Stepping out for the first time in Memphis was magical. The neon lights of Beale Street stretched for blocks, and a band on the street was in harmony with a soulful classic. The blues from juke joints near and far permeated the air, and a carriage-driver, leading his horse-drawn chariot ablaze with twinkling lights, was singing “Walking in Memphis” to his passengers.
An admitted music junkie, I was in heaven.
That was more than seven years ago, when Memphis became my home, and the memory hasn’t faded, nor has my excitement every time I walk the city streets.
It’s all about the music
Living in Memphis is like having a beach house: Everyone from out of town loves to visit. So although I had casually experienced many venues with friends, I was tickled to get a VIP tour with an authority, Jonathan Lyons, public relations manager for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
We immediately agreed on one thing: “Cool” was the adjective I would overuse to describe so much in this home of the blues.
“One of the coolest things about Memphis is, the downtown is compact — so easy to walk from your hotel to enjoy Beale Street, a ballgame at AutoZone Park, a concert or a professional basketball game at the FedExForum, a visit with the famous ducks at the Peabody Hotel and surely the best barbecue ever,” Lyons said.
The Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum is also on that list of walkable venues. A music pilgrimage developed by the Smithsonian Institution starts there to discover the rebellious artists who shaped the Memphis sound.
“Our museum is the gateway to the Memphis music experience. Legends like Elvis Presley, Al Green and so many more are showcased here,” said John Doyle, executive director.
“In addition, the Sun Studios Shuttle transports visitors from our museum to Graceland, the Heartbreak Hotel and Sun Studios seven days a week. The vans are convenient for group tours where some members want to do what they want when they want,” Doyle said.
So we headed for Presley’s Graceland, the place my visitors want to see as soon as their feet touch Memphis soil. But repeat visits to this 23-room mansion offer no problem. “Every time I walk into the house, I see something different,” said Alicia Dean, public relations assistant for Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Although Presley’s Jungle Room and the Hall of Gold Records in the Trophy Building are always favorites, this was my first time to take note of the King’s charitable side.
“Here is a plaque given to Elvis for donating $1,000 each to 50 local charities. When you consider this was the 1960s and add up all his donations, the amount is staggering,” said Dean.
Dean said that the museum frequently changes exhibits. “With 2012 being the 35th anniversary of his passing, we have lots in store for visitors.”
History to dance to
Sun Studio is touted not only as the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll but as the studio where an impromptu jam session in 1956 with Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash resulted in the Broadway production “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
Standing in the surprisingly small room where it all took place, Jayne Ellen White, director of public relations, pointed at me. “Raise your hand,” she instructed. “You are standing exactly where Elvis stood during that famous recording.”
Boy, talk about goose bumps.
“Artists like U-2, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, still use the space to record, but the room itself is original. People love to get their picture taken in front of the microphone where Elvis crooned,” said White.
Upstairs in the triangular building is where memorabilia is on display. “Recorded here in 1951, ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats is said to be the first rock-and-roll song ever,” White explained as that rockin’ tune played.
The fuzzy sound in the background of “Rocket 88” was caused by a broken amplifier hastily fixed with paper and glue, one of White’s favorite objects on display. “The accidental sound became a classic and a favorite sound in that era,” she said.
“Isn’t that cool?” she asked.
At the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, more than 300 record albums and 800 singles are on display. Artists Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs, and dozens more once called Stax their home away from home.
“When it started in the 1950s and until it stopped recording in 1975, Stax was a whole different kind of animal in the South,” said Tim Sampson, communications director with the Soulsville Foundation. “The black and white people who recorded here couldn’t go down the street and eat lunch together, but here they were a big family.”
The introductory film at Stax poignantly describes those days with the voices of the musicians whose songs are standards. The museum is jammed with exhibits showcasing the clothing, equipment and stories of artists; a relocated 100-year-old African-American wooden chapel; and one of the most hallowed rooms in music lore, Studio A, where icons like Otis Redding once recorded.
“Otis and most in his band were killed in a plane crash. The coolest thing we have, at least to me, is the saxophone from the band that was pulled from the wreckage,” said Sampson.
Arriving in front of the National Civil Rights Museum was a chilling experience. The museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, looks just as it did on that fatal day when King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.
The Art Deco facade, now adorned 24/7 with a memorial wreath, brought back memories of when television cameras branded that picture in our memories forever.
A tour of this historic site was even more unnerving. The museum is the custodian of the police and evidence files associated with the assassin of King, and it is rare to see such authentic memorabilia. The museum also includes the rooming house across the street where James Earl Ray positioned himself with a rifle from the bathroom window and fired.
The museum also pays homage to many civil rights acts of heroism with life-size exhibits replicating these famous events, such as Rosa Parks refusing to ride in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where, in 1960, four black students staged a sit-in after being denied service.
And even this museum showcases music. The importance of the Delta blues, combined with the migrations of millions of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities between 1915 and 1970, changed not only demographics but also the sound of American culture.