North America

Sun Studio: The Birthplace of Rock & Roll in Memphis

Sun Studio, fondly known as the birthplace of rock and roll, occupies a small corner on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. The studio, like much of the surrounding area, looks like it never made it out of the 1950’s. It’s old, it’s shabby, but it’s where major music history was made and that’s why music fans from all over the world continue to visit year after year.

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

Sun Studio Tours

The outside of Sun Studio has had cameos in many Hollywood films, Walk The Line being the most recent. Exterior windows are lit with glowing signs reading ‘Memphis Recording Service’, a throwback to Sun Studio’s early days.

Inside, photos, records and vintage music memorabilia line the walls of a small cafe and gift shop. This area of Sun Studio is free, but if you’d like to see more you’ll need to join one of the guided group tours that run every hour on the half hour. Little advice – buy tickets online or get there 30 minutes early. The tours fill up fast and you don’t want to be standing around for an hour waiting for the next one! Tickets are $12 for adults and free for children age 5-11. Kids under 5 are not permitted on the tour.

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

History of Sun Studio

Our tour was led by an energetic gal named Lydia. As we wandered through the first room on the tour, a small museum of sorts showcasing ancient recording equipment and relics from the 1950’s blues era, Lydia explained to us how Sun Studio came to be known as the birthplace of rock and roll.

As the story goes, back when Sun Studio was still known as the Memphis Recording Service, Sam Phillips, the owner, was recording a song called Rocket 88 for Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner’s band, but Willie Kizart’s amp had been damaged on the ride to Memphis from Mississippi and was creating feedback. As a temporary fix to hold the cone in place, they stuffed the amp with wadded up newspaper. The fuzzy sound that came out when Kizart began to play again is the world’s first known example of distortion. Sam liked the new sound, recorded the track, and the rest is history!

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

The Elvis Connection

Of course, the case could also be made that a little dancing guitar player named Elvis Presley is the reason for Sun Studio’s place in music history. He’s pictured above with Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker, the latter of which we should all be thanking because it’s likely due to her persistence that Elvis was “discovered”.

Elvis loved listening to the rhythm and blues musicians in Memphis, and after reading a newspaper article about The Prisonaires, an incarcerated doo-wop group who recorded at Sun Studio while still in prison (good story there!), he decided to drop in and record some tracks of his own. Keisker passed Elvis’ recording along to Phillips who originally wasn’t interested, but after Elvis recorded a second demo, Phillips brought him in to record a ballad he thought would be a good fit. Elvis, nervous to be recording for Sam, botched the song and everyone decided it was probably best just to call it a night. Then, as everyone was packing up, Elvis grabbed a mike and started dancing and singing in his unique Elvis-fashion to Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right. That’s when Sam decided Elvis was the artist he’d been looking for – someone who could bring the sound of black musicians to the masses. Three days later, Elvis’ version of That’s All Right was playing on Memphis radio, and then you know how the story goes from there. Rock and roll history, my friends. This is where it all began.

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

The Studio

After making a brief stop in the front office where Elvis met Marion Keisker for the first time, we found ourselves in the same studio where all the magic happened over fifty years ago. Save for the pictures lining the walls, it’s all exactly as it was when Elvis recorded here in 1954. There’s even a small ‘X’ on the floor, marking the exact spot where Elvis stood when he recorded for the first time. (If that doesn’t make the hairs on your arm stand up, then you have no business calling yourself an Elvis fan!)

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

Elvis’ Microphone

Still a functioning studio at evening after the last tour has completed, the room is full of equipment and instruments dating back to the 50’s. There’s even a drum set belonging to U2, a gift to the studio after the band recorded their album Rattle & Hum here. Def Leppard, John Mellencamp, and Maroon 5 are just a few other familiar names who’ve recorded here. But the most memorable piece of equipment in the room is Elvis’ very own microphone. Instead of being kept behind glass, as it likely would have been at any other museum, it’s sitting out for everyone to touch, take embarrassing photos with, or even kiss if you’re not too worried about germs. (But they’re Elvis germs, so they can’t really be that bad, right?)

