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Heroes of Memphis Soul Music

Jul 3, 2008
When talking about Memphis soul music, there are many names that you should definitely mention. People like W.C. Handy, Frank Stokes, Willie Nix, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Junior Parker, Ida Cox, Memphis Minnie, Rosco Gordon, Howlin Wolf, Robert Wilkins, Big Mama Thornton and Bobby Sowell have all worked together to create, shape and define what Memphis soul music is and should always be.

Created in the 1920s and 1930s by musicians in the area, Memphis soul music was primarily associated with Beale Street, the center of all things artistic and fun in not just Memphis, but all of Tennessee (and maybe the entire country). There have even been entire books devoted exclusively to Memphis soul music, like Goin Back to Memphis, a book published in 2000 by James L. Dickerson.

Many of the musicians involved with the Memphis soul music scene were extremely poor when they first started out, so could not afford a lot of the types of instruments that were popular at the time. Instead of using sounds of trombones, drums and other pricey instruments, the sounds were made with readily available, cheap items (many of them were just lying around the house anyway) to create the unique sound of Memphis soul music.

So, when Memphis soul music was first being created, there was an emphasis placed on weird musical instruments, which created a unique sound that many people had never heard. Sure, there was usually a standard guitar in the mix, but there were bands that just used jugs and nothing else! Jug bands were a significant segment of Memphis soul music. Other instruments that were popular in early Memphis soul music included washboards, kazoos, Jews harps, banjos and harmonicas.

It was not until after World War II that electric instruments infiltrated Memphis soul music. Also around the same time, there was a mass migration of African Americans from the sticks of rural places in Nowheresville to the promise of jobs and better equality that urban areas had to offer. As a result, Memphis soul music began to take on a much different sound. Jug bands were slowly replaced by electric instrument toting musicians like B.B. King and Ike Turner.

Since then, all kinds of different genres have been influenced by Memphis soul music. Rock and roll certainly would not be the same without the sound that was produced on Beale Street, and to date there has not been anything like it.
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