Commercial Appeal Guest Column: Sunset Symphony has been showcase for city's contributions to music

Posted on May 22, 2015

When I was governor, I tried to think of what unites our state, and the answer didn't take too long to come to me: music.

From Tennessee Ernie and the Carter family in Bristol, through Music City and its Grand Ole Opry, all the way to W.C. Handy and the Memphis Blues. Memphis in May has been a wonderful annual celebration of Memphis music and the contribution it has made to American culture.

In the early 1970s, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce developed a plan to organize a festival highlighting well-known events in the Memphis community. Starting out as a nonprofit with a $52,000 budget, the Memphis in May International Festival launched in 1977. That same year, the first Sunset Symphony was held, with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performing in Tom Lee Park.

A time-honored tradition was born.

Memphis in May puts on three of the city's largest events — the Beale Street Music Festival, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Sunset Symphony. This monthlong celebration is more than a rich tradition. It's also a huge source of economic development for the community. The festival brings in more than $70 million each year and promotes tourism like no other event in the city.

The events have attracted national media coverage on "Good Morning America," the "Today Show" and more. Over the years, the festival has also brought a wide array of musical talents, from Bob Dylan and Jack Johnson to Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis.

It is fitting that the Sunset Symphony concludes the festival. There is something special about looking out across the Mississippi River while enjoying local performers, a spectacular air show from the Commemorative Air Force, the sounds from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and a fireworks show illuminating Downtown Memphis.

I performed a "Memphis Medley" on the piano at the Sunset Symphony in 1982. In front of about 150,000 people, I kicked the piano bench offstage when I stood up to play the Jerry Lee Lewis part, and even though I didn't mean to kick it that far, I remember thinking at the time that it was the closest I'd ever come to feeling like a Beatle.

I had a great time in 1982. The professional musicians of the Memphis Symphony were good sports to invite a young governor like me to join them on stage, and to invite me again to play in 2008.

Saturday will be the third and final time I'll perform at the Sunset Symphony. I'll play the same medley of Memphis hits: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Memphis Blues," "Lawdy, Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," "Love Me Tender," "Memphis, Tennessee" and "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On."

After 39 years, the sun is setting on the Sunset Symphony, and it will be a bittersweet evening for me to play these songs as a tribute to the uniqueness and importance of Memphis' musical heritage.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is a former University of Tennessee president, a former governor of Tennessee and a former U.S. secretary of education.