Goin' down to Memphis

By Alan Young

Alan Young visits Music City, USA, home of Beale St, blues, gospel, rock'n'roll and Elvis Presley.

A saxophone player in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo / Supplied
A saxophone player in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo / Supplied

Memphis knows its place in the world. The sign in the airport terminal makes that clear.

"Memphis - Distribution Center of the Midsouth", it proclaims proudly.

The city is definitely a distribution centre. The herds of 18-wheel behemoths thundering along its freeways make that obvious.

(Hint: it's not like New Zealand - if you see a big truck ahead of you, don't speed up to pass it. It will almost certainly be going faster than you; if it isn't, you're breaking the speed limit.) But Memphis' fame does not rest on the number of packets of breakfast cereal shipped in and out again.

This is Music City, USA. Sun Records, Stax Records, Beale St, blues, gospel, rock'n'roll and Elvis Presley. Especially Elvis Presley.

On the map, Memphis is a medium-sized dot at the southwest end of Tennessee, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Over the river is Arkansas, only a few kilometres south is Mississippi.

In the flesh, Memphis is a city of about a million people. Like many American cities, its central-city shopping has migrated to the suburbs and the malls, and many parts of what's left look a bit shabby and down-at-heel. But, unlike many American cities, Memphis has tried to retain a downtown.

The department stores aren't there, but the new baseball park is. So are some upmarket hotels, the flashy Pyramid stadium - venue for the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson title fight in May - a couple of under-populated shopping arcades and Beale St.

Beale St has been a musical Mecca for more than a century. For most of that time, it was a social, economic and cultural centre for segregated black Americans. Black doctors, dentists and lawyers worked on Beale; so did prostitutes, gamblers, bar owners and blues players.

Until the 1960s, Beale St was a magnet for musicians from the blues heartland of Mississippi and beyond, and for those who wanted to hear their music.

B.B. King played on Beale St. So did Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner (long before Tina) even Elvis Presley once appeared on stage at a radio-station benefit in one of Beale St's theatres, although his recording contract forbade him to perform.

Then urban decay set in and the street faded away until the 1980s, when it rose again to a new life as a tourist lure, its hook set for those seeking a taste of those anything-goes days.

But like the real blues, those days are dead. Today, Beale St is a recreated row of bars interspersed with souvenir shops selling T-shirts, trinkets, T-shirts, caps, T-shirts, posters and T-shirts.

Kreature Comforts, a cheaply printed tourist tutor which describes itself as a "lowlife guide to Memphis" and is invaluable for anyone interested in the city's musical past, is scathing about today's Beale St.

"If you truly want the blues," it says, "Beale St will give them to you. Overpriced drinks, mediocre food and a generally idiotic drunken crowd not to mention the parking hassles."

Well that's a bit tough, but it's not entirely wrong. Especially about the parking. Parking areas that cost U$1 ($1.83) an hour during the day suddenly cost US$10 as the sun goes down and the barricades go across to turn Beale into a pedestrian mall with beer available from kerbside vendors.

(Hint: If you use one of these parking areas, be sure that the person you are paying is the person supposed to be collecting the money. Panhandlers - street beggars - who work the area occasionally expand their revenue-raising options by posing as carpark attendants.) Beale St is tawdry and overcommercialised. Much of the music presented as blues is overblown, ear-splitting, posturing rock which has as much to do with blues as it has with grand opera. The crowds, especially at the weekend, are often dense and alcoholically the worse for wear.

But good music does sometimes sneak in, and it's usually easy to check what's on in the clubs from the street - no need to pay a cover charge to discover that tonight's attraction is the mega-decibel Amos and the Anguishers from Minnesota.

On one corner is B.B. King's nightclub. No, the blues icon doesn't own it. He's licensed his name to a string of B.B. King clubs, but part of the deal is that he plays there occasionally. If you want to see this legend of the blues performing on Beale St, start saving - tickets to his most recent performance cost US$125 ($229). Each.

