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Memphis Driving Tour

Bus tours are among the most popular things to do in Memphis. I even recommend an excellent one in my Memphis Travel Guide. But even a good Memphis tour leaves out many significant sites and does not offer the opportunity to stop and explore.

This self-guided driving tour covers 90 years of Memphis music history with stops of interest to fans of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country, Alternative Rock, Soul, Blues, Gospel, and Pop music. Renting a car for a day or two allows you to explore these locations and other things to do in Memphis along the way.

You can hit all the 20+ stops in just under 3 hours of drive time. Alternatively, just like a good Memphis Dry Rub recipe, you can season to taste by spending more time at places of interest and eliminating those that are not. Of course, you can even spread it out over your stay. Just know that around corners and in unexpected places, fascinating treasures of music and American history await you. There are so many things to do in Memphis!

Elvis Presley Family Home – 185 Winchester Avenue #328, Memphis

Exterior photo of the three story brick apartment building where Elvis Presley lived with his family. Things to Do in Memphis.

Lauderdale Courts was a low-income housing project where Elvis Presley lived with his family during much of his high school years. The Presley family lived in a third-floor apartment facing Winchester Avenue at the corner of the building. Elvis would practice guitar in the basement laundry room and perform for neighbors on the front steps. At the time, hanging out with his friends at Riverside Park down by the Mississippi was one of Elvis’s favorite things to do in Memphis.

Saved from the wrecking ball back in the 1990s, refurbished apartments in this complex are now available for lease. Uptown Square Apartments now offers tours of the Elvis Presley apartment. And, you can even book an overnight stay, except during Elvis Week in August.

Humes High School – 659 North Manassas Street, Memphis

Now a middle school, Elvis Presley attended high school here. To no surprise, Elvis won the senior class talent show. Within two months of graduation, he was recording music for Sam Phillips at the Memphis Recording Service.

Sun Records – 706 Union Avenue, Memphis

Things to Do in Memphis. Photo of the entrance to the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Studios.

Sam Phillips founded the Memphis Recording Service in 1950. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison each began their recording careers in this studio. Make sure you budget time for a docent-led Sun Studio tour. The tour is exceptional, among the essential things to do in Memphis.

The part of the building pictured above was the original studio entrance that later became home to Sun Records. The entrance and gift shop of the Sun Studio tour in Memphis features a large guitar mounted to the exterior of the building was a coffee shop at the time. Elvis signed his first recording contract in the coffee shop.

If you decide to take a bus tour of Memphis music sites, I recommend combining the bus tour with the Sun Studio tour. The added benefit is round-trip transportation to Sun Studio from Beale Street. The entertaining Mojo Bus Tour covers roughly half of the stops of this trip, in half the time. If you are not inclined to rent a car, the Mojo Bus Tour is one of the fun things to do in Memphis.

Sam Phillips Recording – 639 Madison Avenue, Memphis

Things to Do in Memphis. Photo of the exterior of Sam Phillips Recording Service Inc. at 639 Madison Avenue.

After outgrowing the original studio, Sam Phillips bought a former Midas Muffler shop in July 1958 and spent over 2 years and $750,000 retrofitting the building and constructing a state-of-the-art recording studio. The Phillips family still owns and operates the studio. Walking through the doors of the studio today is like taking a musical journey back to 1960. Unfortunately, they do not offer tours.

Tip: On your way to your next stop you will pass the Memphis Listening Lab in the Crosstown Concourse. The Listening Lab is among the more unique things to do in Memphis and is featured in my Travel Guide. You can work it in if you do not plan to complete the entire trip in one day. Otherwise, stop by another day.

Tip: Thinking about visiting Wild Bill’s Juke Joint during your stay? It’s highlighted under evening Things to Do in Memphis in my Travel Guide. You can check it out on your way to your next stop, although they don’t open until 6 pm.

Johnny Cash – 1st Home – 2553 Tutwiler Avenue, Memphis

Things to Do in Memphis. Photo of the exterior of Johnny Cash's first home located at 2553 Tutwiler Avenue.

