Music Heritage: 1940s-1950s

Posted on June 1, 2014

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By Isabelle Nelson and Michelle Quina

The Memphis music scene between the 1940s and 1950s was exploding with the fresh development of the radio still underway.  In 1948 the WDIA radio station was about to go under.  There were already five established stations in Memphis, and there seemed to be no need for WDIA.  The owners decided to instead appeal to African American listeners. Nat D. Williams was selected to be the disc jockey for the new WDIA radio station, making him the first black DJ.  The radio station received backlash due to its attempts to attract African American listeners, but Nat D. powered through the criticism, and by 1949 WDIA became the first station in the United States with entirely black DJs. WDIA helped establish many music legends, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas. In 1949 B.B King came to the WDIA. Originally, he advertised on WDIA for Lucky Strike cigarettes, and later took a DJ position on the afternoon show where he began to develop his fan-base.

Although soul and jazz music remained popular in the 1940s and 1950s, two new genres were coming into play with classical music institutions developing in the city and rock and roll sparking a revolution in not only Memphis, but in all of popular culture. In the early 1950s Sam Phillips, the innovative figure behind the establishment of the rock and roll genre, opened Sun Studios and Sun Records at 706 Union Avenue. This studio marked the location where artists such asJerry Lee Lewis, James Cotton and eventually Elvis Presley, the King of rock and roll himself, recorded.

Successfully assimilating a smooth mixture of the artists’ main sounds of country, gospel and blues, driven by upbeat, steadfast rhythm, Phillips released his first two singles with Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in 1954. Due to his unique sound, Presley is credited as the man who formed the genre of “rockabilly” and eventually made the genre prominent among other unknown artists at the time, such as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, who recorded and began their careers in the Memphis-based studio. Presley, and his equally talented followers, made a substantial impact on the label. Over the course of his career, Presley had gained 94 gold singles and 40 gold albums to his name. In addition, he was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

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Posted in: Music