Why my visit to Memphis and Sun Studios was so special

Stephen Foster in Memphis

Foz outside WDIA, one of the most important radio stations in music history. - Credit: Stephen Foster

in his latest On Air in Suffolk column, broadcaster Stephen Foster reflects on a memorable visit to Memphis.

Even if the only thing Memphis had given the world was Elvis Presley it would still be held in very high esteem by music lovers.

The city’s most famous resident certainly put the place on the pop music map but many years earlier Beale Street had helped give birth to the blues, a genre that received much airplay on the legendary Memphis radio station WDIA which was the first broadcaster in the United States programmed entirely for a black audience.

WDIA is situated in downtown Union Avenue and once I’d paid homage to that radio station I thought I’d take a stroll to another landmark building further on up the road. I hadn’t bargained on Sun Studios being so far out of town but visiting the place was well worth the very long walk.

Stephen Foster Sun Studios

Foz outside Sun Studios in 1993. - Credit: Stephen Foster

Sun was where Sam Phillips discovered Elvis and also recorded Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. There I was at the most important location in the history of rock’n’roll. It was a surreal experience and I couldn’t wait to do some recording there myself.


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Don’t panic. I didn’t do any singing there. It was a radio interview with one of the studio tour guides but what a kick I got standing on the same spot Presley recorded Mystery Train, The Killer cut Great Balls Of Fire and Cash sang I Walk The Line.

Having spent so much of my life in radio studios I do seem drawn to recording studios as well. In that respect Memphis was manna from heaven.

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Before I knew it I was visiting the site of Stax Records in McLemore Avenue. When it comes to soul music Stax is up there with Motown but for some reason its home - an old cinema - had been demolished.

Thankfully modern day Memphis has a much higher regard for its own heritage and by the time I made my next trip there the Stax Museum Of American Soul Music had been built on the exact spot where Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes had all made such timeless music.

On my third visit to Memphis I accompanied Norfolk blues man Oli Brown and his band who were representing the UK in the International Blues Challenge. Oli made it through to the final held at the prestigious Orpheum Theatre in the heart of the historic Beale Street district.

During that trip I got to look round Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios where Al Green recorded all his classic recordings. Willie himself was there to greet me and invited me into his office to record an interview. Sadly, Willie died in 2010 but his legacy lives on.

Oli’s American adventure formed a big part of a radio show I did live from Beale Street. The weather wasn’t very kind to me - it was chucking it down - but the good folk of Memphis were their usual friendly and welcoming selves.

As I left The Orpheum I asked my hosts if there was any chance we could drive down to another key blues location - Clarksdale, Mississippi. No problem. 76 miles and two hours later we were there. I was shown the room at the Riverside Hotel (formerly a hospital) where legendary blues singer Bessie Smith died in 1937.  Then it was dinner with actor Morgan Freeman’s business partner and other Clarksdale alumni.

My radio career has taken me to some very special places down the years. I fell in love with Memphis within minutes of arriving and it will always have a special place in my heart.

In case you’re wondering, I did get to Graceland and I watched the ducks come out of the elevator at the Peabody Hotel. I also visited the Lorraine Motel where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s now the National Civil Rights Museum and a permanent reminder that the good times haven’t always rolled in Memphis - far from it. 
 

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