It’s a Wednesday morning, two days before the Memphis Music Hall of Fame opens its doors for the first time. Inside the Hall’s Second Street space overlooking Beale, the history of Memphis music — instruments, outfits, documents and artifacts — is sitting on the floor waiting to be mounted, hung or installed, cleaned and polished.
“We’re almost there,” says John Doyle, executive director of the Smithsonian-branded Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which has overseen the development and creation of the Hall. “We’ve got a few more touches and final things to get ready, but it’s almost a reality.”
As he walks among a treasure trove of material that will soon be viewed by thousands of music fans and tourists, Doyle reflects on the long road bringing the hall to fruition.
Discussions about establishing a Memphis Music Hall of Fame space began back in 2007. “We wanted Rock ‘n’ Soul to administer the Hall, but we didn’t want it to be exclusive, like it was our thing,” says Doyle. “To that end, we involved all the major stakeholders in the Memphis music community — Graceland, Sun, Stax, the Blues Foundation, the various music commissions — in our plans.”
In 2012, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame began staging annual induction ceremonies — so far 47 members have been enshrined. “At that time we didn’t envision that we would be able to afford a physical building, though,” says Doyle. “Mainly, we wanted to establish a comprehensive website with the stories of our Hall of Fame members, with photos, videos, and of course to continue the celebration with the induction ceremony each year.”
But days after the inaugural ceremony in 2012, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton asked Doyle about establishing a physical Hall of Fame location. He noted that the Hard Rock Café — which was then in the process of moving farther west on Beale closer to Second Street — wanted a museum anchor as part of its new building.
Doyle and the Rock ‘n’ Soul board figured it would cost $1.3 million to do up a physical hall. Wharton and the city pledged $500,000 through grants, spread out over a couple years. A collection of philanthropic groups and donors — including the Assisi Foundation, the Hyde Family Foundation and ArtsMemphis, among others — helped come up with the balance of the money.
Finally, last fall, architectural plans, design work and asset collection were started. Construction in the space began in January, and now, just six months later, the Hall is poised to open, adding another strong new music attraction to Beale. It will be the second Hall of Fame to open this year, following the recently launched Blues Hall of Fame on South Main Street.
“Something like this easily brands itself, because people know what a hall of fame is,” says Doyle. “And also we feel like it helps Beale Street grow a little bit westward. There was a need for a strong museum on Beale Street — I know that the W.C. Handy house is there, but we’re well positioned here, at the foot of Beale, to be a hub and connector for tourists. Also, there’s a nice 1-2 punch with the Blues Music Hall of Fame.”
“It’s long overdue to memorialize the music greats, past and present, that have come to define that Memphis sound, and the influence of Memphis in the music world,” says Kevin Kane, head of the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “The (Hall) fits perfectly with the established foundation of music amenities we have. People can come to this city and submerse themselves. It just further helps cement Memphis as that must-see must-visit destination for music lovers from all over.”
The Memphis Music Hall is located on the second floor of the Hard Rock Café building, which was famously the site of the original Lansky Bros. clothiers and now houses a new Lansky retail store. “One of the attractions is the common lobby,” says Doyle. “The Hall’s lobby opens up into Hard Rock and opens up into Lansky’s. So it has the feel of a whole big complex with a lot of deep Memphis music connections and history.”
“If there’s been a knock on Downtown and Beale Street, it’s that there’s really not a lot of daytime activity there short of eating or shopping,” adds Kane. “But I think with the Rock and Soul Museum, the Center for Southern Folklore, the Blues Hall of Fame and now the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, it creates a more holistic package of what that entertainment district represents, especially to the out-of-town visitor.”
Upstairs, the 4,800-square-foot hall space boasts a clean, modern aesthetic. “We wanted it to have a little more of a contemporary feel,” says Doyle, “and not look like a Smithsonian museum, which is already the calling card for the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.”
Though closely affiliated, Rock ‘n’ Soul and the Hall of Fame are independent operations. Admission for the Hall — which is $8 — is separate from Rock ‘n’ Soul’s $12 entrance fee (though twofer packages are available and will come with a $5 gift shop discount as a bonus). In addition to underwriting its general operation, the proceeds generated by the Hall will help to support the annual induction ceremonies, which cost roughly $80,000 a year to produce. The bulk of the memorabilia and historical artifacts for the Hall of Fame are new acquisitions — while a couple pieces are on loan from other museums, nothing in the Hall cannibalizes from the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.
As you enter, the Hall of Fame space is studded with video stations and touch-screen displays allowing patrons to browse inductees, discographies and view a historical timeline. Doyle estimates an average visit time of between 60 and 75 minutes.
Given the organization’s wider mandate, genres and eras are all blended together rather than separated. There are, however, specific areas of focus, on Memphis studios and producers — such as Sam Phillips, Chips Moman, Willie Mitchell, Roland Janes — as well as Beale-centric performers and personalities like Rufus Thomas and Nat D. Williams.
The exhibits are by turns kitschy and moving, historically important and visually arresting. There’s Ann Peebles’ spangled dresses; Elvis Presley’s briefcase telephone and karate outfit; and a rich history of stage wear from Isaac Hayes to Three Six Mafia. Round another corner and you’ll see Furry Lewis’s Gibson acoustic and hand-stenciled guitar case, early tape machines from Hi Records and Ardent Studios, a signed B.B. King “Lucille” guitar, and all manner of fascinating musical bric-a-brac.
In a far corner, a case is dedicated to the life of recently departed singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who passed away in 2014 just before being inducted. It pulls together his home mixing board, clothing, and articles and paperwork on his objection to the Vietnam War and draft. Elsewhere, a collection of Grammy Awards for the Blackwood Brothers stands under glass, while an eye-catching Bar-Kays display includes a pair of stage outfits and a replica python snake.
Two of the more remarkable pieces are bigger installations. The first is Jerry Lee Lewis’ sky blue Cadillac — cut in half with the driver’s side of the car protruding from a wall. The other is an old Stax studio house piano acquired by late producer Jim Dickinson, who left the instrument to decompose in the front yard of his North Mississippi studio for years. At the Hall, it’s been mounted in relief against a stark white backdrop — a multilayered piece of history and art all in one.
While doors to the Hall open today, the first few weeks represent a “soft opening.” The formal, grand opening will come on the evening of Aug. 21. That night will also double as the announcement of the 2015 Hall of Fame class at Hard Rock, with the festivities spilling into the neighboring Hall afterward.
The Hall will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Doyle expects it to draw 40,000 visitors in its first year. “And the exhibits will evolve annually, with new inductees and new memorabilia to reflect those inductees,” he says.
“I think ultimately the Hall of Fame space will serve our bigger mission,” Doyle adds. “While your typical tourist might come to see Jerry Lee Lewis’ car or B.B. King’s guitar or Isaac Hayes piano, they’ll also learn about people like Reverend Brewster or Lucie Campbell or some of the other inductees who aren’t as well-known, but are an essential part of Memphis music history.”