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

The Million Dollar Quartet

My second favorite thing in the studio, after the germy microphone, is the framed photo of The Million Dollar Quartet on the wall. It’s cool for two reasons – first, it’s just awesome that there was a spontaneous collaboration between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins and Sam thought to record it. (The latter three were all signed by Sun Records after Elvis shot to fame.) Second, the picture is hanging on the same wall that’s in the picture. In other words, this photo was taken 57 years earlier in the same spot I was standing in as I looked at it. So cool.

As I’m sure you’ve figured out already, this is a pretty short tour. You buy your ticket and then two rooms and forty minutes later, you’re done. Sun Studio lacks the glitz and glam of other music museums, but in my opinion it doesn’t need them. I like the musty hallways and the original studio, untouched by “improvements” designed to bring in more tourists. If you’re a true music fan, the spirit of this place will get to you. It’s the real deal.

(For another music-related destination in Memphis, check out my article on Graceland. Sun Studio offers a free shuttle to and from Graceland for your convenience.)

Sun Studio: Website
Address: 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee 38103

Did you enjoy this article or find it helpful? Save it for later on Pinterest!

Sun Studio: The Birthplace Of Rock & Roll In Memphis, Tennessee

Share this post:

  • Eric
    March 17, 2015 at 12:05 PM

    Talking about Sun Studio… Check it out. This guy actually found a business sign in 2013 Elvis worked on while driving a truck at Crown Electric. It was buried, he dug it up, and gave it to Sun Studio. Very interesting story in the book: ‘Elvis Before Graceland’, on amazon.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 18, 2015 at 8:09 AM

      Awesome story! I’ll have to check that book out! Thanks! :)

  • Tina @ Girl-Meets-Globe
    January 21, 2014 at 9:42 PM

    So fun! I love that you can be up close and personal with all the memorabilia! So fascinating!

  • Emmymom
    January 21, 2014 at 1:58 AM

    Love that microphone shot! I didn’t really know about his start very much so loved reading this

  • Katrin
    January 19, 2014 at 10:00 PM

    I would not want to kiss the germy microphone but I love music and I would love to visit! Thanks for sharing the great pictures! I hope you are having a fantastic Sunday!

  • Miwa
    January 19, 2014 at 7:25 PM

    Amazing! I love how everything remains basically the same as it did back then. So much history!

  • Jen Mc
    January 18, 2014 at 9:51 AM

    That is a stop we haven’t made in Memphis. Someday…it looks really cool

  • Diana Bockus
    January 18, 2014 at 6:23 AM

    So iconic! If walls could talk! Really wish I had time to do this when I was in Memphis!

  • Quyen Nguyen
    January 18, 2014 at 1:15 AM

    What a fun place and a great tour! Can’t wait to go to Memphis one day.

  • Amy | Club Narwhal
    January 17, 2014 at 11:31 PM

    Sarah, you are making me want to go to Tennessee right away–and not just for the BBQ! I love your photo of the germy microphone too :)

  • Sammy @ Days Like This
    January 17, 2014 at 9:05 PM

    I think it’s so great the microphone was not cased in a glass box. It sounds like it was more of an authentic experience. I do enjoy Elvis. We used to watch his movies as kids with my dad. Good memories

  • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    January 17, 2014 at 8:41 PM

    I love little museums sometimes more than bigger ones, as you can spend time reading things and not feel like you will never get through it.

    • Sarah Shumate
      January 18, 2014 at 2:01 AM

      I know exactly what you mean! All of the museums in London require like five visits to properly see everything – it’s overwhelming!

  • Jenn
    January 17, 2014 at 8:38 PM

    I think it’s awesome that it’s untouched, it makes it that much more amazing to visit because you have that feeling of being there during that time period :)

  • Sara Louise
    January 17, 2014 at 6:58 PM

    That last photo is pretty epic!

  • Anna
    January 17, 2014 at 5:48 PM

    I love these posts! I desperately want to go to Memphis and this museum now, even if I do catch Elvis germs. Sounds like it’s well worth it. It’s so awesome that you did these when you went back home.