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Paul Du Noyers'
excellent book - Liverpool Wondrous Place





Memphis and Liverpool

“Well, it’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll,” according to one masterpiece of the genre, “from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl.” The song in question is Mott The Hoople’s tribute to he Anglo-American cultural alliance, “All The Way From Memphis” – a number that brilliantly makes the intuitive link between rock’s twin capital cities. 

The fact is, there are plenty of places WHERE music is made. But few cities are reasons WHY music is made. Two such destinations, however, are Memphis, Tennessee and Liverpool, England.

This is a Tale Of Two Cities. Whatever their superficial differences, Liverpool and Memphis are soul mates. Together they shaped the popular culture of the 20th century and, therefore, the world that we have inherited. For that reason alone they merit the sort of attention that historians have previously reserved for Rome and Athens. What’s more, Liverpool and Memphis are towns alive to their heritage – their hearts still beat to the pulse of rock’n’roll. Any music-minded traveller in search of 21st century good times is assured of satisfaction. 

The Mersey or the Mississippi? Either is fine. Both would be just perfect.

Memphis has rightly been called “the cradle of the blues and rock’n’roll’s home town”. Liverpool has a plausible claim to the title of pop culture’s global HQ. Look at it this way – the two seminal events in rock music were Elvis Presley’s arrival at the Sun Studio, Memphis, on July 5th, 1954, and the meeting of John Lennon with Paul McCartney at a Liverpool summer fair on July 6th, 1957.  Modest events at the time, each proved cataclysmic in the development of modern music. But their historic impact was only possible because of the uniquely fertile cities in which they occurred. 

Glance at a map and the clues begin to reveal themselves. Beside the mighty Mississippi in the heart of the American South, Memphis was a crossroads of commerce and the bright hope of an army of rural migrants in search of a better life. Liverpool, England, where the Mersey led to the international shipping lanes, was the conduit for every commodity from human slaves to American cotton. Amidst appalling poverty, Liverpool grew into one of the Empire’s wealthiest ports. Memphis enjoyed a comparable boom. To whole generations of African Americans, Memphis was at least a taste of relative freedom; and for thousands of Irish fleeing famine, Liverpool was their nearest chance of food and shelter. 

Many ethnicities, of all colours and creeds, sought succour in these cities. The desperate energy of migrant populations, and their heartfelt need for beauty and self-expression, are somewhere in the very souls of Memphis and Liverpool.

Neither city has had an easy history. The bitterest divisions of American history found their European echo in Liverpool, whose prosperity depended once upon slavery and thereafter on cotton: in defiance of the British Empire it once flew Confederate flags from every high building. Racial and sectarian conflicts were endemic to both cities.

Yet it can be said, without sentimentality, that music proved to have a healing power. The young Elvis Presley, a white country boy whose parents moved to Memphis, grew up on the Negro blues and gospel that his new home town made available – mainly via the radio waves that crossed all tracks, literal and metaphorical. The Beatles were born into a cosmopolitan city unlike anywhere else in Europe: a raw compound of British tradition, Celtic romanticism, Afro-Caribbean vigour and ready exposure to imported American sounds. 


Memphis has more claims to musical fame than anyone can count. It’s the birthplace of stars from Aretha Franklin to Justin Timberlake. It’s been the home of legends such as Elvis Presley and Al Green. And as any reputable jukebox could tell you, it’s repeatedly name-checked in the funkiest songs ever written, whether it be W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” or Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” 

Above all, though, Memphis is a recording centre with a glorious track record.

That history did not begin with Elvis Presley. Even before 1954, Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio had given us key recordings by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf and the disc that many call the earliest rock’n’roll cut of all, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” featuring Ike Turner. Earlier still, the bars and clubs of Beale Street were home to jazz and the rural Delta blues that morphed here into the precursor of R&B. Soon it became the natural home of American roots music in all its forms – Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Carl Perkins were just a few of the Memphis success stories. 

The greatest label of Southern soul, Stax, was built around the historic multi-racial house band of Booker T & The MGs (their name was short for “the Memphis Group”). They were the engine for epic hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and others. Across town at Hi Records, the gifted producer Willie Mitchell worked with vocalist supreme Al Green. Other important studios have been Ardent and Chips Moman’s American. From the former came Big Star, an early 70s rock band led by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell – they have become the rock’n’roll cult band par excellence. 