Not all the entertainment is in the clubs. Schwabs Dry Goods store has been on Beale since the 1890s, and is a mixture of tourist attraction and shop, selling everything from metal washpans to voodoo charms carefully labelled to avoid breaching truth-in-commerce regulations. The Police Museum - incongruous among the bars and T-shirt shops - is free and more interesting than might be expected.

And there's Handy Park - an oasis halfway down the street named for jazz pioneer and Beale St veteran W.C. Handy. The smaller of the park's two stages is sometimes used by rough and ready guitar-bass-and-drums bands, often headed by senior citizens of the blues for whom nothing has changed in the music since the mid-1960s. Some of these small-time groups are excellent. (Hint: A donation in the prominent tip bucket is appreciated, often noisily: "Where y'all from? Noo Zealand? Hey, all them koalas.")

On a lucky day, another such group might be playing on the sidewalk at the far end of the street. On an unlucky day, it'll be the boombox-equipped Elvis impersonator whose wig turns out to be a plastic moulding.

Ah yes, Elvis P. Memphis has more Elvis per square metre than any other city in the world. Not surprisingly. He went to school there, made his first records there, became famous there, lived there, and died there.

So it's not hard to find traces of the great man. Well truth is, it's hard to avoid finding traces of Saint Elvis. He's a big name at the Smithsonian Institute-backed Memphis Rock and Soul Museum, a block away from Beale St. And for more Saint E, try the Sun Studios, where he got his big break.

Sun, at 706 Union Ave, is where it all began for rock'n'roll - twice.

Sam Phillips started his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, and soon after started recording blues, producing a string of top-sellers from artists such as Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and Ike Turner.

One was Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, an alternative name for Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm (Brenston was a tenor sax player in the group). It was a national hit, and its fast-paced jump rhythm has led to it being often cited as the world's first rock'n'roll recording.

Sun went from first to biggest in 1954. The story of Mrs Presley's boy making his first recordings at Sun for Mom's birthday is now embedded in the lore of popular music - whether it's true or not.

What is true is that by the end of 1954, Elvis Presley's black and white fusion was mowing down all other pop music styles. The scythe swung even at Sun, where the black blues players found themselves almost ignored as Elvis and his rocking compatriots - Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash - became the studio's dominant force.

As they still are today. Phillips sold Sun years ago, and the studio was dormant until the late 1980s, when it was reopened.

By night, it's a recording studio, available to any would-be Elvis for US$75 an hour. By day, it's available to tourists for US$8.50 - the price of the guided tour. The exhibits are all there - a guitar used on Elvis sessions, the big RCA microphone into which he sang, the wooden floor on which he stood, the walls he looked at.

Until recently, Sun's other history was almost completely ignored in the tour guides' scripts. Elvis ruled, with Jerry Lee seated at his right hand. Howlin' what? Ike who?

A new upstairs display area rescues the blues artists from obscurity, but the big name is still EP. Want to buy some vintage Elvis on vinyl? It's there - at US$50 or even more a disc.

Sun's biggest-selling souvenir is - yep - the T-shirt. Black or white with the label's famous yellow logo on the front. Very cool, very exclusive, because the Sun Studio is the only place it's sold.

No, Sun doesn't sell Elvis T-shirts. Don't worry. They've got stacks of them in Elvismall, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, opposite Graceland. But that's another story.

Case notes:


When to go:


Whatever other claims Memphis makes, it is best known as a city of music. And the best time for this is during May, when the city holds its annual Memphis in May festival, and the blues Handy awards are presented amid a week of musical events. In May, the weather is warming towards summer and is usually fine with temperatures that will peak in the low 30s. One or two months later, that becomes the high 30s, with humidity to match.

Getting there:


Air New Zealand offers flights from Auckland, via LA and Dallas, to Memphis for around $3000 economy return.

