Where the Music Lives
By Chris Epting | Online Only | May 4, 2007
Rock and roll, despite the reputation many of its artists have for mayhem and property destruction, has a surprising number of historic landmarks that didn't just survive—they thrive. Given rock and roll's status as a genuine, homegrown American product, like baseball it enjoys a growing number of wanderers who love hitting the road in search of the landmarks that define the art.
Fit for a King
Every year more than 50,000 music fans flock to Tupelo, Miss., to tour a modest, two-room house that was built for $180. It's the Elvis Presley birthplace (306 Elvis Presley Drive), the very house where the King was brought into the world on January 8, 1935. The city bought the land in 1956 with funds from a Presley concert, and today it's an official state landmark. Set on the 15-acre Elvis Presley Park, the grounds also have a museum and gift shop. Many visitors take the Elvis-themed, self-guided driving tour which features many other still-standing local landmarks, including the Assembly of God Church, where Elvis and his family attended mass; Lawhon Elementary School, his first school; the Tupelo Fairgrounds, where Elvis performed concerts in 1956 and 1957; Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis bought his first guitar; and Lee County Library, where Elvis received his first library card.
Several recording studios have also found second acts today as museums. One of them, in addition to hosting many other magic moments, was the site of a pivotal Elvis session. It's Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. (706 Union Avenue). Opened by Sam Phillips in 1950, for many it's the "birthplace of rock and roll" because of a song called "Rocket 88," recorded here in the early 1950s. This track is thought to be the first true rock and roll single, hence the "birthplace" nickname. Elvis made his very first recording here in the summer of 1953, cutting a single as a gift for his mother. He recorded about 20 more songs here, returning in 1956 for a jam with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis., dubbed "The Million Dollar Quartet" session. In 1987 the original building housing the Sun Records label and Memphis Recording Service was reopened as "Sun Studio," a recording business and attraction that attracts tourists and musicians alike (U2 has even recorded tracks here). Sun Studios was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 31, 2003.
Also in Memphis is the Soulsville USA/Stax Museum (926 East McLemore Street). Built on the historic site of STAX Records, the Soulsville Museum has an outstanding collection of STAX memorabilia, a reconstruction of its legendary recording studio, interpretive exhibits describing Memphis contribution to Soul music, memorabilia from other Memphis Soul and R&B record companies and a music training academy.
The heart of rock and roll is also still beating in Sheffield, Ala., at the old Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (3614 Jackson Highway). The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, and many others worked and played here and today, to the satisfaction of many fans, it's open for tours (as well as having earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places).
But legendary musical landmarks aren't just down South. In Detroit tourists can visit the exact site where the Motown sound was born, nurtured, and raised. The Motown Museum (2648 West Grand Boulevard) is where Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, and others all got their start. Today, this declared Michigan historic site looks just like it did in the early 1960s. You can see sheet music and the actual music studio equipment they used, including the piano used by all the greats. Photographs and gold records adorn the walls, and original costumes are also on display.
Many of music's most famous stages are no longer standing, however. The Fillmore East in New York City today is a bank. The Michigan Palace is a parking garage. And at the site of 1969's Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York, a concrete marker has replaced the stage. It seems odd that something as volatile and unpredictable as rock and roll would boast so many preservation success stories. All of a sudden, that little room in Tupelo seems more important than ever.
Chris Epting's newest book is "Led Zeppelin Crashed Here: The Rock and Roll Landmarks of North America" from Santa Monica Press.
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