Made in Memphis
Whether it serves as inspiration or location, this city rocks.
On July 31st, celebrated rock duo the White Stripes will play the Snowden Grove Amphitheatre in Southaven, Mississippi. It's one of only a handful of U.S. dates the band has booked for this summer (as of press time) and the band's first Memphis area concert since September 10th, 2001, when guitarist Jack White and his drummer "sister" Meg set up in the middle of the room at South Main bar Earnestine & Hazel's, surrounded by a capacity crowd, with perhaps even more people peering through the bar windows from outside.
But this month's concert won't be Jack White's first return to Memphis since that night in 2001. White has spent time in Memphis recording studios in the intervening years, mixing the White Stripes album Get Behind Me Satan, the Loretta Lynn album Van Lear Rose, which he produced, and the debut album from his side band the Raconteurs.
As a matter of fact, the White Stripes' now-legendary concert at Earnestine & Hazel's was also a bit of a celebrated return, as the band's then just-about-to-breakout 2001 album White Blood Cells, had been recorded in Memphis earlier in the year.
Memphis has inspired out-of-town songwriters, with celebrated songs such as Chuck Berry's "Memphis," Paul Simon's "Graceland," and Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" only the tip of an enormous iceberg of pop songs that name check the city.
By the Sixties, Memphis' musical reputation made it a Mecca of sorts — not just a place for outside artists to reference, but also a place to be, and plenty of artists have made recording pilgrimages to the city in the past decade. British rock super group the Yardbirds recorded at Sun Studio in the Sixties, a trip that has been made by countless artists since, most notably U2. Neil Diamond was among the many to record at American Studio. Folk singer John Prine was a Memphis regular during his Seventies heyday, recording Common Sense at Ardent and Pink Cadillac at Sam Phillips Recording Service. In the Nineties, Easley-McCain emerged as a go-to studio for indie and alt-rock bands, hosting the likes of Sonic Youth, Pavement, Guided by Voices, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
But the most commonly visited studio might be Midtown's Ardent, which has drawn artists as disparate as blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan, reggae legend Toots Hibberts, alt-rock legends R.E.M., and radio-rockers Three Doors Down.
Of the scores of significant albums made in Memphis by non-local artists, here are four of the most significant:
White Blood Cells
The White Stripes
Recorded in early 2001 at Easley-McCain, with Jack White producing and Memphian Stuart Sikes engineering, this album was as responsible as any for putting "alternative" rock back on the radio and stands as one of the best and most important records of the decade. In its own way, it was as cognizant of American pop-song traditions as that other 2001 classic, Bob Dylan's Love And Theft — and may have been more organically female-friendly than any significant hard-rock record since Nirvana's Nevermind. Offering a negation equally relevant to both the womanizing hipsters within his own subculture and the macho metal bullies crowding the marketplace, Jack White pulls no punches in negotiating his battle of the sexes but also never offers less than plain, simple decency, all while ex-wife Meg watches his back by keeping the beat. The result is a blues-rock masterpiece suffused with an uncommon blast of freedom, best summed up by the rollicking contentment of the single "Hotel Yorba": "It might sound silly for me to think childish thoughts like these/But I'm so tired of acting tough and I'm gonna do what I please."
Dusty in Memphis
Rivaling Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music as one of pop music's most successfully audacious artistic reinventions, this acknowledged classic paired British pop singer Springfield with a Memphis soul band in a blend of grit and sophistication that may have set the stage for the ambitious, pop-inflected soul that artists such as Al Green and Isaac Hayes made Memphis' signature sound in the Seventies. Recorded mostly in a week at American Studio during the summer of 1968 (with some subsequent sessions in New York), the unlikely match of Memphis and Springfield was engineered by Atlantic records executive Jerry Wexler, who had seen Memphis' potential as a recording center early on via Atlantic's partnership with Stax records. On the deep-soul single "Son of a Preacher Man," Springfield almost out-Arethas Memphis-born Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. Still probably the most high-profile out-of-towner Memphis production.
Pleased to Meet Me
The second major-label from one of the most respected rock bands of the Eighties, Pleased to Meet Me was recorded at Ardent in 1987, with local legend Jim Dickinson producing. Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg was a huge fan of Memphis cult band Big Star, with whom Dickinson had produced the classic album Third/Sister Lovers at Ardent. Westerberg paid his respects with "Alex Chilton," a homage to Big Star's frontman. And Chilton joined in on guitar for "Can't Hardly Wait," a perfect mix of Eighties alt-rock and Southern soul, with Memphis Horn Andrew Love on Sax. Pleased to Meet Me was named the third best album of 1987 in the national critics poll conducted by the Village Voice (behind Prince's Sign O the Times and Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love and just ahead of U2's The Joshua Tree).
Texas blues-rock trio ZZ Top became regulars at Ardent during their prime, recording 1973's Tres Hombres there. But their biggest record by far — and one of the biggest commercial rock records of the Eighties — was 1983's Ardent-recorded Eliminator, which went on the sell more than 10 million copies. A synthesized, arena-sized record that united the band's dustier Seventies style with the sleeker productions of the day, Eliminator was a record that took hard rock back to its roots as white blues. The band's cartoonish persona and slick riffs made them the Seventies rock warhorse best equipped to thrive in the MTV era — and videos for Eliminator singles "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp-Dressed Man" and "Legs" were ubiquitous.