We began the drive from Nashville to Memphis, not knowing what to expect. We knew Memphis meant ‘Elvis’. What more could there be?
Those 212 miles (341km) take you from the home of country and western to the birthplace of Rock & Roll and Soul. They also take you to what many would call the most unsettling and powerful museum in the entire United States. On the return trip, I couldn’t help but wonder “Is there a more culturally important city in the US?”
Nearly everywhere you go in Memphis you are confronted with Elvis Presley: ‘Elvis Presley Boulevard’, Elvis Presley statues, Elvis Presley souvenirs, Elvis Presley tours. ‘The King’ had such an impact on this city, both emotionally and economically, that it’s hard to imagine Memphis without him.
On Elvis Presley Boulevard there’s the faux antebellum mansion that Elvis bought for his beloved parents, Gladys and Vernon. We’ve all seen the images of Elvis’ favourite hangs at Graceland – the Jungle room, and the Pool room – 70’s kitsch at its finest.
The mansion tour ends at the gravesites of Gladys, Elvis, Vernon and paternal grandmother Minnie Mae who outlived them all. Today, Graceland is also a sprawling, efficient complex designed to keep the king firmly on his throne.
The complex is divided into several vast pavilions (each with gift store) – ‘Fashion King’, ‘Elvis the Entertainer’ and more. You can buy a replica Nudie suit, gold record or piece of TCB merch. A grand place to memorialize the boy from Tupelo.
The newly built Guest House at Graceland is a sprawling southern mansion resort, where the faithful can end their pilgrimage in comfort and style. Thankfully, the Guest House at Graceland didn’t try and mimic Elvis’ singular interior design sense. There are small photographic tributes to the King and a palatial foyer. It’s tasteful, comfortable and a welcome sanctuary after a long day seeing Memphis’ sites.
And sightseeing is a must in this amazing city on the Mississippi. There’s also the world famous Peabody Hotel Duck March – where the pampered and feathered hotel guests walk from the elevator into the stunning hotel lobby to rapturous applause. And although we wouldn’t normally recommend a sporting goods store, Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid is quite possibly the 8th Wonder of the Sportsman’s World.
Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio is pretty much where it all began. An 18 year-old Elvis with a one dollar pawnshop guitar recorded his first song at Sun, as a birthday gift for his Momma. The rest, as they say, is rock’n roll history. If these ancient studio walls could talk, you’d hear Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and countless others starting their careers in this holiest of holy, music shrines.
The guided tour is intimate, interactive and revealing, covering the sounds and experiences of these young artists who were breaking new ground and ‘making it up as they went along’. Tours are extremely popular and at regulated times. Buy your tickets online and arrive early to avoid disappointment.
So Memphis gave us Sun Studios, Elvis and Rock & Roll. Isn’t that enough for one city?
Hold onto your blue suede shoes a second, here come brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. Never heard of them? Add their names together and you get STAX Records: the launch pad for soul – STAX was the original Soulsville. It wasn’t merely a recording studio it was a hot bed of creativity and originality. It brought a poor Memphis community together and gave it hope, and the world some of the greatest music ever.
How could they fail – the studio band was Booker T and the MG’s! Besides becoming stars in their own right they backed legendary artists like Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave and Isaac Hayes to name a handful. Whereas Sun is still a working studio, Stax Records is a museum dedicated to the story of soul and R’nB. It’s fascinating but more than anything it lifts your soul with remarkable stories and remarkable music. Tickets at the door or online. Be ready to buy a souvenir, it’s impossible to resist taking home a little piece of the magic.
STAX was operating in racially turbulent times. Artists, like The Staple Singers and Ray Charles were forced to stay in a few hotels friendly to African Americans, the preeminent being the Lorraine Motel. It did and still does, play an important part in black American history.
And so we visited the Lorraine Motel now the National Civil Rights Museum on our last day in Memphis. I was uneasy about this visit, “how tasteful/respectful could this be?” It’s situated on a low, flat piece of ground with adjacent car park. The building itself is unremarkable, but for anyone aged over 50 (or with an understanding of 20th century history) it’s indelibly etched in your memory.
As you walk closer you see the large Lorraine Motel neon sign, you then realize the cars parked below the rooms are authentic to 1968. And then you see a large white wreath on the balcony where Dr King was assassinated. You get a flashback. There. It’s the lifeless body of Dr King while the young Jesse Jackson is beside him pointing in the direction of the fatal gunshots. And so you enter the museum uneasy, and unsure of what awaits.
What awaits is the sobering story of the African American struggle. While Dr King features, he is not prominent. It’s the complete story, from the inception of slavery through to the stories of many individuals who sacrificed to win what was theirs. You are led through this struggle, without being made to feel guilty or intimidated. It’s just the facts. Interpret them through your own eyes.
The culmination of the multi level exhibit is the open view of the two bedrooms occupied by Dr King and his entourage. Amazingly, both rooms are unchanged since April 4 1968. They have been maintained as a memorial ever since that fateful day. While beyond, also through a window, is the balcony where Dr King lay after being shot, and a clear view of the boarding house from where the shot was fired. It’s a dramatic full stop to the story you’ve just been told.
Visit Memphis. It is enchanting in that ‘old southern charm’ kind of way, it’s uplifting with its important story of the music we grew up with and it’s sobering with an honest depiction of hate and those who fought to overcome it. You’ll leave Memphis having experienced things you won’t, and can’t, find anywhere else. Just what the traveller wants, right?