Following his marriage to Vivian Liberto in August 1954, Johnny Cash moved to this Memphis duplex. Initially, he worked unsuccessfully as a door-to-door appliance salesman. The following month Johnny signed with Sun Records and recorded his first single – “Hey, Porter!” with B-side “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It was not released until June 1955. He would later record “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” while living here. During this time, Vivian also gave birth to daughters Rosanne and Kathy, and Johnny Cash made his first performance at the Grand Ole Opry where he fatefully first met June Carter.

Overton Park Shell – 1928 Poplar Avenue, Memphis

Elvis Presley played his first concert here on July 30, 1954, opening for Slim Whitman. Elvis was reportedly so nervous that he instinctively shook his leg while he performed. He was shocked when the girls in the audience went crazy. Earlier in the month, Elvis had recorded his first hit at Sun Studio, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama.”

Today, the Shell is home to the Orion Free Concert Series hosting live music from Memorial Day to mid-October, one of the coolest things to do in Memphis. Once you arrive, park at the top of the amphitheater and wander around. If you are lucky, you will run into Silver Michaels, the operations manager of the Shell. Silver offers a wealth of information about the Shell and its history. He also hosts The Shellcast, a podcast by the Overton Park Shell.

Johnny Cash – Home #2 – 5676 Walnut Grove Place, Memphis

With a growing family and a successful recording career, Johnny Cash moved his family to this larger home in 1957. The following year, Johnny signed with Columbia Records and used the payday to buy a home in Los Angeles previously owned by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. Amazingly, this Memphis home still sports the guitar-adorned custom mailbox that Johnny Cash commissioned.

Elvis Presley First House – 1034 Audobon Drive, Memphis

Things to Do in Memphis. Photo shows the iron gate in front of the first house Elvis Presley bought.

On the heels of his early recording success, Elvis bought this home for himself and his parents. They lived here from March 1956 – March 1957 before purchasing Graceland. The Presley home is one of the more modest in this neighborhood of estate homes that rival Graceland in grandeur.

Ardent Studios – 2000 Madison Avenue, Memphis

Founded by high school friends John Fry, John King, and Fred Smith (who would later start Federal Express) and initially working out of a converted garage, Ardent released its first record in 1961. From 1966-1971 Ardent operated out of a National Street location (now a convenience store) where they became renowned as a record-mixing facility.

During this time, Stax, which used the same model recording console, would bring their tracks to Ardent for mixing (and some recording). Artists such as Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, The Staples Singers, and Booker T. and the M.G.s were regulars at the studio. Ardent eventually became a subsidiary of Stax Records.

In 1971, Ardent moved to its current location on Madison Avenue and has survived the demise of Stax. Beginning with Big Star’s debut album, the two studios at Ardent have produced an impressive discography from a wide range of artists including R.E.M, The Replacements, Wilco, Elliott Smith, Z.Z. Top, John Prine, Cheap Trick, Joe Cocker, the Georgia Satellites, Gin Blossoms, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tanya Tucker, John Hiatt, Freddie King, Albert Collins, B.B. King, the White Stripes, and Bob Dylan.

Things to Do in Memphis. Photo of the exterior of Ardent Studios with a profile view of Jody Stephens walking through.
Big Star’s Jody Stephens

Big Star drummer Jody Stephens photobombed my picture! Jody currently runs Ardent Studios in addition to his work on other music projects. At the time of this photo, his band Those Pretty Wrongs was about to release their third album, one that he was excited about. Ardent also was finishing up a renovation in anticipation of a John Mellencamp visit the following month. After a nice chat, Jody graciously offered to walk into my photograph.

Tip: While you are in the neighborhood, stop by Shangri-la Records, the best record store in town. They have an excellent Memphis Music section and an incredibly knowledgeable and passionate staff. Also, check out Lafayette’s Music Room, a great place to catch live music. Both of these spots are highlighted in my Travel Guide’s Things to Do in Memphis.

Alex Chilton Childhood Home – 145 N Montgomery Street, Memphis  

Having early success as the lead singer of The Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby”) when he was 16 years old and living at this address, Chilton went on to become an indie rock cult hero as one of the driving forces behind Memphis music icons Big Star.

