Mixed-in-Memphis: A playlist of 30 classic oldies for your next west Tennessee road trip
Get in the mood for Memphis with this road trip playlist featuring some of the top rhythm & blues, soul, country and rock ’n’ roll tunes from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that were actually recorded in the city
Some of the most popular songs in the history of American music were created at hit-making Memphis studios including Stax, Sun, American Sound Studios, Ardent and more.
Get ready for a day of fun in Memphis by jamming to some of the classic Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett or Booker T. & the M.G.s hits from the ’60s. Or, crank up some ’50s era Memphis-made Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis songs.
Did you know that Otis Redding recorded his biggest hit in Memphis? It kicks off this list of sing-along mixed-in-Memphis tunes.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” — Otis Redding, 1968 at Stax Studios for their Volt label
Oits Redding’s most popular hit made it to number 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart in 1968. It was the overall number 4 song for the entire year on the Hot 100. The classic was released only days after Redding died in the plane crash.
Redding started writing the song in the late part of the summer of 1967 while on tour in northern California and finished it in Memphis along with Stax producer and guitarist Steve Cropper. He and five others died on December 10 when their plane went down near Madison, Wisconsin. The song was released on Stax’s Volt label on January 8.
Redding posthumously won two Grammy Awards for the song.
“In the Midnight Hour” — Wilson Pickett, 1965 Stax, distributed by Atlantic Records
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” wasn’t Stax Studios’ first monster hit. Wilson Pickett had won the Grammy in 1965 for Best R&B Performance for “In the Midnight Hour,” a song that was also co-written by Steve Cropper. Pickett’s first number 1 hit on the R&B charts, it peaked at number 21 on the overall American pop chart, and is certainly an enduring classic.
“Soul Man” — Sam & Dave, 1967 Stax, distributed by Atlantic Records
Written by Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter and recorded at Stax in 1967, “Soul Man” was Sam & Dave's biggest hit and Stax Studio's biggest hit at the time. It made it to number 1 on the R&B chart and number 2 on the Hot 100. It won the 1968 Grammy for Best R&B Group Performance.
Most baby-boomers like myself know the song from the 1980 comedy movie, The Blues Brothers.
Steve Cropper was guitarist on both the Sam & Dave and the Blues Brothers versions.
“Hold On, I’m Comin” — Sam & Dave, 1966 Stax, distributed by Atlantic Records
This was the overall number 1 song during 1966 on the Billboard R&B hit list. It spent 20 weeks on the charts, peaking at No. 1 in June.
It was also written by Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter. And yes, Steve Cropper played the guitar on this one, too.
“Green Onions” — Booker T. and the M.G.s, 1962 Stax
Steve Cropper and the Stax hit machine started pumping out national and international favorites even before those Sam & Dave recordings. “Green Onions” was the most popular instrumental on jukeboxes and on the radio in the early 1960s. In 1962, it hit number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart, number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song is the only instrumental on Rolling Stone’s list of top 500 greatest songs of all time.
Booker T. and the M.G.s consisted of keyboardist Booker T. Jones, Cropper, bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson Jr. They served as the Stax house band throughout the ’60s.
Booker T. and the M.G.s had another non-vocal hit you may recognize: “Time is Tight” from 1969.
“Knock on Wood” — Eddie Floyd, 1966 Stax
I bet you can sing along to this one:
It’s like thunder and lightning.
The way you love me is frightening.
Maybe dance a little.
Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper wrote “Knock on Wood,” and it rose to number 1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. The duet version by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas (1967) and the cover by David Bowie (1974) also did relatively well on the charts. But, the best-known version of the song — at least for baby boomers — was the disco interpretation performed by Amii Stewart in 1979. If you aren’t already dancing, that one should do the trick.
NOTE: The Bowie and Stewart versions were not recorded in Memphis.
