Rock, Roll, and Remember at the Memphis Listening Lab

A private-turned-public record collection now connects a city to its indelible music

Photo: Alex Shansky

Turntables for visitors to listen to records.

The musical legacy of Memphis, Tennessee, needs no introduction—the city responsible for the invention of rock and roll has launched countless careers, from Elvis Presley to Three Six Mafia. But the ability to experience the wider musical legacy of Memphis, including the recordings of small, independent labels and lesser-known artists, has mostly been limited to collectors and industry professionals. That is, until mid-2021, when the Memphis Listening Lab quietly opened in the Crosstown Concourse, a former Sears building that now houses restaurants, offices, and art gallery space. 

photo: Memphis Listening Lab
The Lab.

The Lab offers a place where visitors and locals can come listen to music, much like in a library. “[It] took about two years to get to that point,” says Jim Cole, the Lab’s archivist and a former tour guide and record store manager at Memphis’s famed Sun Studio. A cohort that included Jim Thompson of EgglestonWorks loudspeakers had come up with the original concept, “Then we secured the space,” Cole continues. “We had a general idea of what we wanted to do with the sound room, and [to] have a public collection for people to use. But we thought it was going to be a long, slow-building process of putting a collection together.” 

photo: Alex Shansky
Memphis Listening Lab archivist Jim Cole.

Then came along John King, a music promoter and the co-owner of Memphis’s Ardent Records. “He was looking to donate his collection, and the timing and everything with that was just perfect,” Cole says. “We were able to secure John’s collection to be the cornerstone of our space.” 

The acquisition included 30,000 45 rpm singles, 10,000 LPs, and 20,000 CDs, which Cole then documented and organized. The genres present range from rockabilly to soul to garage rock, with titles from Elvis, Al Green, and Otis Redding. But Cole finds the lesser-known titles to be even more special. 

“Memphis has seen hundreds and hundreds of little, small, independent record labels over the years,” Cole explains. “Most of these labels put out from one to a small handful of 45s and disappeared. They were made in extremely small quantities, like little rockabilly, garage, soul music labels. And we’ve got a lot of that stuff.” That includes records from the rock group Big Star, who John King worked with while he was head of promotions at Ardent Records in the 1970s.

The Lab contains commercial releases and rare acetates and test pressings, and presents the unique opportunity for music lovers to stop by and listen to these recordings, with the titles organized neatly on shelves. There are headphones and turntables spread throughout the stylish space, with speakers from the aforementioned Memphis-based EgglestonWorks.

photo: Memphis Listening Lab
Built-in speakers from EgglestonWorks.
photo: Alex Shansky
Enjoying the Lab’s listening experience.

 “We have, of course, a lot of young people,” Cole says of the Lab’s visitors, and “we have older people that grew up with vinyl and love to come in and play records.” And for those who come and get inspired, the Lab shepherds the future of music, too, by providing recording software, microphones, and a turntable.