There’s a lot more to Memphis than Graceland, although Graceland is by far the city’s most popular attraction (and I’ve previously discussed it here). A city of about 650,000, Memphis has a interesting southern flavored ambiance. Here you’ll find hard working friendly black and white folks, great food, but especially you’ll hear music — wonderful music! There’s no other city in North America with as rich a musical heritage as Memphis (and arguably few in the world). The blues and its offspring, soul and rock and roll, were birthed here.
The purpose of our trip to Memphis was to immerse ourselves in the world of Elvis Presley, long a favorite of your humble narrator and his baby brother. We wanted a better understanding of the man, but to understand Elvis you need to appreciate and experience Memphis — a city he loved best and to which he was incredibly loyal. Elvis always considered Memphis his home; Beverly Hills, New York, Palm Springs or Hawaii were fine for vacations but he always returned to his beloved Memphis and Graceland.
A brief history of Memphis:
Memphis was founded in the early 1800’s and, because the Mississippi River was considered a match for the Nile, the settlement was named for the capital of ancient Egypt. Memphis slowly grew as a river port, especially for the cotton grown in the delta. While originally sympathetic to the cause of secession, Memphis quickly fell to Union troops during the American Civil War. The city became a smuggling center as pragmatic merchants sold to both the North and the South.
Following the Civil War, freed slaves from around the South flocked to Memphis in search of work and large black neighborhoods sprang up. Other African-Americans, educated in the North, migrated to Memphis to establish businesses, especially around Beale Street. The music that played here began to evolve into a new sound — the blues, music that reflected the history and struggles of Black Americans. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to discuss the important civil rights movement, except to note that its great champion and eloquent voice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, just south of downtown.
Unlike Nashville, where the Country music industry is a B-I-G and growing business, Memphis’ musical influence has dwindled in the 21st century. And it’s economy has and continues to struggle, its greatest success story being Fedex. Still, there are pilgrims from around the world who make the trek to Memphis. Most are Elvis fans, but you’ll also find many who visit from around the globe simply because of their love for the blues or soul music.
Things to see and do in Memphis:
1) Sun Records: In the history of rock ‘n roll music, there’s few places more revered than little Sun Studios. It was here that visionary producer, Sam Phillips, discovered and recorded some of the finest Rock n Roll, country, and blues talent ever. In 1952 the Sun label released Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88“, thought by many to be the first Rock in Roll record. It was at the Sun studios that Elvis paid $3 to record a gift vinyl for his mother, after which he was called back to burn his first five commercial records (each now a valuable piece of rock ‘n roll memorabilia). Sam also discovered and helped promote Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Carl Perkins. While he had a great instinct for talent, Sam was not a particularly good businessman and never made much money at his work.
You can still tour the old Sun Studio, which hasn’t changed much since Elvis recorded here in the mid 1950’s. A tour only lasts an hour and takes you from a gift shop/cafe to a small museum full of Sun memorabilia upstairs, then into the small studio where musical history was made. They still have the microphone Elvis used to record his records (yes, you can touch it and have your photo taken beside it)! Be sure to look at the old jukebox in the gift shop. Remarkably it still has an original Elvis Sun 45 in it’s stack (though it plays very poorly because of how often it’s been listened to)!
2) Beale Street: As a boy, Elvis frequently visited Beale street, rare for a white kid as this was a segregated black area back then. He loved listening to the great music drifting from it’s clubs and there’s little doubt this music greatly influenced him (Listen to Elvis’ recording of “Merry Christmas Baby” to see what I mean). Beale street is where the blues was first played, lead by the music of W. C. Handy. The area had become somewhat seedy by the 1970s but it’s been tastefully restored and definitely has a feel of “Old Memphis”. It’s still a great place to come listen to music after dark in one of the many bars that line the street, the most famous being B.B. King’s. It’s a popular place. The nearby Orpheum Theatre now plays concerts and Broadway plays. A tasteful statue of a young Elvis Presley sits in a park across from the Orpheum. Elvis sometimes rented the Orpheum for private movie screenings for his friends (he loved the big screen and could never watch a regular movie screening).
3) Other Elvis sites to see: Many of the places that Elvis frequented during his life in Memphis are disappearing, such as Baptist Hospital where his daugher was born, or Libertyland Amusement Park where he loved to ride the roller coaster, both now torn down. Elvis has been dead for over 35 years, so this isn’t a complete surprise. While we didn’t want to stop at every place Elvis might have had a Coke at, there are still some places left that gave us a feeling for his life in Memphis:
- Fort Lauderdale Courts: This is the townhouse complex where the Presley family received low income housing shortly after they moved to Memphis from Tupelo. It has been nicely refurbished and is no longer open to the public but fenced off.
- Humes School (now a Middle School) still stands and seems much unchanged. This was where Elvis, an average student, attended High School.
- Peabody Hotel: The single most overrated event in Memphis is the daily waddling of some ducks into a small fountain in this elegant hotel’s lobby. I can’t see what the fuss is about, but I do know that Elvis enjoyed the Peabody. It now houses his favorite clothes shop, Lasky’s, a transplant from Beale street, where Elvis bought many of the sharp outfits that made him so controversial in the 1950s.
- Mid-South Coliseum: Where he recorded his great “Elvis, As Recorded Live On Stage in Memphis” album in 1974. He was also scheduled to have performed there a few weeks after he died. The coliseum is now closed, replaced by the modern FedEx Forum, but it’s still standing.
4) Visit the Mississippi River: Memphis lies on the east bank of the broad Mississippi, across from Arkansas and just north of the Mississippi state line. Mud Island provides great views of the city, of the River and of the impressive Hernando-DeSoto Bridge that straddles it. Mud Island can be accessed by road or by monorail from downtown.
5) The National Civil Rights Museum: Dr. Martin Luther King always stayed at the Lorraine Hotel when he visited Memphis and this was where he was fatally shot. Today, the Lorraine Motel has be converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum preserves the room where Dr. King was staying the day he was assassinated and includes many exhibits ranging from the era of slavery to the civil rights movement.
6) Stax Museum of American Soul Music (Soulsville, USA): Opened just ten years, this place is a celebration of Memphis’ soul music. As Sun was to Rock and Roll, Stax was to Soul. Artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind and Fire, Booker T and the MGs all got their start at this small studio (now demolished but on whose soil the Museum now sits). Elvis used the recording facilities at Stax to burn a number of his records in the 1970s, such as Promised Land and Raised on Rock.
7) Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo: Overton is a lovely city park which we drove through but had little time to visit. Memphis is supposed to have a great zoo but we didn’t have a chance to explore it.
8) Eat Southern: Memphis has some of the best food you’ll find anywhere, from it’s world famous barbeque (the smoke and smell of which permeates the city) to more traditional Southern dishes like fried chicken, catfish and hush puppies, black-eyed peas and sweet-potato pie. Our favorite place to eat was Four Way Restaurant, not far from the Stax Museum. We left deliciously filled and contented, and had a chance to meet some nice people there; I’d give it my highest recommendation.
Looking for a somewhat out of the way city to explore for a weekend, or a week? Consider coming to Memphis. I think you’ll have a great visit!
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