5 Star Stories: Overton Park Shell, the epicenter of Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - “Building community through music and education” is the mission of this week’s 5 Star Story as we continue to highlight the people, places and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home.
It’s one of the only Depression-era bandshells still active and played a crucial role in Memphis’s rise as the epicenter of Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll with plans to continue that mission into the future.
If Overton Park’s 342 acres are the green heart in the middle of Memphis then, the Overton Park Shell is the heartbeat!
Overton Park Shell announces 2022 concert season
The Orchestral Shell at Overton Park, as it was called when it first opened in 1936, took three years to build at a cost of about $14,000 from the Works Progress Administration -- a Great Depression-era program that put people to work building roads and public buildings.
“It began as a place that could infuse positivity during the Great Depression,” said Executive Director Natalie Wilson. “So, the Shell’s intention was a gathering space to bring us together making accessibility of the performing arts.”
And, in September 1936, Wilson explained that then-Memphis Mayor Watkins Overton opened the Shell with a special dedication.
“He says, ‘I pledge this stage to the future of Memphis Music,’” said Wilson.
In its 86-year history, the Shell has hosted thousands of artistic performances.
“We’re a stage for emerging music,” said Wilson. “I think that’s the story in this, too, is that a lot of musicians got their start here.”
And, that history is now on display in a backstage experience called the “Connie Abston Archive and History Exhibit,” which starts at the stage door with the Shell’s theatrical beginnings.
“It’s humble roots started as a theater company inside the Shell called the Memphis Open Air Theater -- people called it the MOAT,” Wilson further explained.
In the ‘40′s, the Shell was renamed the Overton Park Shell, and in 1954, it birthed a Rock ‘N’ Roll icon.
Wilson walked our team through the portion of the exhibit dedicated to that moment.
“To the era of Elvis getting his humble beginnings at 19 years old, his first concert — live performance was here,” said Wilson. “In the Playbill, they misspelled his name. It’s Ellis Presley.”
Wilson said the then-unknown music legend was extremely nervous.
“He forgot his lyrics. So he said, he was standing there and ‘people were hollering at me’ he started strumming and gyrating and women went nuts -- wild for him. And Slim Whitman said, ‘Never again will that Elvis Presley open for me,’ because a star was born on that day.”
A young Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash were among the thousands who also graced that stage, along with Furry Lewis, a 17-year-old Bonnie Rait, and dozens of other Country Blues Festival artists. It’s one of Wilson’s favorite exhibit sections.
“And then, I love the story of the Country Blues Festivals during the Civil Rights Movement --1950 to ‘65. These incredible historic festivals inspired the understanding of the Country Blues musicians from north Mississippi who came here and performed,” she said, adding that those performances physically brought Blacks and whites together through music.
“It became a place that everyone felt an identifying factor there in a different way. They would sit there on those benches -- at the time it was concrete benches -- in the heat of the summer,” said Wilson. “It didn’t matter; people would sit there ready for whatever it would be on that stage.”
But, there were also times when the Shell stage went dark.
“And people were like, we need a parking lot for the Brooks Museum, the Memphis Zoo; we need the Interstate it must come through,” Wilson recalled.
But, it was Memphis’ “grit and tenacity” that always kicked in, just in time.
“Huey’s founder Thomas Boggs chaining himself to the Shell -- 48 hours chained to the Shell saying, ‘You will not take this Shell down for an interstate,’” recalled Wilson.
The backstage exhibit also names all of the many concerts performed to preserve the Shell.
“And then just continuing through the 80′s when we were called The Save Our Shell era where over 550 concerts were here just to try to save it so that it could survive. And then, of course, we’re so grateful for the years of the Levitt Foundation from LA coming in and giving money — a million dollars — to renovate and start a non-profit which at that time was called Friends of Levitt Pavillion Memphis. And we were together in partnership with the Levitt Foundation for 14 years until this year,” said Wilson. “The return of our historic name, The Overton Park Shell.”
After shuttering again for COVID-19 in 2020, the Shell is back with a renewed emphasis on its mission of building community through music and education.
“So, we will partner with many, many Memphis arts organizations, like Stax Academy, and Memphis Slim House, to Memphis Black Art’s Alliance, to Opera Memphis. And that we will travel and amplify the voices of these Memphis creators and artists and we are the place -- giving a place,” said Wilson.
And coming soon to help further that mission is a small replica of the Shell -- complete with sound equipment and lights -- on wheels.
“It is a stage. It’ll be about a 24 by 48-foot stage, beautiful, of the Shell that will be on wheels: Shell on Wheels, that will roll into communities and build communities like we do here,” described Wilson.
But, one thing that Wilson believes will likely never change in what’s hoped to be at least another 86 years for the Shell...
“You know, this is not just a venue. This is not just a green space, it is so much more. It’s a driver around community holistic health. I believe it’s that significant because think about how many places in the city truly bring everybody together like the Shell,” said Wilson.
For more information about the Overton Park Shell’s free concert series, rentals, Shell on Wheels, the Backstage Experience Tour, volunteering or fundraising, visit overtonparkshell.org/.
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