Published in Faster Louder, February 2017
On a long, slow bend of the Mississippi River, in the westernmost corner of Tennessee, downtrodden men gave birth to the blues and later made rock ‘n’ roll history. From cotton fields and juke joints to the airwaves of the world, Memphis was ground zero for music culture in the 20th century. And though the 20th century has turned, music still hums in its streets.
Red hot and blues
Published by WC Handy in 1912, Memphis Blues was the first blues hit and one of the earliest records of that new African American sound. Handy first wrote it as a campaign song for Memphis mayor E.H. Crump, but changed later changed the lyrics and took the world by storm. Dubbed ‘Father of the Blues’, Handy’s legacy is still celebrated in Memphis, with a statue mounted in his honour and free concerts thrown in Handy Park. The Handy Memphis Home & Museum is right next door, on the corner of Beale and Fourth Street.
Beale Street is what brought Handy to Memphis. In the early 20th century, Beale Street was a bustling black neighbourhood, known for illegal drinking and gambling dens, but also for its restaurants, bars and concert halls. Early country and ragtime rang out from the Orpheum Theatre and gospel spilled from the Beale Street Baptist Church, while cotton field workers visited venues all along the downtown strip to hear early legends playing the blues. Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie were Beale Street regulars, and later the ‘Beale Street Blues Boy’, who became known as B.B. King. Today, Beale Street is the heart of the Memphis music scene, and B.B. King’s Blues Club is just one of the bars that pumps blues, rock and honky tonk music nightly onto the street.
The legit sound of Memphis
Of course when it comes to live music, if you want the real deal, you have to get away from Beale Street (which is always loud, bright and lively but made for tourists now). Way out of town, in north-east Memphis, Wild Bill’s Juke Joint serves up fried chicken, beer and dirty blues in a rollicking fun dive bar that is something of a local secret. Closer to the downtown area there is Mollie Fontaine, a chic tri-level Victorian mansion that often hosts blues and soul singers with a penchant for Motown hits. In summer, the place to soak up the tunes is the Levitt Shell at Overton Park, a wide amphitheatre under the stars with a broad summer concert schedule. The other place to hear music on a balmy Memphis night is the rooftop of the legendary Peabody Hotel, a lush historic landmark that is synonymous with Memphis. The Peabody has a whole rich history involving marching ducks in the lobby. It’s also the place where Elvis Presley signed his recording contract with RCA.
The long shadow of The King
Out of the blues, with a rockabilly swing, came The King. Elvis Presley lived and died in Memphis and his fingerprints are all over town. The Mecca for fans, for regular folk too, is the house that Elvis bought when his ship came in. A Colonial Revival mansion on 14 acres of land, Graceland was home to The King and his family from 1957 until his death in 1977. In 1982, with her inheritance running low, Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie opened Graceland as a museum – and what a strange and magical museum it is. In addition to the famous Jungle Room, Graceland holds mountains of memorabilia, costumes and gold records; a dining table set with Presley’s wedding china and a basement room mirrors on the ceilings. Outside by the pool, in a Greco-Roman garden, is where you’ll find Elvis’ grave.
If you’re a diehard fan, you can follow the ghost of Elvis to the Arcade Restaurant, the oldest café in town, and sit in the booth he loved as a teenage boy. You can book the room at Lauderdale Courts where Elvis lived as a kid, or find something a little more upscale at The Guest House at Graceland, a stone’s throw from where the Presley private jets are parked.
If it’s music more than voyeurism that you love, Sun Studio is the place to visit, ‘The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Ike Turner made records at Sun in the early fifties, but when a teenaged Elvis walked through the door in 1953, the earth turned. In 1954, Elvis recorded his first hit at Sun Studio, That’s Alright Mama, harnessing the ‘black’ Memphis sound and turning it into a global tsunami. Soon after Elvis, the studio cut records for Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. In 1956, Elvis joined these three titans at Sun Studio for a legendary recording session – the Million Dollar Quartet – and you can stand right there in the room where it happened.
You can also stand in the room where Elvis was born, if you take a day trip out of town. Tupelo, Mississippi is two hours out of Memphis, just across the state line, and far from the maddening crowds. There you’ll find the two-room ‘shotgun’ shack where the Elvis lived as a child – a humble shadow of Graceland, with a porch swing still swinging in the breeze. Down the street, you can pay a visit to the Tupelo Hardware Company where Elvis got his first guitar as a present for his eleventh birthday. It cost roughly $7; they’ll tell you all about it.
The rich sound out of town
As long as you’re in Tupelo, you might as well drive the extra hour and a half to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, another hot spot for music pilgrims in the south. The dusty little nowhere place has produced more than a few earthquakes, with two studios in town that you can visit where a whole lot of music history was made. FAME Studios was a heavy-hitter in soul, recording Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, among others, while the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio hosted sessions by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and more recently a session for The Black Keys.
Another absolute must when it comes to Memphis side-trips is Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the devil gave us the Delta blues. An hour south of Memphis, Clarkesdale is the site of the famous crossroads where bluesman Robert Johnston was said to have sold his soul to Lucifer in exchange for his prodigious talent. Clarksdale is also home to the Shack Up Inn, an indescribably cool dive motel built of discarded scrap, where you can sink a beer, listen to the blues and then retire to bed in a rusted old sharecropper shack. When you wake up, you can amble downtown to the Delta Blues Museum to read about Muddy Waters and a host of other local blues artists, then stop in at the Cat Head to scan the records and folk art.
Heart and soul
Back in Memphis, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is another must-see site, housing another studio that gave the world far more than its fair share of hits, and a rich and expansive museum collection tracking the history of soul. Stax Records signed Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs and Isaac Hayes, helping that little corner of south Memphis become ‘Soulsville, USA’. Among the vast troves of memorabilia, music videos and tunes, you’ll find Isaac Hayes’ gold Cadillac, the shiny jewel of the collection.
When you’re ready to rest your weary bones, take a pew at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, fifteen minutes on from Stax, past Graceland, on the south side of town. A little-visited gem of the Memphis music scene, the Church was founded in 1976 by the Reverend Al Green. Yes, that Al Green. After Let’s Stick Together, he found god and gave up his wilding ways, pouring all that talent into his new gospel choir. You can hear Reverend Al sing at the Tabernacle Church any given Sunday from about 11am. All are welcome, but have some respect: dress nice and bring some coin for the collection plate.
Finally, a hallowed site for gear-heads but a fascinating stop for anyone – the Gibson factory on Beale Street. One of only three Gibson factories in the world, the Memphis branch of this iconic brand produces their semi-hollowbody electric guitars. Literally every semi-hollow made by Gibson comes out of this one location and it is stunning how few people are responsible for the fruits of their global empire. Take a tour of the factory to see guitar necks lovingly hand-sanded, hear the strings set and tested and meet the one guy – there is literally one – who does all the custom paint jobs. On the way out, you can visit the retail showcase, but be prepared to cry. The custom-made instruments on display are as expensive as they are beautiful. Of course, if you decide to buy one, you’ll have a killer Memphis souvenir.