Memphis, Tennessee is the undisputed home of the blues and birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll. Music permeates every aspect of the city and is truly one of the foundational cornerstones that makes it one of the most visited places on the planet. Memphis has earned an almost mythical reputation when it comes to music, as evidenced by the fact it has been mentioned in 1,074 commercially recorded songs, more than any other city in the world (1).
Artists from every genre of music find inspiration there, and some of the biggest hits ever recorded were laid down in the Bluff City. From ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay’, to ‘Uptown Funk’, to ‘Walkin’ in Memphis’, the list is long of musicians who have tapped into that mysterious magic and created songs that are universally loved.
Most of Memphis’ musical legacy is overshadowed by the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley. While not a Memphis native, he moved from Tupelo, Mississippi at the age of 13, and rose to fame from recording with Sam Phillips at the legendary Sun Studio on Union Avenue.
To quote the indomitable Mojo Nixon, while “Elvis is Everywhere”, he definitely is not the only notable artist who claimed Memphis as home to gift the world with great songs. Here is a list of artists and bands from Memphis, who recorded their biggest hits in their hometown.
10 “Walkin’ Shoes” by Tora Tora
Tora Tora formed in Memphis in 1985 and released their debut album, Surprise! Attack, in 1989. The album, recorded at Ardent Studios, reached #47 (2) on The Billboard top 200 and featured the single “Dancin’ with A Gypsy” that was included on the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure soundtrack. The band would record two more albums but would eventually get lost in the mix once alternative and grunge effectively killed the hair metal scene.
While “Walkin’ Shoes” never reached the top of the charts, it did have the distinction of being the first music video by a Memphis band to be played in heavy rotation on MTV. The song features a blistering guitar riff with a bluesy intro and catchy lyrics that are fun to sing along to.
9 “Sign of the Storm” by Eric Gales
Eric Gales hit #9 (3) on the US Mainstream Rock chart in 1991 with the first single off his debut album, The Eric Gales Band, recorded at Ardent Studios. From the opening riff of “Sign of the Storm”, one can see why Gales is often compared to Jimi Hendrix. But with the gospel inspired lyrics, and the searing guitar solo, Gales clearly carves out his own niche in blues inspired rock.
Gales was considered a guitar prodigy in Memphis, competing in blues competitions at the age of 9, and was named Best New Talent by Guitar World in 1991 at the age of 16. Three years later he played with Carlos Santana at Woodstock ’94 and has gone on to record 17 studio albums. In 2020 he was named Blues Rock Artist of the Year. (4)
8 “Walkin’ the Dog” by Rufus Thomas
Rufus Thomas is a legendary figure in the Bluff City and rightfully so. He was a vaudevillian, singer, songwriter, DJ, comedian and all-around ambassador. As the ‘World’s Oldest Teenager’, he made his mark discovering and working with legendary acts such as B.B. King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Johnny Ace, among others.
He had novelty hits with “Do the Funky Chicken” and “Push and Pull”, but his biggest claim to fame was the single “Walkin’ the Dog”, recorded at Stax in 1963 and reaching #10 on the Billboard charts (5). The song is indicative of what would become the ‘Stax Sound’, and the tempo is analogous to the secret of Memphis bar-b-que, slow and low. While Rufus’ version features his trademark playfulness, other bands have made it their own, with the song being covered by 90 different artists (6).
7 “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” by Three6Mafia
Three6Mafia formed in Memphis in 1991 and has become one of the most influential rap groups to come out of what is now known as ‘The Dirty South’. The group has had a revolving cast of members, with the mainstays being DJ Paul and Juicy J. The band and their songs have been featured in numerous TV shows, movies and video games.
While “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” isn’t their biggest hit, that distinction belongs to “Stay Fly” which hit #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 (7), the 2005 release is notable for winning the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 78th Academy Awards. The song, recorded at Hypnotize Minds Camp, features superior production value, and something Memphis musicians are keenly aware of, the mysterious and elusive ‘hook’. When the first chorus rolls around, it’s time to get up to get down.
