Beale Street, the beating heart of the Home of the Blues, feels like a hybrid of New Orleans’ neon, über-touristy Bourbon Street and Nashville’s Honky Tonk Row but in place of Dixieland jazz and Country music, in Memphis the blues rules with live bands playing up and down the street, day and night.
Take your pick from several blues bars including smaller, more easy-going venues like Mr Handy’s Blues Hall, named after WC Handy, the Father of the Blues whose statue stands on Beale Street.
At the other of the end of the street, there’s BB King’s Blues Club, with its own restaurant and gift shop. BB King - BB stands for Blues Boy, a nickname from his youth - like so many musicians before him, travelled north from a small town in Mississippi up to Memphis, Tennessee. He earned a new name: King of the Blues and, in 1991, opened his blues club where you can catch live music and chow down on slaw and pulled pork – Memphis is also known as the Barbecued Pork Capital of the World.
July 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of Presley’s first official single, his speeded up version of blues number That’s All Right, recorded in Memphis at Sun Studio. The studio runs tours and bills itself as the Birthplace of Rock and Roll.
If you only have time for one Elvis venue, you can’t beat Graceland; it’s in a class of its own as a tribute to a hero of popular culture. Graceland, the mansion Elvis bought for $100,000 at the age of 22 in the early years of his success, is smaller than expected but it’s part of an entire Elvis industry along Elvis Presley Boulevard, several miles south of Beale Street.
The house’s interior bears the hallmarks of rock and roll opulence, frozen in time in the 70s, which makes it all the more fabulously tacky. If you can’t find that kind of excess here, where else can you find it? As a reminder of The King’s success, a long Hall of Gold is lined with gold discs of hits. As in most of the rooms at Graceland you barely have time to dwell on the details as you’re propelled forward along with a herd of tourists. But there’s plenty to catch your eye from Elvis’ mirrored TV den to his former racquetball court now filled with sequined Vegas outfits.
Nobody is allowed upstairs to the private quarters that include the bathroom where Elvis died in 1977. His grave is outside in the Meditation Garden where fans pay their respects and leave flowers.
Across the street from Graceland the business of Elvis continues with museums housing his two customized private jets, his automobile collection and more bejewelled outfits from his Vegas comeback days.
Elvis would have been 80 in January 2015. He died age 42. Another giant whose life ended too soon, also in Memphis, was Martin Luther King Jr, the titan of the Civil Rights Movement.
On the 46th anniversary of King’s death, 4 April 2014, the National Civil Rights Museum fully re-opens following renovations. Part of the museum that remains open is an impressive take on the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s but with a heavy focus on the assassination of King. A jacket, rifle and metro map of King’s home town Atlanta marked with his movements are on display, items that apparently belonged to James Early Ray, who was captured in London and convicted of King’s murder. Visitors can stand near the spot in the preserved bathroom where the sniper allegedly stood, looking out onto the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot.
Along with the evidence on view, the museum recognizes that there are groups – including King’s own family - who doubt that Ray pulled the trigger. Examining these different theories means that that there is, naturally, frequent mention of Ray at the museum. This is one reason why Jacqueline Smith, who was a tenant at the motel when King was shot in 1968, has protested outside the location for over 26 years. On her website, fulfillthedream.net, she objects to the museum’s $27 million renovation and calls the museum a “Disney-style tourist attraction” that “glamorizes” King’s death. There is only a little sense of that, walking round the Ray exhibit but on the whole, it’s an educational display about one of the South’s most important historical figures whose legacy lives on.
Somebody Say Amen!
Although three Kings are the main focus of Memphis, you should also pay a visit to a bishop, or to be exact, Reverend Al Green. Just under two miles from Graceland, on Hale Road off Elvis Presley Boulevard, the Grammy-winning former soul singer preaches at the Full Gospel Tabernacle. If you catch the 11.30am service on a Sunday when Green usually leads a gospel choir in great voice, you’ll hear them raise the roof.
This is no ordinary church service. There’s a dedicated local crowd and a throng of overseas visitors – cameras in hand - in awe of their first rousing Baptist Church experience. If you’re lucky, Green will rise from his leather chair – stitched in gold with the words ‘Bishop Al Green’ – and he’ll sing a refrain from two of his 70s hits Tired of Being Alone and Let’s Stay Together.
He mentions these songs in passing patter for tourists, referring to the days of music industry hedonism he left behind in the move from soul singer to soul saver. Sometimes he’ll drop in tales from his tough childhood in Arkansas, just across the Mississippi, and weave in moral messages with occasional music that should have you on your feet.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Possibly the world’s coolest museum, it has a disco floor complete with a mirror ball. You can boogie down to Isaacs Hayes’ Theme from Shaft and other hits from the seminal Stax label at the unique American Soul Music museum, between Graceland and Beale Street.
In 2003, Al Green performed at the opening of the museum, on the site of the former studio where he recorded many of his famous hits. The independent label’s best known records include over a dozen number one US singles such as (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, The Staple Singers’ I’ll Take You There, Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions and Sam & Dave’s Hold On I’m Coming – the latter’s title, according to the museum, was devised on a dash back from the loo to the recording studio.
Stax is in a neighbourhood known as Soulsville USA, that many music heroes called home, including Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Carla Thomas and Booker T. Jones. Stax’s name comes from its founders, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, an unlikely music industry partnership, a brother and sister both of who worked in banking. There was a rivalry between the Memphis soul sound and Detroit’s Motown, led by Berry Gordy, who, the museum delights in informing us, ran his label like a factory. Stax deals, on the other hand, were done by handshake and an informal air allowed creativity to flourish. That worked up to a point – Stewart neglected to read his contract with Atlantic Records and eventually lost the label’s entire catalogue to them. That was in 1968, when, within a four month period, Stax’s biggest star Otis Redding died and Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel, where the label often held meetings.
These factors marked the beginning of the end for Stax though it continued on into the early 70s with stars such as Isaac Hayes – the showman’s Cadillac and Oscar for Shaft are on display here. In the final room, you can glimpse Otis Redding’s two posthumous Grammy awards for Dock of the Bay before heading into the funky gift shop.
The Arcade Restaurant – in the South Main Historic District, a couple of blocks from the Lorraine Motel, 50s style diner Arcade is the best place for brunch (around $10) with a taste of Memphis history. Opened in 1925 by a Greek émigré, the diner is famous as a movie location having played host to many films including Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Jim Jarmusch’s art house classic Mystery Train and The Firm and The Client – big screen versions of John Grisham’s novels set in Memphis.