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US blues capital Memphis losing its lustre

01 June 2015, 21:07

Memphis - It was once the cradle of blues and rock for America and synonymous with the magic of B.B. King. But Memphis is not the musical beacon it used to be.

Also read: Tracy Morgan: Bad days and good days a year after limo crash

With the death of the legendary blues guitarist King last month, the city has lost of one its last favorite sons. And little by little it is being eclipsed by its eternal Tennessee rival Nashville.

It was in the streets of Memphis, mainly legendary Beale Street, where blues music got its rapturous start in the 1940s and 50s before spreading to the rest of America.

"The blues entertainment industry started here in Memphis and it had a huge hand in making rock' n' roll possible," Jayne Ellen Brooks, of the Memphis recording studio Sun Records which played a big role in that process, told AFP.

Its founder Sam Philips was the first to record King's plaintive guitar licks or Howlin' Wolf's booming cries against segregation, before opening its doors to the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

A rival soars

In the 1960s and 70s, funk and soul came to town and proceeded to take over the country. The label Stax Records featured performers like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.

"It was unbelievable. There was a great energy, Cadillacs all around the city and money was flowing in the air," recalls Chuck O'Bannon, a local TV producer.

However, that buzz is no more. When the sun goes down, the sound of the blues still echoes along Beale Street, but it seems to get lost amid all the souvenir shops.

"It's more a tourist attraction than a musical hub," said Michael Oby, a saxophone player who has been based in Memphis for many years but does not like to perform here. "Nothing new is coming out."

Sun Records still operates but has mainly become an attraction for King fans. Parked at the front door is an old Thunderbird a stage prop to fuel the idea that the glory days of the 1950s live on.

Another problem: Memphis has failed to hold on to its young talent, Justin Timberlake and blues singer Valerie June are examples of locals who followed their star elsewhere. And it is in neighboring cities that new stars like teen blues guitar prodigy Christone "Kingfish" Ingram are taking off.

"There's a lot of musicians but they don't have anybody to push them. They need to have solid people to back them up with money," said Oby.

And worst of all, Memphis is watching helplessly as rival Nashville, birthplace of country music is nurturing a new wave of talented artists including Taylor Swift.

New wave

She is not the only one. Jack White, leader of White Stripes, Briton Jamie Lidell and the rock group Black Keys also set up shop in Nashville, founding their own studio or record label, although White Stripes is no longer active.

"Anytime I need to do a session, there are amazing musicians I can call," one of the leaders of Black Keys, Dan Auerbach, said recently of his decision to move to Nashville.

In fact, these days Nashville ranks second in the country on an "arts vibrancy" index compiled recently by the National Center for Arts Research. Right after it came New York, while first place went to the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Memphis was not even in the top 20.

It is poorer than Nashville, and cannot match its resources and infrastructure.

"Memphis's influence has declined because it didn't keep up with the transformation of the music industry after its profitable and dynamic labels and recording studios disappeared," said Charles Hughes, who wrote a book on the music of the American South.

Sun Records counters that a fertile underground culture is emerging in the city.

"There might not be any big names but this is where it's happening," Brooks said. A rap scene has also popped up, with the group Three 6 Mafia.

And for some, deep down inside, the city's inertia has its up side.

"When you go to Rome, do you expect it to change? No! Rome will always be Rome and Memphis will always be the capital of the blues," said TV producer O'Bannon.



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