That’s six Stax songs that Steve Cropper was involved with in some way, so far. Before delving into the obvious Sun Studio ’50s classics that are musts for a list like this, how about a few songs from American Sound Studio that should not be overlooked by anyone who’s putting together a mixed-in-Memphis playlist:
“Sweet Caroline” — Written and recorded by Neal Diamond, 1969 American Sound Studio, distributed by Atlantic Records
One of the most-popular mixed-in-Memphis pop songs that didn't come out of Stax or Sun Studio, it was the number 22 overall hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for the year in 1969 after peaking at number 4. It was also a top-10 hit in at least four other countries.
FUN FACT: Amazingly, “Sweet Caroline” made it up to number 8 on the UK Singles chart in 1971, and then again, in 2021 — 50 years later — it peaked at 20 on the same chart. That was due to it being played during the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship.
Another platinum hit was recorded by Diamond at American Sound Studio. In late 1969, “Holly Holy” was a huge follow up hit for the artist whose career is now in its eighth decade. Or is it the ninth?
“Son of a Preacher Man” — Dusty Springfield, 1968 American Sound Studio
Written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, and on the album, Dusty in Memphis, the song peaked at number 10 in January 1969 on the crowded Billboard Hot 100. It peaked at number 9 in the UK. It has been on over half a dozen compilations featuring the British vocalist’s hits.
Aretha Franklin also recorded this one. But it was not in Memphis, and it was originally a B-side song for the Queen of Soul. She recorded mostly in New York during the ’60s. Nonetheless, her version has been heard over the airwaves and downloaded millions of times, too.
Now, if you’re not too distracted by some old jukebox memories, let’s take a look at what are perhaps the seven most historically significant songs that were ever pressed to vinyl by Sun Studios:
“That's All Right (Mama)” — Elvis, 1954 Sun Records
It’s one of the most significant recordings in American music history simply because we may have never heard of Elvis Presley or Sam Phillips, the legendary owner/producer of Sun Studios, if not for this song. Providing that fresh sound that Phillips was looking for at the time, it’s largely responsible for both of their careers taking off.
The song was written in 1946 by Arthur William “Big Boy” Crudup.
“I Forgot to Remember to Forget” and the B-side “Mystery Train” — Elvis, 1955 Sun
Peaking in the top-5 on the Billboard Country & Western chart, the Country & Western Most Played Juke Box chart and the Most Played by Disc Jockeys chart, the rockabilly song, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” remained on the charts for 39 weeks.
On the B-side of the 45 record was “Mystery Train.” It was re-released by RCA Victor in 1955 after they acquired Presley’s recordings from Sun, and it reached number 11 on the C&W chart.
Combined, the two sides and the re-release are credited with making Presley a nationally-known country music artist.
“Folsom Prison Blues” — written and recorded by Johnny Cash, 1955 Sun Records
Cash’s second single peaked at number 3 on the country and western charts in early 1956 (His first single was “Cry! Cry! Cry!”). It was originally on the B-side of the 45 record with “So Doggone Lonesome” on the A-side. “Folsom Prison Blues” also made the national pop charts that year, peaking at number 17.
A live recording — taped at Folsom State Prison in northern California in 1968 — established the song as a classic for the ages. It rose to number 1 on the country charts and number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 before winning the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1969.
“I Walk the Line” — written and recorded by Johnny Cash, 1956 Sun Records
Based on its initial success in 1956 and its enduring legacy, Cash’s third 45 single is the top country song ever recorded in Memphis. It was the number 1 hit on the Billboard country charts for the year in 1957. Successfully crossing over, it peaked at 17 on the pop charts.
It appeared on four Cash albums, so far, and was the title track for two major motion pictures. In 2014, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 1 on its list of 100 greatest country songs of all time.
Nowadays, Cash’s top hit singles continue to be staples on classic country radio. For example, “Folsom Prison Blues” has been heard over 200 millions times on music streaming services and viewed over 35 million times on Youtube.
“Blue Suede Shoes” — written and recorded by Carl Perkins, 1956 Sun Records
A big crossover hit, “Blue Suede Shoes” was the first record by a Sun artist to sell a million copies. It was Perkin’s first and only number 1 on Billboard’s country music chart (he had nine country top 40s). It peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition, Perkins became the first country artist to reach number 3 on the rhythm and blues charts with this one.
