A city historically known for its music and spicy food as it is for being the birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement, Memphis delivers a dose of good ol’ Southern hospitality.
Unless it involves Los Angeles or San Francisco, this homebody rarely travels long distances. My brother, Art, aimed to get me out of Bakersfield and Memphis, Tenn., second only to Nashville, is the perfect destination for a lover of music history. We headed off with family buds Chris and Tommy ready to party.
Within an hour of our arrival, we hit historic Beale Street, three blocks of neon-lit shops, restaurants and dive bars. First stop, B.B. King’s Blues Club to check out the house band, aptly named, the B.B. King Blues Club All-Stars. Right off the back from the first note, I knew we’d arrived.
In between branded clubs, like those owned by former pro wrestler Jerry Lawler and “The Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, are watering holes offering musical tributes to native sons and daughters — Al Green, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Bobbly “Blue” Bland and Ann Peebles — all performed with the soul that made the originals famous. My recommendation: Stick to old favorites that have been around since as long as Beale Street, and skip the newer-looking chain clubs.
This musician loved the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, built where the Stax Records once stood, which transports you to the funky soulful 1960s and '70s when best-selling house artists Isaac Hayes (“Shaft”), Booker T. & The M.G.’s (“Green Onions”), The Bar Kays (“Soul Finger”), Johnny Taylor (“Who’s Making Love”), Sam & Dave (“Soul Man”) and Rufus Thomas (“Do The Funky Chicken”) recorded the American house party soundtrack. There’s even a "Soul Train" dance area for you to “Express Yourself.”
We built up an appetite sightseeing and hit up some barbecue rib and chicken joints, impressed by the generous portions. The Dirty Crow Inn, which almost put us in food coma with hot-hot wings and a killer bloody mary made with the house barbecue sauce in the mix base, and Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (extra spicy) were great but it was the family-owned Cozy Corner Restaurant Inc. Bar-B-Q that served up the ribs we were looking for and the tastiest peach cobbler I’ve ever had.
In contrast to the soulful funky history of Stax Records, a visit to Graceland offered an interesting look in the glitzy, but isolated life of Elvis Presley. The tour starts across the street where Elvis’ jets are parked, before visitors hop aboard an ongoing stream of tour shuttles to the King's home. Built on 138 acres, the massive estate features the mansion with extended living quarters, offices frozen in time and groovy shaggy rug décor in various rooms, not to mention futuristic-looking entertainment consoles (Elvis was a TV fanatic). The self-guided tour ends with a visit to the gravesite of Elvis’ beloved parents, grandmother and the King himself.
Our final day in Memphis started early at the National Civil Right Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Although gentrification looms in Memphis' historic neighborhoods, the drive to the Lorraine Motel parking lot will have you feeling like it's 1968.
The museum tour covers a lot of ground, moving from slavery in the U.S. to the Montgomery bus boycott with Rosa Parks, student sit-ins, Freedom Riders, the black power movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the arrest of his killer, James Earl Ray, and hours of reading materials documenting King’s death and the aftermath that followed.
It was hard holding back the tears taking in all the history. From standing near the place King took his last breaths to reading and hearing stories from the front lines of the civil rights movement, this was a moving experience. I was also touched to see the work of Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers Union prominently on display as part of the extended exhibition. With such an attention to detail, there is no rating high enough for this museum; just make sure to give yourself time to take it all in.
With few hours left, we visited the “birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll,” aka the legendary Sun Studio where Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison helped introduce America to a new sound. We stepped from chamber to chamber for colorful stories, artifacts, a visit to the recording chamber where Elvis caught the ear of producer Sam Phillips, where U2 laid down tracks during the “Rattle and Hum” sessions to the present day. Fun fact: Sun Studio still runs as functioning recording studio at night, so if you’re looking to get some Sun juju in your band’s music, follow the Sun.
Exhausted by day 4, it was time to head home. A quick drive across the mighty, muddy Mississippi River so Chris could touch ground in neighboring Little Rock, Ark., we headed back to prep for the return flight.
Memphis, you rock.