• Image about Sherman Willmott
Shangri-La, Stax, and Sherman

Or, how a mild-mannered guy who has never written a song became themost important music figure in Memphis. By PaulLukas

"THIS IS THE HOUSE where Aretha Franklin was born," says Sherman Willmott, pulling his crowded tour van to the curb in front of a nondescript shotgun shack on the south side of Memphis.

The reaction is immediate, as several people in the van ask the same thing you're probably thinking right now: Isn't Aretha from Detroit?

"Well, Detroit's where she grew up," says Willmott. "But she was born in Memphis and spent her first two years in this house while her daddy preached at a local church."

Willmott has a seemingly endless store of these small but telling revelations about his hometown. "That's what's so great about Memphis," he later tells me, as we share a platter of ribs at his favorite barbecue shack, the Cozy Corner. "You're constantly going, 'Oh, I didn't know that.' People don't know Otis Redding recorded here. They don't know Aretha was born here. It's my job to tell them."

Willmott currently pursues that job as the proprietor of Ultimate Memphis Rock 'n Roll Tours (www.memphisrocktour.com). While Graceland has become a kitschy self-parody and Beale Street is now little more than a blues theme park, Willmott's tour focuses on the nitty-gritty details of the River City's music history - everything from recording studios and record-pressing plants to gravesites and the record store where a young Elvis Presley furtively watched as customers bought his first records. Memphis's musical stew - a complex mix of influences, shaped and molded by the cotton trade -can be tricky for outsiders to grasp, but Willmott's combination ofa researcher's mind and a storyteller's voice helps bring it into sharp historical focus.

The tour operation, which launched in 2004, is the latest in a series of projects that have essentially made Willmott the unofficial trustee of the city's musical heritage. Over the past 17 years, he's opened Memphis's best record store, curated its best music museum, authored a travel guide to the city's music-related sites, founded his own record label and publishing imprint, and directed a documentary film. In a town whose music scene is famous for larger-than-life characters like Elvis, Sam Phillips, and Isaac Hayes, the case can be made that Willmott - an affable, low-key 40-year-old who hasn't been in a band since high school and has never written a song - is the city's most important music figure of the last generation.

"I don't know about that," he says, an unspoken "aw, shucks" hovering over his words. Then he checks his watch, wipes some barbecue sauce off his cheek, and heads out to do another tour.

Ironically, Wilmott wasn't particularly interested in Memphis music until he left for college, where friends turned him on to his hometown's cultural legacy. Still, when he returned to Memphis in the late 1980s, his first entrepreneurial venture was a massage and flotation-tank business called Shangri-La - not exactly the sort of thing from which music history is made.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," he says. "But it wasn't working out, so about 18 months into it, I decided to follow my heart and switch over to selling music." And just like that, in 1990, Shangri-La became Shangri-La Records.

The store soon developed the well-worn ambience of a record collector's hangout, with an emphasis on Memphis music history. As its reputation spread among music cognoscenti nationwide, Willmott noticed a new trend: "People from out of town were coming into the store and saying, 'We've been to Graceland, but there's nothing else to do here.' And we'd say, 'Have you been to Alex Chilton's house? Have you been to this club or this old studio?' And the people would get all excited, so we'd end up drawing maps for them. And eventually we decided to just print a whole guide."

That's how Willmott ended up publishing Kreature Comforts (self-mockingly subtitled "Low-Life Guide to Memphis"), a magazine-style travel guide to the city's coolest and least touristy attractions, most of them music related. Full of helpful, irreverent tips ("Vegetarians, plan ahead! This town's bad for you!"), it's now in its fourth edition, with 15,000 copies in circulation.