Memphis has many nicknames: Bluff City, Barbecued Pork Capital of the World, Home of the Blues.
But whatever you wish to call Tennessee’s largest city, which sits astride the Mississippi, its treasures of music, history, food and culture are there to see if you just know where to look.
It was here that the blues made its first logical stop on its gradual climb northward from the Mississippi Delta, with Beale St. now the local epicenter of its magic. It was here as well that a rock star and native son of the Magnolia State set up his multimillion-dollar estate. And it was here that one of the lions of the civil rights movement breathed his last on an April morning in 1968.
Memphis has so much to experience, but above all is its music, which permeates every aspect of its identity, great and small. The Washington Times spent a weekend walking in Memphis to see, experience and eat and drink in all that this amazing place has to offer.
For reasons known only to air carriers, it is all but impossible to fly directly from the District to Memphis, requiring at least one — or, in my case, thanks to a broken plane at DCA, two — transfers to get me on the ground in Tennessee.
No matter, as I grab an Uber and head into downtown Memphis, where I soon find myself at the exquisite Madison Hotel (79 Madison Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, 38103, 901/333-1200). This is, to put it mildly, a wonderful joint. My room, a suite, is tremendously apportioned, with a living area offering couch, TV, fridge and even iPod- and iPhone-connecting speakers. The chambers itself feature a king bed of pure comfort, with French doors looking directly at the TV in the sitting room for bedtime watching. The bathroom offers both a shower and a tub, and I’m immediately feeling at home.
The welcome is made ever sweeter thanks to a gift from the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau that includes locally sourced chocolates, coffee grounds and, of course, the requisite Elvis sunglasses — which I’m told can somehow be worn unironically in this burg.
It’s been quite a day of traveling, and I’m in need of sustenance. Just down the way from the Madison is the charming Cafe Keough (12 S Main St, Memphis, Tennessee, 38103, 901/509-2469). I opt for the salami sandwich, served with mozzarella, spinach, fennel and basil pesto, and fresh-brewed iced tea, with a side of beef soup just like mom used to make. The home-baked cookies at the counter are calling my name, so I indulge one to go.
Happily sated, I head southwest to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 E. McLemore Ave., Memphis, Tennessee, 38103, 901/261-6338). I am greeted by Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation, a local nonprofit that raises funds for the Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School, which works to help children prepare for college and life via an intensive program of performing arts classes. It’s a great charity in a town that has suffered so much but is seeking to amend some of those past wounds.
Tim walks me next door to the renovated facade of Stax, as the original edifice was torn down and the entire block around it left to the elements at one time. But now, thanks to the efforts of Tim, civic leaders and donors, the story of Stax can once again be told.
In the extensive, interactive museum, I learn how it was here at Stax where the luminaries of soul came to record. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. and the MGs and so many others put radio staple songs to acetate in this place, and Stax’s deal with Atlantic Records allowed their voices to extend far beyond the Delta and creep into speakers all around America.
Like most such galleries, Stax features clothing worn by the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, as well as Issac Hayes’ pimped-out Cadillac Eldorado, which was often seen cruising the streets of Memphis. There’s also a nonstop “Express Yourself” dance floor, featuring live renditions of tunes from the era projected on the wall of the ersatz disco — afros and all. (I admit to having Tim take video of me dancing there.)
Soon enough it’s dinnertime, so Tim and I head to the hip Overton Square neighborhood to dine at Lafayette’s Music Room (2119 Madison Ave, Memphis, Tennessee, 38104, 901/207-5097), a do-drop-in that serves up down-home Southern cooking while you enjoy live blues music. Tonight soul artist Marcella Simien is up on the stage, a well-known Zydeco player of these parts.
Tim and I are joined by Jeff Hulett, the director of public relations for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, and a longtime resident of these parts. Like Tim, Jeff has an easy, welcoming manner, and offers suggestions from the menu from having dined here several times before.
For starters we go with the fried green tomatoes, which I’ve never much fancied, but these particular offerings are divine, supplemented by some stellar crab dip. To lubricate the evening, I go in for a blueberry lemonade spiked with Pickers, Tennessee’s first craft vodka.
Being in a Southern-fried mood, I opt for the shrimp po’ boy for my entree, which is not as amazing as the appetizers, but nonetheless is filling. I top it off with a High Cotton ESB, a local brew.
Oh, but we’re not done, Jeff says. For right outside Lafayette’s is Amurica, a traveling trailer that entices the dutifully sloppy to come in and take photographs with props like flags, hats and various ephemera. Jeff and I do this, and upon seeing the results, I assure you, it was worth it. (Ask nicely and I may even share.)
