The Memphis Quartet Show
by Emerald Butler
When thinking of Memphis, the blues, BBQ, and Elvis are usually the first topics that come to mind. However, along with rock’n’roll and blues icons, Memphis is called home by another genre of music whose roots have grown up among the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. That genre is gospel music, and like Elvis, the kings of the quartet made their start and their home in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s one of the reasons why the annual Memphis Quartet Show continues to bring some of the most prominent quartet groups to the historic city.
Randy Shelnut and Stewart Varnado started The Memphis Quartet show after the National Quartet convention decided to stop hosting their all quartet night at the event. “People got kind of upset about it,” Randy remembered. “For some reason, they all found us to complain to.” Randy shared that after about 25 people approached them with complaints, Randy and Stewart decided to start their event that was all quartets all the time.
“Memphis is the first city the National Quartet Convention was held in,” Randy stated, “so we thought it would kind of be a nostalgic trip down memory lane to go back to the old place where it was.”
Initially, the convention took place at Ellis Auditorium, one of Memphis’ most historic auditoriums. The building is no longer standing, but the Cannon Center for Performing Arts hosts the Memphis Quartet Show where Ellis Auditorium once stood. Acts like John Philip Sousa and Katherine Hepburn performed here, and Elvis Presley performed his first sold-out show in the Auditorium.
Quartet staples like the Blackwood Brothers and J.D. Sumner grew up and formed in the greater Memphis area. Elvis Presley even attended the National Quartet Convention started in 1957 by J.D. Sumner and the Blackwood Brothers. Elvis was a big fan of gospel and quartet music. “J.D. Sumner sang with Elvis for so many years,” Randy said, “so Memphis is kind of a home place for quartet singing anyway.” Randy shared that The Memphis Quartet Show works with Elvis Presley’s Graceland to promote the show and help the regional tourism. “Our crowd likes that style of music, and with Elvis’s ties to gospel music, that helps us also.”
Randy, a member of the gospel group the Dixie Echoes, says that show-goers can expect “a whole lot of singing” when they attend The Memphis Quartet Show.
The 9th Annual Memphis Quartet show will take place June 15-18 of this year. Order tickets and admission online at quartetshow.com. Attendees are encouraged to check out more of Memphis’s rich music history at places like Graceland, Sun Studio, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame while in town.
“We make sure people get their money’s worth on singing and not a lot of talking and extracurricular things like that. We like to let our hair down, sing and have a good time. It’s kind of like a big family reunion.”