Big Star’s members were, ironically, just a few of the Memphis boys whose heads were entirely turned around by the 1964 arrival of a Liverpool act called The Beatles. For if Memphis had taught the world to rock, Liverpool was its star pupil. 

Before the days of mass media, American music crossed the Atlantic via the sea trade. Long before The Beatles, Liverpool drinkers swayed to country and western choruses; in the 1930s Paul McCartney’s father played in one of Europe’s earliest jazz bands. And here’s a nugget of Memphis-Liverpool symbolism – The Beatles’ stomping ground the Cavern Club was actually opened by an act named The Merseysippi Jazz Band. (They’re together to this day.) Rock’n’roll and R&B were swiftly taken up in a city primed by long years of US interaction. Britain’s first real rock’n’roll star, Billy Fury, came from the Liverpool docklands.

Memphis author Robert Gordon has suggested that rock’n’roll came about when hillbilly boys such as Elvis tried to play black R&B – they failed, but in failing they created a wild new hybrid. Maybe Merseybeat was the same thing. By 1962 Liverpool teemed with teenage beat groups attacking American music with energy and passion, if not always expertise. They took the driving rhythms of rock and soul but also the close harmonies and songcraft of US pop, to produce something utterly fresh. 

The movement’s leaders were of course The Beatles. They and other Liverpool acts like Gerry & The Pacemakers, Cilla Black, The Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and The Fourmost dominated the British charts and many were in the vanguard of the British Invasion of the States. By 1966 the city’s renown was so great that American poet Allen Ginsberg declared Liverpool “the centre of human consciousness.” 

By the mid 70s those creative juices were flowing again. At the centre of the action was a new club, Eric’s, just across Mathew Street from the site of the Cavern; within a decade the scene here would generate a massive number of punk and new wave luminaries such as Elvis Costello, Echo & the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. A little later came The La’s – rather in the Big Star tradition, they wield a posthumous influence out of all proportion to their commercial success at the time. 

It’s remained the most musical of English cities to this day, whether through dance clubs like Cream, fun pop acts like Atomic Kitten or vibrant rock bands like The Coral.


For a long time neither Memphis nor Liverpool paid much heed to their illustrious histories. Those contributions were rather taken for granted. Sites of immense musical interest were thoughtlessly destroyed. In both cities, however, the tide began to turn during the 1980s.

For sure, there was a dawning appreciation of the commercial value in “music tourism”. But there was a deeper feeling, doubtless strengthened by the deaths of Elvis in 1977 and John Lennon in 1980, that an era was passing. We could either see it slip into oblivion or recognise, honour and celebrate that era. And – who knows – perhaps it might inspire new generations of artists and citizens. In fact this is exactly what has happened.

From Beale Street, Memphis to the Beatle streets of Liverpool’s Cavern quarter, these twin cities of musical legend now offer more visitor attractions than ever before. The Sun Studios, where Elvis made those stunning first recordings, and the Cavern Club, where The Beatles honed their world-conquering sound, are arguably the two crucibles of popular music. Superbly restored, both are there to be enjoyed. So too are Presley’s mansion at Graceland and the (somewhat humbler) childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

More than their history, however, Memphis and Liverpool have their character. It takes no leap of faith to visit these cities and imagine what mighty deeds might once have been performed there. They remain music cities to their fingertips. Take a walk down Beale Street or Mathew Street and music greets you from one door after another. You’ll bump into music lovers from Anchorage to Osaka at any given corner. Small wonder that savvy outsiders like the White Stripes still choose to record in Memphis and Coldplay in Liverpool.

As already noted, these are not just places where music happens, they are reasons why. This year, 2016, we’ve seen Memphis celebrated across the world for its historic role in rock’s “official” birthday 50 years previously. And 2008 will see Liverpool honoured as Europe’s Capital of Culture. More than ever before, the glory of these great cities resides in music. And the beat will never stop for as long as those two great rivers keep on rolling. 

Paul Du Noyer, author of “Liverpool: Wondrous Place” (Virgin Books)


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