The Best Memphis Books to Add to Your To-Read List

Explore a stacked catalogue of Memphis books that dive into the soul of one of America’s most impactful cities.

graphic showing multiple covers of memphis books

Memphis is a city steeped in soul. Known worldwide as the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock n’ roll, the Bluff City has kickstarted the careers of music icons from W.C. Handy to Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Three 6 Mafia and Justin Timberlake. 

And while the city’s musical credentials are unquestioned, the less-heralded literary history of Memphis is rich as well. A frequent haunt of American literary legend William Faulkner, Memphis has served as the backdrop and launching point for stories from the likes of modern novelist John Grisham to golden age travel writer Richard Halliburton. In Memphis, the city’s rich musical history collides with a trove of wordsmiths to create an inspirational—and at times moving—mosaic of the lives of its music royalty, complex history and monumental moments in the spotlight.

Browse the shelves of locally-curated bookstores like the South Main Book Juggler or Novel., and you’ll find a captivating collection of Memphis-based books with backstories in both fiction and non-fiction that add an extra level of seasoning to any voyage to the land of the Delta Blues.

These are the best books about Memphis:

it came from memphis book cover

“It Came From Memphis” by Robert Gordon

In the 1950s, Memphis created a paradigm shift in modern culture when its underground scene embraced Black culture at a time when America’s dominant white society shunned it. Robert Gordon’s “It Came From Memphis,” follows the paths of early rock n’ roll musicians who rode the coat tails of older blues artists from the dive bars of Arkansas to the bright lights of Beale Street.

Familiar names like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis make appearances, but music fans will appreciate the deeper dive into the lives of producer Jim Dickinson, writer and Big Star frontman Alex Chilton as well as Rolling Stones inspiration Furry Lewis. A book about the “weirdos and winos” who forged the rock and roll spirit, “It Came From Memphis” is a must-read for anyone planning a visit to the city’s gallery of music museums.

cover of Memphis Massacre

“Remembering the Memphis Massacre” by Beverly Greene Bond and Susan Eva O’Donovan

Long before W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” set the city on a course for international stardom in 1917, the city found itself in the midst of a post-Civil War turmoil that resulted in one of the most tragic events in American history. On May 1, 1866, a group of Memphis police raised a mob and attacked Black Union soldiers recently discharged from their service in the war.

The resulting conflict results in the deaths of at least 48 people and the destruction of African American schoolhouses, churches and homes in a massacre that led to a congressional investigation. “Remembering the Memphis Massacre” walks readers through the minor events resulting in a major escalation in force and the tragic impact this oft-overlooked chapter of American History had on the city’s post-war development.

cover of Memphis book

“Memphis: A Novel” by Tara M. Stringfellow

Hailed as a rhapsodic ham to Black women by the New York Times, “Memphis: A Novel,” transports readers to the summer of 1995 where a 10-year-old Joan is seeking refuge in her mother’s ancestral home. Stringfellow’s 2022 masterpiece follows Joan on seven-decade trip through an enigmatic family history and a mission to find community with the artists of Memphis. “Memphis: A Novel” paints a complex portrait of inheritance, family, brutality, justice, faith, forgiveness, sacrifice and love set in a city historically defined by that wide range of emotion.

book cover for after the jump

“After the Jump: Columns of the Best 20 Years in Memphis Sports” by Geoff Calkins

Award-winning sports journalist Geoff Calkins hit the Memphis beat in 1996. Always weekly, often daily, Calkins documented the city’s long history of heartbreaks and triumphs in pursuit of hardwood and gridiron glory as a perennial national underdog.

“After the Jump,” gives readers a first-hand view of moments in recent Memphis history that have defined the attitudes of its people—from a thrilling upset win over Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers to the 2008 NCAA Men’s National Championship game in basketball and the unlikely success story of the Grizzlies Grit N’ Grind era in the NBA.

beale street dynasty book cover

“Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis” by Preston Lauterbach

Today, Beale Street regularly ranks as the most visited tourist attraction in Tennessee. Travelers come from all corners of the globe to soak in the sounds of blues classics at places like B.B. King’s Blues Club, The Rum Boogie Cafe and The Band Box. But the street’s history is far from universally loved.

