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The History of Memphis Soul Music

Jun 10, 2008
Memphis soul music is a subset of the genre of soul music. Soul music emerged in the late 1950s in African American neighborhoods in Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and Philadelphia. It began when artists like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles started to merge traditional gospel with R&B music. Each one of the cities that was influenced by soul music developed its own distinct sounds and Memphis soul music relied most heavily on gospel for its stylistic inspiration.

Until this point, music in Memphis was almost exclusively performed and enjoyed on the famous Beale Street. The sound of Memphis soul music traveled to a small area of residential streets a little south of downtown; this area was known as Soulsville, USA. This is the neighborhood that is credited for birthing Memphis soul music. Stax Records was the label that was at the heart of the Memphis soul music scene. The label was founded in 1957 and was originally known as Satellite Records. Stax Records was co owned by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. The sound of Stax Records was developed by a group of house musicians and writers including Steve Cropper, Issac Hayes and David Porter. This sound is most widely known for its characteristic thin, two horn brass sound.

Stax Records and the Memphis soul music were always in competition with whatever Motown Records was releasing. The Memphis soul music sound always had a much more syncopated tune to it giving it a funkier quality that the polished songs coming from Motown just simply did not have. Stax Records was responsible for producing songs with every singer, songwriter and musician in the Memphis area, but the soul music in Memphis extended beyond that. Performers like Aretha Franklin, Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire, and Al Green also recorded songs in the nearby Royal Studio for Hi Records.

The one thing that all of the record labels, studios and musicians had in common was WDIA. WDIA was the first radio station in America to be run entirely by African Americans. Nat D. Williams was the disc jockey that led the local radio station. Williams was a high school teacher and nationally syndicated columnist. Williams worked with another jockey named Rufus Thomas to bring street to the station and the nations airwaves. Memphis soul music has a long history in the old neighborhood and soul singers today cite it as an influence and something that revolutionized the way people listen to music.
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