Letter to Memphis
Updated: Jul 5
We finally arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, Jay’s hometown, the weekend about to start and a packed itinerary ahead of us. As we drove into the city down Union Avenue Jay pointed out a building on the right hand side with a guitar hanging from it and said we’d come back for a proper look the following day. It was Sun Studio. After checking out a few hotels we settled into our chosen lodging, just a couple of blocks from Beale St. Saturday would turn into a mindblowing day for me, but for now Jay’s working week would end at a venue of his choice.
Charlie Vergos began to barbeque in 1948. Down a little alley close to the Peabody Hotel stands his Rendezvous restaurant, serving dry rub southern comfort food that today still tempts the tastebuds of Memphians, the connoisseurs of all things grilled. Jay pointed out the frail restaurateur, son of Greek immigrants, who had resolutely stayed in downtown Memphis through turbulent times following the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4th April 1968, contributing to the regeneration of the downtown neighbourhood that now attracts so many visitors.
Saturday was pure pleasure, an early start beginning a few blocks further out of town down Union Avenue with the Sun Studio tour. That’s the legendary Sun Studio, folks, the self-styled birthplace of Rock n Roll. Opened in 1950 by Sam Phillips, the studio claims to have cut the first Rock n Roll record back in 1951. An 18 year old walked into the studio in 1953 to record a couple of songs as a gift for his mother. The boy Elvis would eventually make the studio its name and fortune, becoming the biggest musical phenomenon on the planet and this success fuelled the label’s growing roster, at one time featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, BB King and Carl Perkins. The guided tour was excellent, from Sun Records memorabilia through to the recording studio, our young guide demonstrating on her guitar how Johnny Cash would stick a dollar bill between his guitar strings to create the rhythm sound of a train (well, there had to be a train reference somewhere!). After the obligatory pic of yours truly clutching the studio microphone, trying not to pout like Elvis, we were whisked away across town for the next visit.
If I was excited by Sun Studio, well, the next visit left an even bigger impression. We headed towards South Memphis, East McLemore Avenue to be precise. If you are into Soul, then Stax is Memphis Soul, the Soul of the South even. Less poppy than Motown, the roster of Stax was no less impressive or prolific. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, the list goes on, all backed by the house band, Booker T & the MGs. Jay told me that, in an era of racial tension in Memphis and the South in general, not to mention racial segregation, the MGs and the wider Stax team had presented one small oasis where the colour of your skin did not matter. The Stax building itself is a rebuilt replica of the original, but the museum is no less fascinating and you leave in awe of the talent and sound that exploded from this unassuming South Memphis street.
Graceland was, well, Graceland. I expected an Elvis theme park and, yes, you can spend a whole day there looking at the King’s car collection, his private jet, exhibits from his musical career and also his time in the military, as well as the house itself. We made do mainly with the mansion, more humble than I had imagined and an interesting time capsule of the life of someone who still visibly moves many people today, as witnessed with some of my fellow visitors overwhelmed by emotion, sobbing at the singer’s gravestone (at that time) just over 30 years after his untimely death.
Before I could say, “Thank you, thank you very much,” (I may have already used this joke – sorry!) it was time to depart. Jay took his well- deserved leave from me. It was Saturday afternoon, after all, and from now on I was on my own again, Mr Monorail. Just about enough time to get to the Peabody Hotel for the duck march.
“The duck what?” I hear you ask. Okay, here’s how it goes. Since the 1930s the fountain in the lobby of the Memphis Peabody Hotel has been home to the Peabody ducks. Twice daily a spectacle takes place. A Master of Ceremonies rolls out a red carpet, regales the eager onlooking crowd with the history of the Peabody Ducks, after which it all goes a bit…erm…quackers as the little blighters jump out of their fountain onto the red carpet laid out for them, waddling their way to the elevator to the obvious delight of the crowd.
It was snowing outside now, something quite unusual for Memphis. Walking back to my own hotel in the early evening I crossed the intersection of Beale Street. Now Beale Street would normally be lively of a Saturday evening anyway, but this time it was lively in a different way. Outside the famous blues bars a massive joyous snowball fight was taking place. I joined in, of course, then went my merry meandering Memphis way, past BB King’s, past the Gibson Guitar Factory, past WC Handy’s (“Father of the Blues”) House. What a city.
A couple of hours later I was back on Beale, soaking up the atmosphere amongst the happy revellers hopping from bar to bar, with the sound of Memphis music filling every room of every hostelry. I loved the relaxed atmosphere, with no objection to taking your beer in a plastic pint from one place to the next. I chose to perch myself on a tall barstool to listen to a Blues veteran do his thing from a small stage. Every few songs he would burst into a rendition of his most played tune, “Tip the band. You gotta tip the band.” Whilst the band played on the maestro walked around the room with his tip bucket, asking audience members for a donation and where they were from, then marching back onto the stage to pronounce, “All the way from Birmingham, Alabama!” Finally it was my turn. “Where you from, man?” asked the singer. The cogs whirred in my brain. Rotherham, South Yorkshire? Should I say Sheffield or Leeds? But will he have heard of those places? I decided on my answer, muttered it to him in embarrassment, to which he excitedly ran back onto the stage. “All the way from London, England!!!” I got a standing ovation from the rest of the bar for being transatlantic, if not particularly honest on this occasion, deciding it was time to wander through a doorway into the adjoining bar.
Into another world. The bigger adjoining bar was packed with people with broad smiles on their faces. This was a happy room, there was no question about that. On stage was a band with the usual drummer, bassist and guitarist, but two not quite so usual instruments. The singer was holding an accordion and stood next to him was a guy wearing a sheet of corrugated metal across his torso, playing it with what looked like a couple of spoons. This was a fast, rhythmic party music the likes of which I had never heard. Zydeco is the Creole music of New Orleans and Louisiana, and up in Memphis tonight was a Zydeco band called Dikki Du and the Zydeco Krewe. In front of the stage couples of all ages danced in armlock. All those weddings and parties I’ve been to with Mrs C where she has had to drag me up onto the dancefloor to stumble around self-consciously to music I don’t like but which the majority of people consider to be party music. The tables were finally turned but she wasn’t there. She still remembers receiving the unexpected text message I sent her in the early hours (UK time) from that bar in Memphis. “I wish you were here; I want to dance with you.”
The following morning was an early start from Memphis AMTRAK station. Having picked up my tickets for AMTRAK’s “City of New Orleans” train, depositing my case, I had time for a quick walk out. At least I could say I had seen the nearby Lorraine Motel, which was one of the hotels that catered for black Americans during the era of segregation. It was here that Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated and now in its place is the National Civil Rights Museum. A humbling place on an eerie, deserted winter’s morning. Back at the station very soon I was “riding on the City of New Orleans” on the next leg of my adventure on the tracks of the Deep South.