The Chilton family home was not your typical Kennedy-era household. Alex’s mother ran an art gallery out of the home. His father had a day job, but at night he played jazz. As Alex recalled to Robert Gordon in his outstanding book It Came from Memphis, “By the time I was ten (the year he moved to this house) man! It was party time around my parent’s house…I remember going to sleep with, like, sixteen jazz musicians playing downstairs.”

Keep an Eye on the Sky, a Big Star box set shown above, features a photo of the band on the front steps of the house. (L-R Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, and Alex Chilton)

Big Star’s Chris Bell

Big fans of Big Star may want to add Mortimer’s restaurant to their list of things to do in Memphis. Chris Bell’s sister, Sarah Stewart, owns the restaurant. In homage to her brother’s band, there is a Big Star wall which she created with the help of Big Star producer John Fry.

Chris Bell grew up in the affluent suburb of Germantown at 1447 Riverdale. His family’s home was down a long winding driveway, not visible from the street. Bell died at the intersection of Poplar and Grove Park on December 27, 1978, when his Triumph automobile struck a pole on his way home from band rehearsal at 1:30 am. He was 27 years old.

Check out the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. The full movie can be streamed with Amazon Prime. I recommend watching the trailer even if you are not familiar with the band. Like their music, it just might hook you.

Memphis Tabernacle – 1015 Cooper Street, Memphis

Johnny Cash gave his first public performance, to a women’s bible study group, in the basement of this church in December of 1954. Known as Galloway Methodist Church at the time, Cash performed with Luther Perkins and Marshal Grant, the Tennessee Two. Johnny’s bandmates were working as auto mechanics at the time. They got the gig when a postman heard the group rehearse at their repair shop and recommended them to his wife who was organizing the event at the church.

Tip: Goner Records and the Memphis Drum Shop, featured in the Things to Do in Memphis section of my Travel Guide are each within a couple of blocks of this location.

Photo of a full sized statue of Johnny Cash holding a guitar. The Memphis Tabernacle is visible in the background.
Johnny Cash statue on Cooper Street with the Memphis Tabernacle visible in the background.

American Sound Studios – 2272 Deadrick Avenue, Memphis  

Opened by producer Chips Moman and Don Crews as an independent recording studio in 1967, American quickly became a hit machine, churning out classics such as the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and “The Letter,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” (written in his Memphis hotel room the night before the session), Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” and Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.” The studio originally stood on the current site of a Family Dollar store. For a stretch, American Sounds dominated the Billboard Hot 100 with as many as 25 songs on it at one time.

American was in such high demand in 1968 that Moman and Crews acquired a second studio on Deadrick Avenue. Since Moman sold his interest in 1972, the studio has gone by many different names. From 1990-2005 when it was home to Easley McCain Recording, the studio produced some excellent albums including Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose,” White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells,” Sonic Youth’s “Washing Machine,” Modest Mouse’s “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” and Wilco’s debut “A.M.” It is still active today.

For a detailed account of the history of American Sound Studios, check out Memphis Boys, The Story of American Studios by Roben Jones.

Stax Museum – 926 E McLemore Avenue, Memphis

Inspired by Sam Phillips, banker/fiddle player Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records in 1957. Lacking professional recording equipment, Stewart teamed with his older sister, Estelle Axton, a bank clerk who mortgaged her home to buy a recording console, and Stax was born. Soon after, they converted a movie theatre into a recording studio and opened a record store in the lobby which they named Satellite Records.

The rest is truly fascinating history. The Stax Museum website provides a nice synopsis, but for a more detailed history, check out Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman. A visit to the Stax Museum is one of the great things to do in Memphis.

Things to Do in Memphis. Photo of the exterior of the STAX Museum marquee and the entrance to the Satellite Record Shop.

The Soulsville Foundation has done a remarkable job rebuilding the Stax studio as a first-class museum. Even more impressive are the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis. The Academy provides at-risk youth music education, mentorship, and performance opportunities. The Soulsville Charter School is a tuition-free college preparatory public school providing an academically rigorous, music-rich environment for 600 students.

