Story and photography by Matt Robinson
Music and Memory in Memphis
The great city by the Big River has much to explore and enjoy.
Memphis is a city of contrasts. Racially. Culturally. Economically. Over the course of a few streets, you can go from abject poverty to FedEx-fueled McMansion farms.
Despite its complexities, however, Memphis comes down to two people. And though neither of these men were born here, their legacies changed the city and the world.
Most people say that if you go to Memphis, there is only one place you need to go – Graceland. To learn the true nature and feel the heart and soul of this city on the Mississippi, however, there are at least a few more.
Set across the street from its own visitors’ center (which also houses Elvis’ car and plane collection, among other special exhibits that visitors can arrange to see), Graceland is a surprisingly modest house on the outside. Once through the front door, however, the man’s magic truly starts to take hold. From the famous “Jungle Room” with its shag carpet-covered walls to the still-scuffed pool table in the basement to the racquetball court the King had built in the backyard (Oh, if only he had used it a bit more!) and the garden in which the Presleys now rest, the home is a living (and quite livable) museum and tribute to the first artist who set the world on fire with only one name. Visitors come from around the world to learn about and pay their respects to the man who brought black music to white America and, especially on the anniversaries of his birth and death, the lines can be immense. In fact, it may be advisable to go early (the facilities open at 9) to get in line for your timed tour no matter what time of year you go. Some fans choose to stay at the nearby Heartbreak Hotel so they can get in line first and have some of the King to themselves, if only for a few moments.
True fans will also want to be sure to visit the legendary Sun Studios (www.sunstudios.com), the still-functioning recording space where a young and nervous Elvis Aron Presley cut his teeth and his first tracks and where he later returned to take part in producer Sam Phillips’ surreptitiously recorded “Million Dollar Quartet” session, along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
Though people of all races have recorded there, Sun is best known for its paler productions. To get a sense for the true soul of Memphis, you need to go to Soulsville, USA, the home of STAX Records and the Soulsville Charter School (www.staxmuseum.com). It was here where local players like Rufus Thomas, Steve Cropper and a shotgun shack-dwelling orphan named Isaac Hayes came together to make some of the sweetest and realest music ever put on vinyl. At the once-and-future home of the family-run record label that turned the music world and the world of segregation on their heads, visitors can read about, listen to and get better acquainted with their favorite artists and albums from Stax, as well as from other “race record” and just plain old great record labels like the nearby Hi Records, Motown, and Atlantic (who at one time had a hand in Stax’s distribution and shared many artists with the local label). There is even a video wall-backed dance floor and a full reproduction of the original studio, complete with its slanted floor (the building had previously housed a movie theater) and hand-built recording rigs. Next door at the school, Jazz great Kirk Whalum heads a talented team that is teaching the next generation of soul brothers and sisters how to keep the backbeat up front.
If you have not gotten enough of the music (and, if you come to Memphis, who can?), head on back to the legendary Beale Street for five blocks of clubs that stretches from B.B. King’s to the Hard Rock Café to The Rum Boogie Café. In addition to all the good vibes, Beale offers a good array of local eateries, including Inna Betta’s above King’s club, Beale Street Café and the well-named Superior Bar, home of the better-than-it-may-sound Pig Ear sandwich. A block away is the Smithsonian-affiliated Rock and Soul Museum. In this well-organized collection, visitors can follow the true story of American music, from the cotton fields of the south to New York’s famed Apollo Theater and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in, of all places, Cleveland. From B.B. King to Z.Z. Top, anyone who mattered in the Blues and Soul systems are represented here with authentic artifacts, including the piano on which Ike Turner wrote the first “rock and roll” record – Rocket ’88 – and Wurlitzers full of classic hits and rare treasures.
For the more active music fan, the Gibson guitar factory tour is a must (www.gibson.com). Where else can you order a custom-made guitar and then watch as it is actually made?
If it is a Sunday, another must-visit site is The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church (www.algreenmusic.com/fullgospeltabernacle.html), home of Bishop Al Green. Though the Bishop may occasionally be “in absentia,” his spirit pervades the place, making it a wonderful place to reflect and rock along with the choir and the visitors who come from as far away to visit here as they do for that other “religious” site in town.
No matter what day you come, one more “must” place to visit is The Peabody Hotel. Though it may not offer the Beale Street proximity and convenience of the Westin - where guests can also borrow custom Gibsons and amps - the beauty of the historic hotel makes it worth visiting and staying in on its own. Twice a day, however, people come from all the other hotels and even from their homes to see the famous marching of the ducks. Started as a gag by two hunting buddies over 70 years ago, the 11 AM and 5 PM daily parades of the Peabody ducks between their rooftop “place” and the marble fountain in the lobby is a family-friendly and just plain fun event that is worth waiting for. After the ducks have gone, drop by the nearby Rendezvous restaurant (www.hogsfly.com) for some tourist-favorite smoked ribs or walk a few blocks to Gus’s truly “world famous” fried chicken to get up to your pits in poultry.
If you want a break from the music (it happens!), Memphis offers an array of other diversions, from the athletic - the Grizzlies are still at it and the AAA Memphis Redbirds are a good, cheap take - to the cultural - the Brooks Museum and Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art are interesting stops. Even just a trolley ride or horse and buggy trip down historic (but a bit under-performing) Main Street can be a nice break from the Blues and boogie-ing.
While music may have made Memphis, the city has another legacy. Like Elvis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis with a dream. Like Elvis, Dr. King inspired millions and led a revolution of sorts. Like Elvis, Dr. King’s story ended in Memphis, and yet his legacy lives on. At the National Civil Rights Museum (www.civilrightsmuseum.org), which is housed on and around the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, visitors can learn more about the other side of the city and how the stories of Memphis intertwined, both with each other and with the stories of the rest of the nation and the world. Through a text-heavy array of galleries, each of which focus on various elements of “the Movement,” the Museum offers education more than entertainment, but it is as worthy and vital a visiting place as any in the area. On one side of the street, exhibits trace the story of racial relations in the not-always-so-United States that gave Dr. King his reason to live. On the other, a pane of bulletproof glass allows visitors to take the view of the man who allegedly took his life and then to look into the many questions that still linger in the case and the answers that Dr. King continues to provide through Freedom Award winners like Bono, Oprah, Yitzhak Rabin and Elie Wiesel.
While much of what makes Memphis what it is are all easy to find and get to, if you truly want to see the city, call Tad Pierson of American Dream Tours (www.americandreamsafari.com). Like so many others, this former English teacher and “serial entrepreneur” came to Memphis with a dream and is now helping make other’s Memphis dreams come true with customized tours in a classic ’55 Caddy. From the backstreets and burned-out neighborhoods where Memphis’ industry once reigned to after-hours clubs that keep the vibe alive well into the wee hours, Pierson knows the who’s, where’s and why’s of his adopted hometown and is more than happy to share them. Among the guests who have carved their names into the leather upholstery (though this is not recommended) are legendary artists and producers like Jerry Wexler and “the world’s oldest teenager,” Memphis legend Rufus Thomas.
“Memphis is kinda’ beat up,” Pierson says, “but there’s a beauty in it.” One that needs to be explored.
© October 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.