Where to stay:


The main hotels are in the downtown area, with prices to match. Top-of-the-market is the Peabody (www.peabodymemphis.com), featuring a fountain in the lobby with live ducks, which every evening at 5 march in line from their pond across the lobby to a lift to be taken to their overnight accommodation. Prices are well above US$100 ($183) a night, but it is an interesting cultural experience. Cheaper accommodation can be found at any of the chain motels - Motel 6, Days, Red Roofs - scattered around the inner-city area. Prices vary, but US$50 a night is a rough guideline and the standard is usually fairly good.

Getting around:


Forget public transport. It barely exists, apart from the tourist-oriented trams in the downtown area. Hire a car at the airport - all the rental companies are together on Rental Rd, and all run shuttles from the airport terminal. Better deals are often had by booking in advance.

Things to see and do:


Memphis in May: An annual festival (www.memphisinmay.org) in which Memphis honours a foreign country and parades its own culture. New Zealand's turn was in 1991; this year the featured country is South Korea. The festival is split into three parts - the Beale St Music Festival (May 2-4), International Week (May 5-11) and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (May 15-17).

Handy awards: The Blues Foundation's annual blues "Grammy" award ceremony is held in the last week of May, and brings with it an influx of leading blues performers, including B.B. King, who appears at the club bearing his name on Beale St.

Graceland: Elvis Presley's home is probably Memphis' main tourist attraction. For US$25.25, take the Platinum Tour, which includes the Presley mansion, his two aircraft, a display of his cars and the memorabilia room. The Graceland Mansion Tour costs US$16.25 and covers the mansion, the trophy room and the graves of Presley and his parents.

Sun Studio: The place where Presley made his recordings ... and a lot more. Guided tours cost US$8.50 each. The focus is very much on Presley and his rockabilly compatriots Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, but these days the guides pay more attention than they once did to other aspects of Sun's story, including the early blues recordings made there.

National Civil Rights Museum: Built around the first-floor room at the Lorraine Motel outside which Martin Luther King jnr was shot dead in 1968. Includes extensive displays and a recreation of the motel room as it was on the day King was shot. Admission US$10.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers flights from Auckland, via LA and Dallas, to Memphis.

Where to stay: The main hotels are in the downtown area, with prices to match. Top-of-the-market is the Peabody, featuring a fountain in the lobby with live ducks, which every evening at five march in line from their pond across the lobby to a lift to be taken to their overnight accommodation.

Cheaper accommodation can be found at any of the chain motels - Motel 6, Days, Red Roofs - scattered around the inner-city area.

Getting around: Forget public transport. It barely exists, apart from the tourist-oriented trams in the downtown area. Hire a car at the airport - all the rental companies are together on Rental Rd, and all run shuttles from the airport terminal. Better deals are often had by booking in advance.

Things to see and do:

Memphis in May: An annual festival in which Memphis honours a foreign country and parades its own culture. New Zealand's turn was in 1991; this year the featured country is South Korea. The festival is split into three parts - the Beale St Music Festival, International Week and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Handy awards: The Blues Foundation's annual blues "Grammy" award ceremony is held in the last week of May, and brings with it an influx of leading blues performers, including B.B. King, who appears at the club bearing his name on Beale St.

Graceland: Elvis Presley's home is probably Memphis' main tourist attraction. Take the Platinum Tour, which includes the Presley mansion, his two aircraft, a display of his cars and the memorabilia room. The Graceland Mansion Tour covers the mansion, the trophy room and the graves of Presley and his parents.

Sun Studio: The place where Presley made his recordings ... and a lot more. The focus is very much on Presley and his rockabilly compatriots Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, but these days the guides pay more attention than they once did to other aspects of Sun's story, including the early blues recordings made there.

National Civil Rights Museum: Built around the first-floor room at the Lorraine Motel outside which Martin Luther King jnr was shot dead in 1968. Includes extensive displays and a recreation of the motel room as it was on the day King was shot.

Further information: See cityofmemphis.org or memphisguide.com.

Alan Young paid his own way.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 20 Apr 2014 06:48:47 Processing Time: 859ms