Before bed I take a stroll up and down Beale St., a pedestrian-only zone of juke joints including Jerry Lee Lewis Cafe & Honky Tonk, where an impersonator of the Killer in his younger days plays both the guitar and the piano channeling Mr. Lewis, right down to igniting the piano with lighter fluid to produce those “great balls of fire,” and nearby Silky O’Sullivan’s, famous for its dueling pianists. The block has also been immortalized in song, thanks to Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and its mention of walking “10 feet off of Beale.”
Unfortunately, Beale is a bit dead this evening, what with winter cold keeping the Southerners at bay. There’s still enough drink and music to scratch my itch for blues, but frankly the scene of locals partying at Overton Square was more enthralling than this tourist trap.
I’ll return some other time when it’s more happening.
It was named for Grace, a relative of S.E. Toof, who owned a 500-acre horse farm that eventually came to include a mansion to go along with ample area for the horses to roam.
Then, in 1957, a 22-year-old man named Elvis Presley purchased the estate, and while he would spend years placing his own touch on the property, he would retain its name: Graceland.
Here in Memphis, visitors can come to see Presley’s home at Graceland (Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, Tennessee, 38116, 901/332-3322), where the King lived until his untimely death — inside the home — in 1977 at the tender age of 42.
But what a life Presley experienced in those two and two score years. Here at Graceland, the visitor can walk his crib, explore the grounds and peer at exhibits and memorabilia from across the rock legend’s life and career.
From the visitor center across the street, we are shuttled via bus to the front steps of the mansion, where a docent informs us of the purchase price the King made for the property ($100,000, or nearly $1 million in 2016 moneys) and how, with the absolute best effort possible, the property remains as true to its 1977 decor as possible.
This is seen as soon as you enter the home. Stepping into the foyer, you turn to the right and see a sitting room featuring yellow stained-glass windows inset with peacock designs and yellow paneling. As it’s December, a large white Christmas tree stands erect in front of a piano and old-school TV in the distance. Across the hall is the massive dining room, adorned too with holiday decorations.
The entire interior is frozen in time, allowing you to experience Graceland much as Presley saw it in the final years of his life, right down to the green shag carpet in the Jungle Room, the side-by-side-by-side TVs in the King’s basement lounge that allowed him to watch “all three” networks at once, the pool room and many others.
In the backyard you can walk into the stables, converted into office space, and then into the racquetball building, which houses Presley’s massive collection of gold records, Grammys, martial arts memorabilia and various other accolades from across his career. Don’t forget to also check out his uniform from his stint in the Army.
Then take a stroll over to the swimming pool and the family plot, where Presley is buried alongside his parents, his grandmother and his brother, who died in childbirth. Sit silently here and reflect on how much this man gave in his relatively short life.
If you purchase the full VIP ticket tour, you can also check out other exhibits such as “Elvis in Hawaii” and “Elvis in Hollywood,” plus the King’s rather sizable automobile collection and, a must, his custom planes, including his pride and joy, the Lisa Marie, named for his daughter.
You can spend hours at Graceland, and how much you want to see will dictate how much you spend. The mansion and grounds are an absolute must, and if you have more time, the exhibits are worth checking out too.
Leaving the King’s digs behind, I head back into town to meet Jeff and Tim for lunch at
Central BBQ (147 E Butler Ave., Memphis, Tennessee, 38103, 901/672-7760), for if there’s one thing Memphis is known for besides music, it’s the fiery pits of cooking bliss.
The fellas have ordered for me prior to arrival, and all I can say is dear God in heaven! First stop is the BBQ nachos, an indulgence of pulled pork, BBQ sauce, shredded cheese and jalapenos. Honestly, this pretty much qualifies as a meal in and of itself. This is followed by macaroni and cheese, BBQ beans and a rack of ribs that is pretty much larger than I am.
It’s a lot of food, and the portions certainly have their way with me. (I’m going on a diet in 2017, I swear.)
This morning I received a message from a friend from middle and high school, Chad, whom I haven’t seen since graduation two decades ago. He and his family happen to be in Memphis, his wife’s home town, and so I have invited him to join us. Chad shows up, which is a surreal moment. He studied divinity locally and now works as a missionary in Africa, work for which adds to lunch amazing tales to go along with our food.
And proving that the entire South is just one big small town, it turns out that Tim in fact knows Chad’s wife!
Despite being on a high from an amazing day thus far, it’s necessary that I walk across the street from Central BBQ to a very special place. For it was here, at the preserved Lorraine Motel, that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray April 4, 1968. The Lorraine, I learn, catered to black travelers at a time when the much of the South — including Memphis — remained segregated. Dr. King’s death would spur riots around the country, but remarkably, not in Memphis, where Dr. King had come to help mediate a strike by the city’s sanitation workers — and which would be settled not long after his death.
