Elvis and Isaac: The Memphis Music Legacy

Painted portrait of Elvis Presley in red shirt with clouds behind him, in circular matter
Elvis Aron Presley/Ralph Wolfe Cowan,1976-1988/
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;
gift of R.W. Cowan   

On August 16, 1977 the eyes of the world turned to Memphis, Tennessee, as the news broke that Elvis Presley was dead at the age of forty-two. This portrait of Elvis is on view in National Portrait Gallery's "Bravo!" exhibition, and was painted by artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan, during the years 1976 to 1988.  In a 2006 letter to NPG, Mr. Cowan told of the portrait:

It wasn’t until the early 1960s when I was asked to open the first portrait-painting studio at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.  It was then that Elvis walked in—put his hands across the door and said, “You can’t get away from me this time. . .and I’ll wear whatever you want!” I started drawing him that night on a blank 48 inch, circular canvas that was adandoned when you told me he preferred the full-length size.  When the full-length painting was finished, Elvis came by and personally carried the four-foot by seven-foot painting across Las Vegas Blvd to his room at the Aladdin Hotel where he always stayed. . . .

After Elvis died…I was able to restore and repair the circular Elvis portrait.  As you can see, I added the red shirt and blue sky to make it different from the Graceland painting. . . .I’ve heard from clients who have seen the portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery that it gets great attention.  For that I am very happy. 

Last week, as legions of Elvis fans gathered in Memphis for the thirty-first annual candlelight vigil outside of Graceland, the world had already been reminded of the power of Memphis music with the passing of Isaac Hayes on August 10.  A multiple Grammy winner, Hayes also won an Oscar for the soundtrack of the 1971 blacksploitation film Shaft.  Most recently, he endeared himself to a new generation, voicing the role of “Chef” on the animated series South Park.   

The impact of Memphis music on the world scene cannot be overestimated; Memphis, Tennessee is to music as nineteenth-century Paris is to art.  In 2000, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History installed a permanent music exhibition in Memphis in the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum; NMAH curator Charlie McGovern noted that “it’s the first time the Smithsonian has created an entire exhibition and turned it over to the community where it began.”  The exhibition, “Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads,” is a narrative of Memphis music history and is located at the historic corner of Beale Street and Highway 61.  A later study by the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum declared that city name Memphis is mentioned in more song lyrics than any other city on earth.    

There is no such thing as a single, stylized Memphis sound; Memphis music stretches across all the disciplines of modern music and occupies space in rock and roll, country and western, rhythm and blues, rap, hip-hop, and pop.  Among the names Memphis claims are the Box Tops, the Gentrys, Charlie Rich, Otis Redding, the BarKays, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Booker T and the MG’s, the early Sun Studio artists, Aretha Franklin, and WC Handy.  Both Led Zeppelin and REM have recorded at Memphis’ Ardent studio, which also serves as home base for ZZ Top. 

Audio_icon_whitebg Listen here and learn more about the Memphis sound, from NPG Researcher Warren Perry (8:30)

For more on the Rock 'n' Soul museum, be sure to see their website.