Sleepy John Estes, Robert Wilkins, and Furry Lewis, played or recorded with jug bands. Many equally talented Memphis bluesmen performed and recorded solo or in a duo, frequently with great success. Frank Stokes, Memphis Minnie, and the phenomenally popular Jim Jackson all recorded and released records without a backup band. During the 1920s and 1930s, blues records by Memphis musicians routinely outsold records by their Delta contemporaries.

In the 1940s, the popularity of AM radio presaged a new outlet for blues musicians in the Memphis area. In 1949, WDIA in West Memphis, Arkansas, became the nation's first radio station with an all-black format. With a combination of jump blues records and live music by B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin' Wolf, the station became a blues tastemaker. King's first hit was "Three O'Clock Blues" in 1951, and it suggested a change of taste in the blues record-buying public. On record King was backed by horns and a band, further enhancing King's rich guitar tones and crying vocals. His sound was embraced by Memphis contemporaries Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. These bluesmen created a new Memphis blues sound that combined jump blues swing and a driving Tennessee rhythm. The city's blues roots became the bedrock of the soul music created there in the 1960s, because many of Memphis's greatest soul musicians learned their chops from musicians they heard on Beale Street.


Delta School
Memphis School

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