Elvis also recorded the song in 1956, but in New York, not Memphis. The Elvis version is perhaps more-widely known and has been played more over the radio and through streaming, but it only reached number 20 on the Billboard chart back in ’56.
Perkins’ version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986.
“Whole Lotto Shakin’ Going On” — Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957 Sun Records
Dave “Curlee” Williams and James Faye “Roy" Hall most likely came up with this song while fishing in Florida. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it in Memphis with his signature boogie piano style. Propelling Lewis to worldwide fame, it peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on their R&B singles charts and number 1 on the country charts. It also climbed to 8 on the UK Singles Chart.
“Great Balls of Fire” — Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957 Sun
Goodness, gracious. This is how to follow up your first big hit. Written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, this one made it to number 1 on the country charts, peaked at number 2 on the Billboard pop charts, rose to number 3 on the R&B charts and also reached the number 1 spot on the UK Singles Chart. The original recording sold a million copies in the U.S.A. within 10 days of release.
So far, that’s 16 mixed-in-Memphis classics that would stand up to any song list as far as popular music heritage and nostalgia are concerned. Keep reading for more information about other chart-topping hits that were mixed in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I'll Take You There” — The Staple Singers, 1972 Stax
Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama and mixed at Ardent Studios in Memphis, it reached number 1 on both the R&B and Hot 100 chart. Al Bell wrote and produced it. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
It was featured on ZipRecruiter TV commercials in 2022.
“Let’s Stay Together” — Al Green, 1972 Royal Studios, Hi Records label
The song written by Green, Al Jackson Jr. and Willie Mitchell was the biggest hit for Green who had a string of eight gold records that were created in Memphis between 1971 and 1974. This one went to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Soul chart.
Green sold over 20 million records during his career at Hi Records.
Did Elvis record any more hits in Memphis?
By 1960, Elvis Presley had sold over 50 million records. Most of his biggest hits were recorded outside of Memphis between 1957 and 1968 in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. But in 1969, Elvis recorded over 15 songs at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Three of those that became international hits must be included here:
“In the Ghetto” — Elvis, 1969 American Sound Studio, RCA Victor label
Written by Mac Davis, this one peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit number 1 in some countries.
“Suspicious Minds” — Elvis, 1969 American Sound Studio, RCA Victor label
Written by Mark James, Elvis’s version was number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in 1969, his last number 1 hit on the primary pop chart while he was still living.
“Kentucky Rain” — Elvis, 1970 American Sound Studio, RCA Victor label
Although this single recorded in 1969 only made it to number 12 on the Cash Box Top 100 and number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s my personal favorite Elvis song, so it gets to be part of this mixed-in-Memphis playlist. Lovers of music trivia will like knowing that it was written by Eddie Rabbitt and it features Ronnie Milsap on piano.
Rounding out the mixed-in-Memphis playlist
Like the tunes above, the rest of the smash hits on the list represent a wide variety of artists, genres and sub-genres, and were polished up for the world to hear at the same three or four studios.
“The Letter” — The Box Tops, 1967 American Sound Studio, Mala label
Written by Wayne Carson, this under 2-minute hit earned its mixed-in-Memphis legend status by staying at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks. It was also number 1 in Canada and number 5 in the U.K. Rolling Stone magazine lists it as one of the top 500 songs of all time, and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.
The Box Tops also hit number 2 on the Hot 100 in 1969 with the mixed-in-Memphis song, “Cry Like a Baby.”
“Hooked on a Feeling” — B.J. Thomas, 1968 American Sound Studio
This one was the first top-10 Billboard Hot 100 hit for Thomas, and the only hit to be recorded in Memphis by the popular pop singer.
“Ballad of a Teenage Queen” — Johnny Cash, 1958 Sun
Another number 1 hit for the Man in Black on the Billboard Country chart, it peaked at number 14 on the broader Billboard Hot 100.