The Soulsville Foundation accepts donations through its website.

Memphis Slim House – 1130 College Street, Memphis

The historic home of blues pianist Memphis Slim has been transformed into the Memphis Slim Collaboratory. Located around the corner from Stax, Slim House is a community gathering place where professionals of every genre can create and share music. They offer rehearsal and performance space, workshops and seminars, and mentoring opportunities for aspiring musicians. Click the link to learn more and support this community resource.

Royal Studios – 1320 Willie Mitchell Boulevard, Memphis

Photo of the full exterior of Royal Studios. The front door is painted with an image of Willie Mitchell.

A former movie theatre built in 1915 and home to Hi-Records and Royal Studios, Al Green cut all his classic soul albums in this facility. The street where Royal Studios is located was renamed Willie Mitchell Boulevard for good reason. The Memphis-raised Mitchell began his music career as a trumpeter in the 1940s playing in Tuff Green’s band on Beale Street. He notably played trumpet on a recording of B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues” in 1951.

Following a stint in the Army, he led a popular local band that was hired by Elvis to play parties at Graceland on several occasions. He signed on with Hi-Records where he recorded several modest hits and served as recording engineer and producer for others. Following the death of the label’s owner, Mitchell took over the record label and the studio.

The fantastic film “Take to the River,” a project documenting the generational passing of the Memphis music torch, was recorded at Royal Studios in 2014. Since Royal does not offer tours, this documentary provides a good look inside look of the studios and the characters that supported its success.

Today, Royal Studios is still a working studio run by Willie’s son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. Boo earned a Grammy for his work on the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars mega-hit “Uptown Funk” which was recorded at Royal. Other artists who have come to Royal to capture the soul vibe include Keith Richards, Boz Scaggs, De La Soul, Rod Stewart, Wu-Tang Clan, Buddy Guy, and My Morning Jacket to name a few.

Aretha Franklin Birthplace – 408 Lucy Avenue, Memphis

Photo of the small home where Aretha Franklin was born. The property is fenced and windows are boarded.

It’s only fitting that the Queen of Soul has a connection to Memphis. Aretha Franklin was born in this house, to the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his gospel-singing wife, Barbara. The Franklin’s moved to Buffalo, New York two years later, but Aretha’s association with this vacant and fenced house is strong.

The site of 1940s jazz and R&B bandleader Tuff Green’s home at 406 Simpson Avenue was just a block away. Now a vacant lot in this dilapidated neighborhood, the living room of his home served as the first black-owned recording service. B.B. King first recorded “Darling? You Know I Love You” there. With the establishment of Sam Phillip’s Memphis Recording Service, demand for Green’s studio diminished.

Mason Temple – 930 Mason Street, Memphis

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a prophetic final speech at this location on the eve of his assassination at the Lorraine Motel.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Make sure you budget time in your trip to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel while you are in town. This exceptional museum is one of the top things to do in Memphis.

Robert Johnson Family Home – 285 E. Georgia Avenue, Memphis

Photo of the large two story brick home and remains of the guesthouse where Robert Johnson's Memphis family resided.

Blues legend Robert Johnson lived with his mother’s first husband’s family (Robert’s Memphis family) until he was 8 years old. That house at 898 Court Avenue has since been replaced by a parking lot. After Johnson moved to the Abbay & Leatherman plantation with his mother and her new husband, he frequently returned to Memphis, often for extended periods. He stayed with his Memphis family at this home.

Johnson would sleep in the brick house behind the family’s main house, in this neighborhood which was once home to affluent African Americans. He would often see a Hudson Terraplane automobile parked on this street which inspired the biggest hit of his lifetime, “Terraplane Blues.”

Robert Johnson would travel by train “with the hobos” (as Mrs. Annye Anderson recalled in her memoir, “Brother Robert”) between the Georgia Avenue home and his mother’s place on the Abbay & Leatherman plantation. You can retrace Johnson’s steps by walking to Hernando Street and turning right. The tracks are at the end of Hernando Street.

