Brief History of Memphis in May

In the early 70’s, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce developed plans for a festival, which would serve as a promotional umbrella for the numerous events Memphis hosted each May, including the Cotton Carnival, the Danny Thomas Golf Classic, the annual visit by the Metropolitan Opera and others. The festival, originally incorporated as the “Memphis in May International Festival Society”, also coordinated the grand opening festivities of the Cook Convention Center and the city’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.   

With “Society” dropped from its official name, a new 501c3 nonprofit status, an initial $52,000 budget (including $32,000 surplus dollars granted to the festival by the Bicentennial event and another $20,000 from sponsors, such as First Tennessee Bank, Datsun Forklift and Federal Express), Lyman Aldrich and a group of civic minded young executives reorganized the Memphis in May International Festival and presented its first salute, honoring Japan in 1977.  Martha Ellen Maxwell was the festival’s first Executive Director.   

The very first Beale Street Music Festival was held in 1977 at the corner of Beale and Third. The same year, the very first Sunset Symphony was held, with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performing on a smaller, unshaven and seldom used Tom Lee Park.   

It was not until the second year when the Beale Street Music Festival was turned over to Memphis in May to produce, as the festival organized its month-long salute to the honored country of Canada. The Sunset Symphony added a firework display and a spectacular grand finale featuring the “1812 Overture”, which became an event mainstay. Also in 1978, Memphis in May added its third signature event, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which started with 20 teams and $1,000 in prize money on a vacant lot by The Orpheum Theatre.   

In 1990, with continually increasing acts, sponsors and attendees, the Beale Street Music Festival moved to Tom Lee Park. By 1995, the event had grown to more than 50,000 attendees, by 1997, the number had doubled, and in 2001 the crowds swelled to 165,000 with all three days posting sell-out attendance for the very first time.   

Since its early beginnings, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest has truly earned its reputation as the “Super Bowl of Swine”. Teams filled Tom Lee Park, even after the city expanded the park’s size, allowing more than 250 teams to compete for more than $55,000 in prize money. In 1990, the Guiness Book of World Records bestowed the honor of “the largest barbecue-cooking contest in the world” to the contest. With its growth, the event has attracted national media coverage, including “Good Morning America”, “The Today Show”, “CBS This Morning”, “Primetime Live”, The Food Network, USA Today, A&E, The Wall Street Journal, and others.   

In 1996, during the festival’s 20th anniversary, Vice President Al Gore and the Olympic torch honored the Sunset Symphony with visits, making its way to the Atlanta summer games. Gore joined “Mr. Ol’ Man River”, James Hyter, to light the Olympic cauldron.   

Internationally, through the years, Memphis in May has played host to Ambassadors, exhibits and performance troupes from 35 countries, including Japan (1977 & 1986), Canada (1978), Germany (1979), Venezuela (1980), Egypt (1981), The Netherlands (1982 & 2001), Israel (1983), Mexico (1984), Australia (1985), China (1987), The United Kingdom (1988), Kenya (1989), France (1990), New Zealand (1991), Italy (1992), Russia (1993), Cote d’Ivoire (1994), Thailand (1995), Brazil (1997), Portugal (1998), Morocco (1999), India (2000), Argentina (2002), South Korea (2003), South Africa (2004), Ireland (2005), Costa Rica (2006), Spain (2007), Turkey (2008), Chile (2009), Tunisia (2010), Belgium (2011), The Philippines (2012), Sweden (2013), Panama (2014) and Poland in 2015.    

In 1980, a tradition of producing a Fine Art Poster commemorating each year’s honored country was begun. Many of the Mid-South’s greatest artists have contributed their talents to these works of art, including Burton Callicott, Carroll Cloar, George Hunt, Mary Simms, Nancy Cheairs and others.  

Programming for each year’s salute varies depending on all the country has to offer, but has included extensive Education Programs, historical and cultural exhibits, performances and commercial programs. The International Salute has included many firsts throughout the years such as, the first time France’s famous Lido dancers performed outside their country during the French salute in 1990, a visit by the Maori queen during 1991’s salute to New Zealand, North America’s largest military tattoo at the Pyramid during 1993’s salute to Russia, and the planting of 120,000 tulip bulbs during the second celebration of the Netherlands in 2001. During 1996, for the festival’s 20th anniversary, Memphis in May honored all of its previously honored countries, and hosted Ambassadors from each country during its International Gala at The Peabody.   

The organization, which began nearly 40 years ago with a modest budget of $52,000 has grown to become a 7.0 million dollar non-profit organization, which is recognized across the country and around the world as one of North America’s leading festivals.