Perston Lauterbach’s “Beale Street Dynasty” brings readers along for a journey beginning in the Civil War that sees Beale Street foster Black businesses and business leaders that leads to its rise as one of the most iconic music destination in America. From a reconstruction-era hideaway to a mainstay of the Chitlin’ Circuit and the international home of the blues, the history is a gripping tale of pitfalls, triumphs and artistry in the face of oppression.

memphis boys book cover

“Memphis Boys and the Story of American Sound Studios” by Robert Jones

In 1964, while Elvis was holed up at Graceland in the suburbs and Stax was beginning its climb up the charts in South Memphis, a forgotten Memphis record label was lighting a spark on the north side of town at American Sound Studios. There, producer Chips Moman, along with Bobby Womack and a single house band cranked out around 120 Top 10 records between 1964 and 1972 with a roster by backing a roster that included Wilson Pickett, Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Presley.
Jones’s book chronicles the dramatic story of the label’s house band “The Memphis Boys” and their journey towards hits like “Chain of Fools,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “Sweet Caroline.”

hellhound book cover

“Hellhound on His Trail” by Hampton Sides

A thought-provoking narrative of the cross-country plot that lead to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a downtown Memphis balcony in 1968, “Hellhound on His Trail,” documents the events leading up to and following one of America’s darkest days. The 2011 New York Times Best Seller is essential reading for those planning a visit to the site of King’s assassination at the National Civil Rights Museum.
There, visitors can walk through the pages of history—from the shadow of the balcony where the bullet struck to the South Main doorway where ensuing manhunt began—and gauge for themselves whether King’s assassination was truly the work of a lone renegade or part of a larger conspiracy to silence the civil rights movement.

respect yourself book cover

“Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion” by Robert Gordon

Just a few short years after rock and roll erupted from Sun Studio on Union Avenue, the former Satellite Records shop on McLemore Street spawned a soul record label that soared like Icarus up the charts. At Stax Records, the stories of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staples Singers and Booker T. And the M.G.’s unfurls in a city grappling with the assassination of King, the Vietnam War and the growing pains of rock and roll.

“Respect Yourself” chronicles the journey of Stax, a record label that sought to build racial harmony in a city reeling with the energy and swaying cultural tides of the 1960s and 70s.

Editor's Note:

Additional Books To Add to Your List For Elvis Fans

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

Elvis: The Legend: The Authorized Book from the Graceland® Archives by Gillian G. Gaar

Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley by Jerry Schilling

About the Author

Hi, I’m Joe. I’m a Memphis-based journalist covering travel, adventure and exploration around the globe. I’ve lived in a haunted house in midtown, slung bootleg t-shirts in Soulsville and covered Memphis hoops from high school to the NBA. When I’m in town, you can find me searching for the stories that make the people of Memphis come to life.

Most Memorable Memphis Moment: 

Watching Zach Randolph hit a series-clinching three over Tim Duncan before a sold out FedExForum overflows onto Beale Street on a night when downtown is alive with the rhythms of Grizz Line and the buzz of Music Fest on the river. It was either that or rapping along with Project Pat, sitting court side with a retired Z-Bo and getting a fist bump from 8-Ball on the same night.

Build Your Prefect Memphis Meal:

Does it get any more Memphis than Central BBQ nachos on house chips? You gotta go for the brisket (trust) with jalapeños and a banana pudding to cap it all off for desert. In a dreamland, though. It’s like this—take the pepperoni pizza from Hustle & Dough. Overlay it with a heap of pulled pork from The BBQ Shop. Walk a few miles along the river at sunset before putting the final layer on this meal with an elusive slice of peaches and cream from Cheesecake Corner.

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