Memphis is famous for being home to the likes of B.B. King, Elvis Presley and many more iconic musicians. But have you ever wondered where it all started for many of these legendary artists? Take a Sun Studio tour in the heart of Memphis to find out the answers to this question….oh and by the way, you will be standing on some pretty hallowed ground as you wander around this recording studio.
Birthplace of Rock ‘N’ Roll
You may be thinking that Beale Street or even Graceland could be idolized as the home or birthplace of Rock ‘N’ Roll music, but the reality is that the small recording studio along Union Avenue by the name of ‘Sun Studio’ can lay claim to this statement.
From the home of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ (more on this later) to all those budding artists coming back year after year trying to make their break in the music industry, Sun Studio has seen it all.
What better way to experience all of this than by taking your very own Sun Studio tour? Join us in finding out what you can learn and why you should add this to your itinerary next time you plan on visiting Bluff City!
Location and Other Information
- Address – 706 Union Avenue, Memphis TN 38103
- Free Shuttle is available to/from Graceland and the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum
- Tours are available daily on the half hour between 10:30AM and 5:30PM (last one departs at 5:30PM)
- Admission to the tour is $12 for adults (Children 5-11 are Free)
- Free Parking is available behind Sun Studio (but limited!)
Welcome to Sun Studio
Arriving at Sun Studio at around 12:45, we just missed the previous tour but this did give us time to explore the bar area and also outside. The first thing we noticed is just how small Sun Studio really is. The building has a cool design with a red brick finish that makes this stand out along Union Avenue.
The large ‘Sun Studio’ sign depicted on the side of the building is a vibrant touch that adds to the whole experience as you approach from either direction.
Imagine walking along Union Avenue as an aspiring artist with your guitar in tow, hoping to kickstart your career inside this legendary recording studio. It sends chills down your spine just thinking about this but of course many have succeeded while others have failed in their attempts here.
As you walk inside Sun Studio, you are greeted with a friendly atmosphere and Rock ‘N’ Roll ambience with iconic music playing in the background, and a relaxing bar area where you can grab a drink before taking the tour.
Souvenirs and memorabilia are available for purchase but we used this time to explore the record wall and other items that were strategically located around the bar.
Sun Studio Tour – Be Prepared to Rock ‘N’ Roll
Our tour started at 1:30PM promptly. We were part of a fairly large tour party with a lively tour guide, who made the experience worthwhile and provided a very knowledgeable reflection on Sun Studio and the history behind this environment.
The tour itself is relatively short given that you only experience two different rooms, but it is the memorabilia and history within these rooms that makes the Sun Studio tour a must-visit attraction in Memphis.
Our guide lead us to up the first flight of stairs into the memorabilia room and from here we learned all about the history of Sun Studio. Dating back to 1950 when rock pioneer Sam Phillips first opened the doors to this recording studio, it was originally called Memphis Recording Service.
The Early Years of Sun Studio
Legendary artists such as Ike Turner, B.B. King and of course Howlin’ Wolf all performed inside this venue, but the first real hit came in 1953 when Rufus Thomas’ ‘Bearcat’ was recorded inside Sun Studio.
Although this may not sound too familiar at first, when our guide played a short clip, we all immediately recognized the sound which is the same as ‘Hound Dog’.
Unfortunately, this was a copyright infringement that almost lead to the closure of Sun Studio but Phillips was able to keep the studio afloat thanks mainly to the performance by The Prisonaires, a quartet of four individuals who were given permission to leave prison to perform ‘Just Walkin in the Rain’.
This performance was epic enough for the governor to issue pardons for each of these group members!
August 1953 – Elvis Arrives
As we moved downstairs into the hallowed room that was the recording studio, we started to learn about the rich history and heritage that has taken place inside these walls. Guitars lined one wall, a huge bass attributed to Bill Black was in another corner and a piano completed the collection. The rest was left to the individual donning the microphone.
In August 1953, a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi heard about the huge success of the Prisonaires and sought his own success. Of course this individual is the one and only Elvis Presley. His early attempts at gaining the attention of Phillips were futile, despite his claims that “I don’t sound like nobody” and “I sing all kinds of music”.
Sun Studio’s receptionist, Marion Keisker, was really the individual that helped Elvis on his way. She repeatedly helped him record clips and passed them along to Phillips who frequently was never there to hear Elvis perform.
Elvis’ break arrived when Phillips recommended that he perform alongside Scotty Moore and Bill Black in a jam session. The majority of this session proved uneventful and largely pointless, until late in the night when Elvis launched into a blues number that immediately captured the attention of everyone.
Local Memphis DJ, Dewey Phillips, played the hit that Elvis had performed “That’s All Right” on the local Memphis station and well…the rest is history!
The End of an Era
It quickly became apparent that although Elvis’ early success was attributed to Sun Studio, Phillips was not in a financial position to help support his progression into stardom. Phillips focused his attention on nurturing other artists and names such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash can all thank Sun Studios for starting their careers.
I mentioned the Million Dollar Quartet earlier, well in 1956 an impromptu jam session involving Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins took place at Sun Studios. And Phillips captured it all!! This is one of the most iconic performances of all time and the image of the four individuals by the piano is well known around the world.
So we now know about the rich history at Sun Studios. But what about today? Well of course this location is now a huge tourist attraction with the Sun Studio tours offering a great way to learn about Rock ‘N’ Roll. But this is still a live recording studio and many current day acts have performed here including Maroon 5, U2 and John Mellencamp.
If you are an aspiring artist and want to try to make a break into the music industry, forget American Idol or the X-Factor, instead head on down to Sun Studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee because you never know what may materialize as you perform inside that small recording studio.
Disclaimer – We would like to thank Memphis Travel for providing us with 2 complimentary tickets for our visit to Sun Studio. These are solely our personal opinions/experiences and we were not financially compensated for this post.