“Guess Things Happen That Way” — Johnny Cash, 1958 Sun
This one stayed at number 1 on the country chart for eight consecutive weeks.
“Rocket 88” — Ike Turner & the Kings of Rhythm, 1951 Memphis Recording Service (Chess Records label)
Considered by many to be the first rock ’n’ roll song, it was number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart for three weeks in June 1951, followed by two weeks at the top of the jukebox chart. The song was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Memphis Recording Service is what Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios was originally called. For some reason the 45 record shows the group as Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats rather than Turner’s band.
“3 O'Clock Blues” — B.B. King, 1951, recorded at Memphis YMCA, RPM label
This 70-year-old recording spent a total of 17 weeks on the Billboard R&B chart, including five weeks at number 1. It was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2020.
King also topped the R&B chart with “You Know I Love You” in 1952.
At the B.B. King Company Store on Beale Street.
“Who’s Making Love” — Johnnie Taylor, 1968 Stax
Written by members of the Stax staff, this song peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart.
“Theme From Shaft” — Isaac Hayes, 1971 Stax Studio, Enterprise records label
Considered to be an early disco song, this mostly-instrumental song was recorded for the hit MGM movie soundtrack and earned Hayes an Academy Award for Best Original Song after reaching number 1 on the main Billboard pop chart.
“In the Rain” — The Dramatics, 1972 Stax, Volt label
Written by Tony Hester, this classic mixed-in-Memphis soul hit peaked at number 5 on the Hot 100 while spending four weeks at number 1 on the Soul chart.
“Whatcha See is What You Get” — The Dramatics, 1972 Stax, Volt label
I’m sure downloads and Youtube views of this one surged when it was used on The Farmer’s Dog commercials in 2021 and 2022, but probably not as much as it did in 2015 after being featured in season two of Fargo. Back in 1972, it reached number 9 on the Hot 100 and number 3 on the R&B chart.
“Respect Yourself” — The Staple Singers, 1971 Stax
Written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, it was induced into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1971, the Staple Singer’s version peaked at 12 on the Hot 100 and number 2 on the Soul chart.
“Mr. Big Stuff” — Jean Knight, 1971, Stax
Not recorded in Memphis, but it was a huge hit for the Memphis-based Stax Records label. It was recorded in Jackson, Mississippi, but released on vinyl pressed for Stax. So, that’s close enough, especially if you’re driving through Mississippi on your way to Memphis, and since the song was a double-platinum smash, earning the spot for number 1 Soul single of the year for 1971 after also peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and being runner-up to an Aretha song for the Best R&B Vocal Performance Grammy.
“I Gotcha” — Joe Tex, 1971 American Sound Studio
In 1972, this unique tune of the funk variety made it to number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It sold 3 million copies back then. In 1992, it was part of the Reservoir Dogs motion picture soundtrack, so younger generations were exposed to it.
Tex had an earlier hit in 1967 titled “Skinny Legs and All” which was also recorded at American.
“Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues” Danny O'Keefe — 1972 American Music Studio, Signpost label
Written by O’Keefe, the second recording of the song was a hit peaking at number 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart and number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. It was also covered by some of the biggest recording artists of the era including Elvis, Waylon Jennings and Leon Russell.
Any moderately enthusiast music fan should be able to sing along with most of the hits listed here. Whether for a drive to or from the city, for a jog down by the river — or maybe you just want to get in a Memphis mood from wherever you are — it’s easy to listen to hours of mixed-in-Memphis hits however you choose.
For this article, I wanted to include the songs that were the biggest hits while not overlooking the ones that had the most significance in regard to American music history. There are dozens of other smash hits from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that were recorded in Memphis.
Obviously, the city has several music-related museums that lovers of mainstream hit oldies would enjoy visiting:
- Memphis Music Hall of Fame
- Memphis Rock ’N’ Soul Museum
- Stax Museum of American Soul
- Sun Studio
- Blues Hall of Fame
See my other Memphis articles:
Enjoy a self-guided historic-places sidewalk tour in the heart of Memphis
Become familiar with Beale Street’s deep-rooted history before you go