In the early 1970s, 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 organization, which began over 40 years ago with a modest budget of $52,000 has grown to become a 8.0 million dollar non-profit organization, which is recognized across the country and around the world as one of North America’s leading festivals.
A Look Back
1977: FIRST BEALE STREAT MUSIC FESTIVAL AND SUNSET SYMPHONY
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.
1978: FIREWORKS, CANADA AND BARBECUE
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.
1980: FINE ARTS POSTERS
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.
1990: GUINESS BOOK OF RECORDS
Since its beginning in 1978, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest truly earned its reputation as the “Super Bowl of Swine.” Over 250 teams filled Tom Lee Park to compete for more than $55,000 in prize money. In 1990, the Guinness 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.
The popularity and success of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Beale Street Music Festival was further inspired by an “only-in-Memphis” setting – nestled between the Mississippi River and the downtown Memphis skyline in Tom Lee Park.
1995 – 2001: GROWING EACH YEAR
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.
1996: 20TH ANNIVERSARY
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.
During this year, Memphis in May honored all of its previously honored countries, and hosted Ambassadors from each country during its International Gala at The Peabody.
2015: SUNSET SYMPHONY GRAND FINALE
After 39 years, Sunset Symphony played its final note in a grand finale celebration. The night included a special performance from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, several guest appearances and an expanded fireworks extravaganza. The decision was made by the organization’s Board of Directors after several years of studying event trends and analyzing popularity of audience programs around the country.
2016: 40TH ANNIVERSARY
Memphis in May International Festival celebrated its 40th year in 2016, honoring Canada for a second time (1978). Musical legend Neil Young headlined the Beale Street Music Festival, the barbecue team Jack’s Old South won a fourth World Champion title at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and a fabulous international week was highlighted by the spectacular acrobatics program Traces.
In addition, two new events premiered during the 2016 festival. The Great American River Run, a half marathon & 5K race in downtown Memphis, and 901Fest, a celebration of all things Memphis, debuted to overwhelming support.
2019: FIRST-EVER SALUTE TO MEMPHIS, RECORD-SETTING $149.1 MILLION ECONOMIC IMPACT
Memphis in May made a surprise announcement for the 2019 festival, choosing to salute the City of Memphis and Shelby County for the first time in the organization’s 43-year history. The salute coincided with the city’s bicentennial festivities.
The annual Memphis in May International Gala was replaced with the Bicentennial Gala in the FedEx Forum, held on May 22, the day Memphis was founded in 1819. The month concluded with “Celebrate Memphis,” the one-day bicentennial event which included a successful GUINNESS World Record attempt at the Longest Picnic Table (1,336 feet and 2 1/8 inches), and culminated with the Mid-South’s largest fireworks show to close the celebration.
A study conducted by Younger Associates showed Memphis in May International Festival had a direct economic impact of $149.1 million, with a $4.8 million in direct local tax revenue generate. The report, which was released in August 2019, contributed to a third straight year of progressively larger economic impacts on the city of Memphis.
Through the years, Memphis in May has played host to international Ambassadors, exhibits and performance troupes from 39 countries, including Japan (1977 & 1986), Canada (1978 & 2016), 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), Poland (2015), Colombia (2017), Czech Republic (2018), City of Memphis (bicentennial celebration in 2019), and Republic of Ghana (2022).
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: 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.
CHOOSING THE HONORED COUNTRY
If you’re curious how Memphis in May decides on which country to honor every year, you’re not alone. Our countries are selected by a small committee of between 8-12 business leaders, educators, sometimes gallery owners or museum curators, and members of our board.
The different criteria we consider are:
- Historical significance
- Cultural depth and importance
- Ethnic links to Memphis and the Mid-South
- Potential for active support from the honored country
- Potential for strengthening existing or developing new trade opportunities with local businesses and the country
- Positive diplomatic relations with the US
- A receptive audience at the embassy to our possible salute
BRINGING THE WORLD TO MEMPHIS… & MEMPHIS TO THE WORLD
Memphis in May hosts the city’s largest events like the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Memphis in May also produces extensive education, international, and economic programs for the city.
Memphis in May International Festival is more than its events. It’s also a 501-C(3) not-for-profit, community-based organization that contributes to the economic growth of the community, fosters civic pride, promotes awareness of Memphis heritage and builds international relationships.