Historic homes, except for Graceland, are not on many (if any) tours. Yet, to me, visiting places like this is among the more fascinating things to do in Memphis.

Tip: At this point in the trip, you are near downtown. The next few destinations will lead you away from town, with the last stop about 10 miles/20 minutes from downtown.

Hernando’s Hide-A-Way – 3210 Old Hernando Road, Memphis

Things to Do in Memphis. Exterior daytime photo of Hernando's Hide-A-Way. There is a 1950s era car parked in front.

Hernando’s Hide-A-Way is a historic Memphis roadhouse located just down the street from Graceland with incredible music history. The building dates to 1891 as a woman-owned feed store. In the early 1940s, it became a weekend juke joint before evolving into a nightclub in the 1950s.

Elvis played here for the first time in 1953 when he appeared with Johnny Burnette who wrote a song about Hernando’s called “Rock Billy Boogie.” The crowd threw beer bottles at Elvis. Apparently, they did not like his look – long hair, pink shirt, and green pants. By the time he returned to perform in 1954, they were more accepting. B.B. King also performed here at the time.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the house band consisted of musicians from Stax, Sun, and American Studios. Jerry Lee Lewis became such a fixture here for decades. He referred to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way as his office.

Hernando’s Hide-A-Way is featured in my Travel Guide as one of the best things to do in Memphis for evening entertainment and live music. They are open Wednesday through Sunday nights.

Graceland – 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis

The former home of the King of Rock and Roll, Graceland has evolved into a city unto itself, with a hotel, a theatre, and museums in addition to Elvis’ former home and final resting place. Graceland is one of the most popular things to do in Memphis. If you visit, plan on spending the better part of a day at Graceland. You will pass it on the way to your next stop.

Full Gospel Tabernacle – Rev. Al Green – 787 Hale Road, Memphis

Close up of sign reading Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, Bishop Al Green, Pastor. Established 1976. Things to Do in Memphis.

Following a life-changing traumatic experience in which his girlfriend attacked him before taking her own life, Al Green walked away from his hugely successful career in secular music in 1976. He became an ordained minister, bought this church, and for a time only recorded and performed gospel music.

While he later returned to performing his hits on a limited basis, to this day, he still holds services at the Full Gospel Tabernacle when he is in town. Visitors are welcome but keep in mind that this is a house of worship that just happens to have an outstanding gospel choir led by one of the giants of soul music. A day of worship and music with Bishop Green is one of the most unique things to do in Memphis.

Jerry Lee Lewis Cousin’s Home – 4908 East Shore Drive, Memphis

This was the home of Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin J.W. Brown, whom Jerry Lee stayed with when he first moved to Memphis in 1956. Lewis fell for Brown’s 13-year-old daughter, Myra, and following their marriage moved to 4752 Dianne Drive (near the airport/Graceland).

Jerry Lee Lewis Home – 5042 East Shore Drive, Memphis

Jerry Lee and his young bride, later moved to this house, just down the street from Myra’s family. At this time Lewis’s recording career was derailed as a result of his controversial marriage.

Jerry Lee Lewis Last Home – 1595 Malone Road, Nesbit, Mississippi

Photo of the gates at the home of Jerry Lee Lewis. Above are metal letters reading "The Lewis Ranch."
Entrance to Jerry Lee Lewis’ ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi. Before his death, there was a metal grand piano attached to the gate.

Jerry Lee Lewis passed away on October 28, 2022, at his long-time home on this ranch in the hill country of northern Mississippi. For years, tours of the home were offered. According to reviews, visitors felt like house guests, able to sit on the furniture and touch memorabilia with tours often provided by friends and family members of Jerry Lee Lewis. Tours were discontinued in August 2021, but according to the sign, may have resumed. This stop is not included in the tour time.

Looking for More Ideas?

This self-guided tour covers a lot of ground. I hope it inspires you to stop and explore the variety of things to do in Memphis on your trip. A self-guided walking tour of downtown Memphis is coming later this year. Sign up below to be updated.

Memphis is also a great launching point for exploring the Mississippi Delta. Be sure to check out my Mississippi Blues Trail Road Trip and Clarksdale Travel Guide.

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