The Lorraine is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St, Memphis, Tennessee, 38103, 901/521-9699). Here you can spend a whole or part of the day perusing exhibits, collections and learning about chapters of America’s past — often dark, often forgotten.
Ergo, to be witnessed.
There are gruesome photos of teenager Emmett Till’s destroyed face after he was beaten beyond recognition by white men in Mississippi who thought he committed the unpardonable sin of flirting with a white woman. (His mother insisted on an open casket so that the world might see.) Photos of lynchings are worse are also to be beheld, the most horrifying of which has a black man strung up, his head all but detached from his body, with the words “This n***** voted” written on his shirt.
Less graphic, but no less sad, recreations here show lunch counters such as the one in Greensboro, North Carolina, where “sit-ins” were staged at “whites only” businesses. There’s also a mockup of a bus like the one in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man and was subsequently arrested.
The museum also has paeans to hope, personified in displays about such leaders as King, Stokeley Carmichael, Jesse Jackson and others. Plus a photo from the swearing-in of President Obama in 2009 on the Capitol steps.
You can also peer into room 306 of the Lorraine, where Dr. King stayed the night before his death. An eerie feeling crosses one’s soul looking at the bed where he slept his last rest. A wreath adorns the balcony outside the room, where he was felled by a bullet.
There are also temporary exhibits, such as “Enslaved,” a photographic essay documenting modern slavery, and across the way from the motel is the Legacy Building, whose prize feature shows the window from where assassin James Earl Ray likely fired the fatal round. The displays tell of the hunt for Ray, who was eventually caught in London by an eagle-eyed customs agent who recognized a phony passport when he saw one. Ray was extradited back to the United States, where he was tried and convicted of Dr. King’s murder, and died in prison in 1998 aged 70.
We have come so far, yet so much more needs to be done.
Soon it’s time for me to pick up Tim for a little trip south of the border, for 80 miles southwest of Memphis is an unassuming ‘burg in the Mississippi Delta called Clarksdale. It was here, legend posits, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 49 and Highway 61 in order to become the world’s greatest bluesman. I visited here a few years ago to research both “The Crossroads” for this publication as well to pop by Clarksdale’s most famous business.
Ground Zero Blues Club (387 Delta Ave, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 38614, 662/621-9009) is more than a proving ground for local talent; rather, it’s become a mandatory pilgrimage for the greats of music, from Robert Plant to Elvis Costello. Live music here is king, and co-owner Bill Luckett — who runs the joint with partners Howard Stovall and another Mississippian by the name of Morgan Freeman — maintains an active calendar and a dining menu to match.
Tim and I sit at a table near the front of the stage. Tonight’s entertainment is Dark Water, a trio out of nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi. As the local boys start to rock out, Tim and I chow down on some deep-fried tamales, heaven on the palate,and which I pair with Southern Pecan English Brown Ale from Lazy Magnolia, the state’s most prominent brewer. For main course I go in for a sandwich of pulled pork with a side of fried okra, which fills me within moments.
Other local craft beers on the Ground Zero menu include the Ghost River Golden Ale, which is outstanding, and the Mississippi Blues Trail Farmhouse Ale, which is not without its charms, but I preferred the Ghost River.
Bill Luckett pops by our table to say hello. He and Tim go way back, and the two gentlemen enjoy a ritual of balancing wine glasses on their heads that I am told has a story behind that is a great in-joke. Bill is extremely friendly and warm, and joins us for a round of drinks in between his various calendar appointments which, as the mayor of Clarksdale, keep him rather busy. As a longtime state politician, Bill agrees to a lengthy sit-down interview with me for another story for this publication, which is forthcoming.
Tim and I enjoy our drinks and dessert of deep-fried Snickers, which is indulgence par excellence. I spend some time rocking out on the dance floor and chatting it up with Dark Water drummer Matthew Mason, whose upcoming album will also see some light in these pages.
As is tradition, I sign the wall in a place near the back of the joint, so I can return another day to find it — and sign it again.
After the show, Tim and I head down the street to pay homage to the Crossroads. I was here a year-and-a-half ago, under much different circumstances and with much different company. I was a bit worried about returning here due to said earlier memories, but that was another time. And tonight, as the crossed guitars are lit up to mark the spot where the legend of Robert Johnson and the devil began, I can’t help but be reminded that this day, this weekend, I have made new memories in Memphis and Mississippi to sit next to — as oppose to neutralize — those old ones.
All of it underlined by the music that was born here.
Everyone I have met this weekend has invited me to return again soon. And so I shall, to find more adventures.
Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.