6 “Look Alive” by BlocBoy JB & Drake
BlocBoy JB is a Memphis rapper who has been making music since 2012 and gained recognition for his song “Shoot”, which created the popular dance craze known as the ‘Shoot Dance’. BlocBoy’s viral success led to being noticed by Canadian rapper Drake, whose father is from Memphis.
In 2018, the pair collaborated on the song “Look Alive”, recorded by Memphis producer Tay Keith. The song reached #5 (8) on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was filmed in Memphis. The chorus shouts out the Memphis area code (901), as well as the street Shelby Drive, which is named after the county the city resides in.
5 “Keep on Dancin’” by The Gentrys
In 1963, seven classmates at Treadwell High School formed a band to play local dances, and quickly became successful on the local scene. After winning a Battle of the Bands competition in 1964, they were awarded a recording contract with local label Youngstown Records.
The band, featuring future WWF personality Jimmy Hart and local legend Larry Raspberry, recorded “Keep on Dancin’” in 1965 and the tune climbed to #4 (9) on the Billboard Hot 100. The song sold a million copies (10) and led to dates opening for The Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher, as well as multiple TV appearances. The song features a pounding rhythm that makes you want to move and a keyboard hook that is definite earworm material.
4 “Soul Finger” by Bar-Kays
Beginning as the session band for Stax Studios in 1966, the Bar-Kays would go on to have multiple hits and tour with the likes of Otis Redding before four members of the band died in a plane crash that also took the life of “The Dock of the Bay” singer. The band would reform with different members and have a #10 hit in 1972 with “The Son of Shaft”, and 1980’s “Boogie Body Land” which reached #7, both on the R&B charts (11).
But the band’s most successful song was the instrumental “Soul Finger” which rose to #17 (12) on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the R&B Singles chart. The tune features a Memphis staple with bright horns and a rhythmic guitar strum as well as a relentless bass line. The song was recorded at Stax in 1967 and well represents the unpolished groovy sound of the studio. “Soul Finger” is instantly recognizable and has become a mainstay with marching bands around the country.
3 “The Letter” by The Box Tops
While “The Letter” is probably most known as a song by Joe Cocker, it was actually written and first performed by the Memphis group The Box Tops. The band would also have hits with “Cry Like a Baby” and “Soul Deep”, before vocalist Alex Chilton would leave to form the influential power-pop band Big Star.
“The Letter” was recorded in 1967 at American Sound Studios and became a #1 (13) hit for four weeks on the Billboard charts. The song has great sounding horns with a groovy bass line, but what stands out is the world-weary, lovelorn soulful voice of a 16-year old Chilton. In 2011 the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock ‘n Roll” (14).
2 “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes
The second song on this list (but first chronologically) to receive an Oscar for Best Original Song, “Theme from Shaft” was recorded by Isaac Hayes in 1971 at Stax Studios. Hayes began his career as a session player and songwriter at Stax and had his imprints on hits such as “Soul Man”, “Hold on, I’m Coming” and “You Don’t Know, Like I Know”. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 (15) along with partner David Porter, and into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 (16).
“Theme from Shaft” was a huge success, charting at #1 (17) on the Billboard Hot 100, #2 on the Billboard Soul Singles and #6 on Billboard’s Easy Listening (18). From the opening hi-hat, that unmistakable wah-wah heavy guitar riff and the cool as ice lyrics, almost 50 years later this song is still a bad mother….
1 “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MG’s
If there is one song, by one group, that completely encapsulates not only Memphis music, but Memphis as a city, it is “Green Onions”. Booker T & the MG’s began as the house band for Stax, pioneering the Stax sound and performing on numerous hits by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and many others. The band was one of the first to consist of two black members and two white members, and was one of the most influential groups of the 1960’s.
“Green Onions” was recorded in 1962 and reached #3 (19) on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B Singles charts. 17 years after its release, it climbed to #7 on the UK Singles chart and stayed there for 12 weeks (20). The song begins with a Hammond M3 organ line that Booker T. Jones originally wrote when he was 17, and then settles into an infectious funky groove that is gritty, super cool and features one of the cleanest, meanest guitar solos ever recorded.
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