The capital city of soul and rock'n'roll, which launched the careers of stars including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Jerry Lee Lewis, has hit hard times. In its heyday Elvis was its king in his Graceland mansion. Yet today the stardust of Memphis is gone, replaced by high unemployment, crime and grinding poverty.
Now an unlikely figure, the former boy band member Justin Timberlake, has emerged as its would-be saviour. He is negotiating to build a huge recording studio complex and to buy up two of the city's world-renowned record labels, Sun, which gave the planet Elvis and rock'n'roll, and Otis Redding's Stax. The audacious plan would revive Memphis as a creative centre in a way not seen since BB King and Booker T and the MGs played Beale Street in the Sixties.
Timberlake's move is not without controversy. Smaller studios and labels that have struggled in the city for years fear they could be ruined by such a powerful player signing up local talent. Senior figures behind the project said Timberlake, 24, could launch a new record label to go alongside the revival of Sun and Stax, or dramatically expand the company he started up this summer, JayTee Records, which signed hip hop's Joshua B as its first act. 'Right now it is something that is in the works, but it's not something that can really be spoken about. It would be great, wonderful for Memphis,' said Jon Hornyak, senior executive director of the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy, the body behind the Grammys music awards.
'[Justin] is the biggest pop star in the world right now. It's like when Elvis was here 50 years ago, it shook a lot of things up and people paid attention,' said Hornyak. Timberlake started out as a teen pop vocalist, but as a solo artist has swung towards R&B and rap. His studio would probably record a variety of styles.
It's very exciting to have someone of his significance participate in the music scene here,' said Ray Fleming, president of the Memphis Music Foundation. Sun Studio is now primarily a tourist attraction, especially the room where in 1954 a young Elvis sang 'That's All Right (Mama)' and rock 'n'roll was born. It also hosted Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash; Carl Perkins recorded 'Blue Suede Shoes' there. Country music producer Shelby Singleton bought Sun in 1969, and ever since his family has owned a major stake in the valuable back catalogue of more than 7,000 songs.
'We have been talking to Ray Fleming about a group he is working with who might be interested in buying Sun. It depends if the price is right. I have also heard that they [the group of investors and Timberlake] may be trying to buy Stax too,' said company president John Singleton. Fleming said Stax was now worth more than $1 billion.
'Even Puff Daddy or Jay-Z's labels do not make that kind of money,' he said. Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of Timberlake's homecoming. The city has about 20 independent recording studios and about 50 tiny record labels. 'The business leaders say Timberlake will bring wealth to the town for everyone but there are too many vested interests at the top of the industry, and we are worried that all the power and investment will be kept there,' said one small-label owner.
'All the new talent would probably want to sign with him, not us.'