Memphis Soul Music

DURATION: 45 minutes

  • Internet access


Music was an important element in African American lives.  This led to the development of new, distinct styles of music including blues, black gospel, and soul.  African American Tennesseans, especially those from Memphis, were at the forefront. Many blues performers from the Mississippi Delta came to Memphis to perform.
 Blues was one of many black styles that gained popularity during the 1950s. Before World War II, blues performers like Memphian Bukka White used acoustic instruments to record "race records" - designed for black listeners.  After the war, electric guitars became widespread and gave the blues power. Artist B.B. King helped develop the new electrified sound.  This also influenced white musicians who adopted the style. Racial barriers began to erode as black music was introduced to young white listeners.

 However, soul music, a form that shared musical roots with gospel, was even more popular with the young. Memphis labels Stax and Hi Records created a group of successful soul musicians such as Marvin Gaye, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett and Al Green.  The Memphis soul industry competed vigorously with Detroit’s, although the Memphis style was considered more original.

A group of Memphis players, two black and two white, joined together to form a band that became known for backing (playing music behind) other singers.  Booker T. and The MG's (Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Donald Dunn and Al Jackson) provided a unique sound for Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, and Wilson Pickett.  They performed on more than 600 recordings at Stax and even produced their own hit song, an instrumental, "Green Onions."
One of greatest soul musicians was Otis Redding who began recording at Stax/Volt in 1963 and continued until his death in an airplane crash in 1968.  Redding's greatest hit was released after his death, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," co-written by Cropper.  The song shot to number one on the charts and stayed there four weeks.
By 1968 the style began to mirror changes in the Civil Rights Movement, with themes becoming more male-centered. Isaac Hayes became a soul legend for singing such male-oriented tunes as “Shaft.” Hayes was a long time songwriter and arranger for Stax Records in Memphis, playing in the backup band for other performers.  He began recording his own music in 1967 and had a hit with his “Hot Buttered Soul” album in 1969. Hayes recorded the theme for the Shaft movie in 1971. He won an Academy Award for best original theme song and then also won Grammy awards for the song.

While not as popular as in the 1960s and 1970s, soul music, much of which originated in Tennessee, remains popular today.

Guiding Questions: 

  • What role did various music styles play in the development of the style of music now known as Memphis Soul Music?

Objectives:  Students will 

  1. Associate examples of music with particular music categories, including rock and roll, blues, and country.
  2. Describe major events and important historic figures associated with the development of Memphis Soul Music in Tennessee.


  • Have students write a brief summary of important contributions of various types of music to Memphis Soul Music.


  • Introduce the topic of “Tennessee Music” by asking students what kind of music “came from Tennessee”. (Elvis and Rock and Roll, Nashville and Country Music, …)
  • Open the Memphis Soul Music section of the Tennessee 4 Me website at Have the students read the copy and then play the two short audio clips.
  • Have a short class discussion on the copy. Ask such questions as: 
    1. Have they ever heard of soul music?
    2. What is the difference between rhythm and blues and soul music? Rhythm and blues combines jazz, gospel, and blues while soul combined rhythm and blues and gospel. Soul music is not religious, but rather borrows from gospel musical forms of testifying with catchy rhythms. It also has a call and response from the soloist and chorus. Soul music might be described as singing from the heart or soul.
    3. Are there any singers today who perform soul music? Replay the Otis Redding clip on the website. Who sounds like this today? ( You can make a list on the blackboard and add names to it as the students think of singers.) Most of the singers today who perform rhythm and blues also do “soulful” rhythm and blues songs.   Some of the names include Mariah Carey, Usher, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Toni Braxton
  • Project the TN4me page so everyone can listen together. Click on the link to the video clip from the PBS program on the Stax Record Company, which began operation in Memphis in 1959.
  •  View the short clip.
  • Have a class discussion about the clip.
    1. If everything in Memphis was segregated, how did black and white musicians start playing together at Stax? The black musicians grew up playing rhythm and blues and the white ones started hearing it at black clubs and on the radio. The musicians cared more about music than segregation so they started playing together.
    2. Why was Otis Redding’s death in the plane crash so bad for Stax? He was their biggest star, and potential money from people buying his records because he had died and wouldn’t record any more encouraged Atlantic Records to go to court to get all his recordings from Stax.   Ask the students if they can remember a famous singer dying recently and how all his musical recordings were selling. (Michael Jackson)
    3. In the scene with Jesse Jackson leading a chant on “I am somebody” why was that tied into soul music? Most of the soul musicians were black. This was the time of the “black pride” movement in the 1970s when black people wore Afro hair styles and colorful African-influenced clothing. As the Stax president said in the video that music “was a reflection of what goes on in our lives,” soul music was reflecting black pride.
  • As time permits, explore the music and influences for several of the Soul Music artists listed.

Extensions:Have students

  • Have students take a virtual tour of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, online at:
  • Have students go to:  Click on Stax River of Music Styles. Click on a name and read the information on the pop-up card to learn about some of the styles that influenced Soul Music. They can then click on Stax Hits and then click on an artist to hear his/her music.
  • Collaborate with your music teacher to bring examples of today’s music and have students classify the songs whether they are rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop, or pop music.



Tennessee Grade 5 Social Studies Standards (

5.0.03.a. Identify significant examples of art, music, and literature from various periods in United States history.

Tennessee Social Studies Process Skills (
Historical Awareness:
  • Utilize primary and secondary source material such as biographies and autobiographies; novels; speeches and letters; and poetry, songs, and artwork.


            National History Standards ( 

Thinking Standards: STANDARD 2: Historical Comprehension
5-12 I. Draw upon the visual, literary, and musical sources including: (a) photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings; (b) novels, poetry, and plays; and, (c) folk, popular and classical music, to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.