Last July, with the lyrics of singer Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” rattling around my head, I found myself staring at the sheer eccentricity of the infamous Jungle Room at Gracelands. This was Elvis Presley’s man cave. A place where he and his male entourage would retire to drink, smoke cigars, record some records and kick back from the mad world the king of modern music inhabited. With its exotic plants, animal prints and wall to ceiling green shag carpet the room is, for me, the highlight of a trip to this very touristy but also very poignant living exhibition.
It has always been a desire of mine to visit not only Memphis but also the wider southern states of the USA. And now I am here. The first thing that strikes me is the oppressive heat and humidity as I walk out from between the gliding silver doors of the airport at Memphis. Ahead of me is two full days of exploration of not only the rich musical heritage of Memphis but also the historical and political backdrop to a city that was the centre of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s and of course the place in which Martin Luther King was notoriously assassinated.
Memphis is located in the state of Tennessee and is the third largest city on the Mississippi. However by American standards it is relatively small with a total population of just over 1.3 million. The modern city was founded in 1819 by a group of businessmen including future president Andrew Jackson. They named it after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile. It is there that any comparison with Egypt ends. The city originally thrived on the cotton and slave economy, and it was a Confederate stronghold for part of the civil war, but it’s become synonymous with its cultural history, especially riverboats, rock and roll and African-American music.
Having settled into my hotel, it is time to venture out into the city. With my whole body fighting the effects of jet lag it seems sensible to sequester myself for the evening in BB Kings Blues Club on Beale Street. This major artery of the city runs for just under two miles from the Mississippi river and is generally acknowledged as a major tourist attraction. Lined with numerous blues bars and restaurants Beale Street was officially declared “Home of the Blues” by Congress in 1977.
The restaurant is packed with diners and alive with the music of the All Star Band when I arrive. I manage to snag myself a table close to the stage and sit back to let the music wash over me. My waiter, Tony, attempts to talk me through the extensive menu but the loud and intense music makes that conversation more of a comedy sketch so I settle for a taste of their famous ribs and a local craft beer. The food is excellent, is a ridiculously huge portion and a great start to my stay in the self styled birthplace of rock and roll.
One of the joys of Memphis is that, with the exception of a visit to Graceland, it is small enough to walk around and all the key sites are easily accessible. With that in mind and after an almost full nights sleep, the next morning I set off to visit some of the major music attractions. I have purchased in advance a discount card giving me a considerable saving on entrance fees and would highly recommend this approach.
After an early trip to Gracelands, which is located in some twenty minutes drive out of the city, the next on my list is Sun Studios, the recording studio opened by Sam Phillips in 1950 and where among others Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded. Indeed it was here, at these relatively non-descript studios on Union Avenue that Elvis recorded his first ever records and which launched a modern day cultural phenomenon on the world. As part of the relatively quick tour of the building you get to stand in the basement studio where history was made and music changed forever.
Both the STAX Soul and the Memphis Rock and Soul Museums delve deeper into the soul roots that underpin the social fabric of the city and indeed in the case of STAX follow its development from back street garage to multi million dollar organisation representing the likes of Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding in its stable. Whether or not you like soul, rock or blues music, and I like them all, you cannot but help be absorbed into the sheer scale and complexity of Memphis music heritage. Indeed even the Smithsonian Institution states “in the quest to identify the roots of rock and roll, all roads lead to Memphis”.
And what of life outside the air-conditioned music institutions? Much of my second day is spent on a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is built around the Lorraine Motel where on April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated. The power of this immersive museum experience is enough to reduce me to silent tears at one stage and, at times, being white by birth feels distinctly uncomfortable as I move from set piece to set piece all depicting the civil rights struggles faced by so many in America.
Following such an illuminating but chastening experience I head for the mighty Mississippi itself and to Beale Street Landing, an award-winning pier where paddle steamers depart every afternoon for 90 minute cruises. Armed with a cold beer and sitting on the top deck in the fading afternoon sun I watch huge ferries and barges surge their way past us and up the river to ports unknown. Cargos included coal, cars and some mystery black steel containers, which perched precariously on one seemingly overladen craft.
My last night in this most welcoming of cities can only be spent one way – more food and more music. I choose to eat at Charles Vergos Rendezvous in the Downtown area. Whilst famous for its ribs for the entire 70 years it’s been open, I opt for a pork shoulder sandwich. Pure simplicity with a great taste. Feeling sated I head for the Rum Boogie Café. With its 200 signed guitars flanking the walls and blues played seven nights a week, this is a pitch perfect summary of what makes Memphis rock. The blues played this night is sublime and full of primal energy.
The next morning I am up at 5am to head for the Amtrak station for the 6.40am City of New Orleans train to New Orleans itself. That part of the trip and the jazz of New Orleans will be another story for another time. But as I head out of the city sitting on the train’s upper deck I hark back to that Marc Cohen song and I can honestly say “I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale, walking in Memphis but do I really feel the way I feel?” A great song for a great city.