“Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain”
Got the chance to go to Memphis a while back, and I’ve been wanting to blog about it since. I’d been through Memphis many times, on the way to Kentucky to visit the grandparents. But I don’t believe we ever stopped on any of those trips. I knew Memphis was the home of the blues. I knew MLK was shot there. I knew Graceland was there too. But that’s about it. What I didn’t realize ahead of time is what an incredibly cool, and very historical, town it is. In Memphis, you can learn a lot about the last hundred years of our country’s domestic history, and you can learn just about everything you need to know about our musical history in any age.
As we rode over in the plane, I couldn’t help but break out the iPod, and play this great Marc Cohn song. I’ve always loved that song, and always felt that Cohn was a truly fine songwriter. I wondered how much of the song would ring true to us, and how much of it we’d have a whole new appreciation for after our visit.
Turns out, our visit ended up being just like the song…
“W.C. Handy — won’t you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be”
Memphis is where the blues were born. The “father of the blues,” W.C Handy, lived and worked in Memphis and his small shotgun-style house has been moved a block off Beale Street in downtown. Rock n Roll was born here in Memphis. Arguably, so was a lot of contemporary “soul” and “R&B.” And then, of course, there’s Elvis. Before I went to Memphis, I suppose I assumed that the Graceland/Elvis legend would overshadow everything else. And Elvis is definitely the 800-pound gorilla (perhaps not the kindest metaphor, I know…). But the truth is that the blues are what gives Memphis its soul.
“Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel”
Almost anything you want to see in Memphis is within a one to two mile radius of Beale Street in downtown. Beale was the cultural center of Memphis’ black community a hundred years ago. There were shops of all kinds: grocers, tailors, merchants, lawyers. Some of the first black-owned businesses in the South were there. It was also, understandably, the center of black culture and nightlight. And it was out of this crucible that the blues were born…right on that street.
Current-day Beale Street is more than three-blocks of clubs, restaurants and gift shops. And, man, does it hop. We walked Beale every night of our trip, and even on Tuesday night it was alive with music and life. Wednesday night is apparently, “biker night,” and there were lots of them wandering the street. By Thursday night, the weekend has started, and the crowds were pretty big. Can’t imagine how amazing it must be on Fri/Sat.
As you walk up and down Beale, you pass club after club with live music. In fact, almost every place on the street –for three solid blocks– had music wafting out onto the street. There were blues bands playing originals in outside beer gardens. There were bands playing covers of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis songs. There was an Elvis impersonator singing karioke at another place. There was even a guy playing acoustic music at one club too.
Jeez, it’s just awesome. I can’t ever remember being in a place with that much music all at once….just an amazing vibe and feel.
B.B. King’s place anchors the top end of Beale, and W.C Handy’s house marks the symbolic end. Many of the greatest blues players of all time got their starts on Beale. B.B. King first played there, and “BB” is actually short for “Beale Street Boy,” an early psuedonym he performed under during those early years.
As we walked up and down the first night, I thought to myself, “This is just like Sixth Street.” And then, I stopped and realized that the truth is the other way around…. Sixth Street is just like Beale.
Within a block of Beale is the FedEx Center, where the Grizzlies play. A couple of blocks away is a gorgeous ballpark, currently the home of the Memphis Redbird’s. And I marveled at what great city planning is was to put everything right down there. And, of course, this caused me to lament again what Dallas lost. I remembered how Deep Ellum has a similar history. It too was the center of Dallas’ black history a hundred years ago. It too has ties to blues masters, like Blind Lemon and Robert Johnson. But, as everybody knows, Deep Ellum is dead. Can’t even say that it’s dying anymore. The cadaver is cold.
If you go to Memphis, man, you gotta to Beale.
“Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through.”
Turns out, we actually stayed on Union Avenue. We stayed at the Peabody Hotel, which is the old, classic downtown hotel in Memphis. (That’s where Dennise’s conference was…) The Peabody is famous for it’s lobby bar and for its ducks. The bar has long been the place to “see and been seen” in Memphis. Movers and shakers, power brokers, used to meet there for drinks and to make deals. And right in the center are the Peabody ducks.
A tradition started after a hunting trip by one of its founders, the ducks are a tourist attraction all to themselves. Daily at 11 am, they ride the elevator of the hotel down from a swanky penthouse duck-cage on the roof. They waddle across the lobby and into the room’s center fountain. At 5 pm, they repeat the process. More than a hundred gawkers line the route from fountain to elevator, snapping pictures as the stars waddle by. I know, it sounds weird. (It really kinda is…)
Elvis’ tailor now has a store there in the Peabody. Not only do they sell fine clothes, but the store also has more autographed acoustic guitars on the wall than any Hard Rock Cafe in the world. Trust me, it’s impressive. Even if you’re not interested in the clothes, just to gawk at the guitars for a while.
Just across Union Avenue from the Peabody is an alley. And halfway down the alley is a restaurant called “Rendevous.” Both David Griggs and Chris Wilmoth insisted that we had to eat there, so we stopped by on Wednesday night with Charles and Mary. Rendevous is the place to get the traditional Memphis-style barbeque. In Memphis, barbeque is pork, and the ribs are cooked with a “rub” not a sauce. Since Texas is one of the other great barbeque Meccas (beef and sauce) I was fully prepared to slam this strange variant. But, oh man, it’s tasty…..really, really good. We actually stopped in a second time, right before getting on the plane Friday afternoon.
If you ever see the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue, then it was probably somewhere around Sun Records. The Sun building today looks virtually the same as it did fifty years ago, when it was arguably the nursery for the birth of Rock in Roll. Incredibly, the building stood empty for almost twenty years, and when it was reopened, it looked just as it did when Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins recorded their first songs there. The original acoustical tiles are still on the walls, and they claim the original floor tiles are still on the floor. (Allegedly with an indentation where Elvis’ bass player’s instrument used to stand….)
Sun is about .8 of a mile from the Peabody. So, on Thursday morning I took the walk down Union for the studio tour. I actually had a little time to kill, so I ate breakfast at a funky coffeeshop called “Quetzal’s.”
Then, I hit the 10:30 am tour. Loved it so much that I made Dennise come back with me the next day.
The studio itself is probably just a little bit bigger than your living room. (Assuming you live in the average house…) The tour guides give all sorts of great history of the place. They get into some of the precursor music to Rock n Roll, some of the early stories of Elvis and the others. For example, the picture below shows our tour guide demonstrating how Johnny Cash created the percussive beat, almost like a washboard sound, on “I Walk the Line.” The secret? A playing card stuck in the guitar strings…demonstrated by our tour guide here:
I have to confess, I’ve always felt the earliest Rock n Roll of the 50s was quaint and sweet, but really didn’t give it much thought. Depsite the fact that it was only ten years before I was born, it’s just seemed like ancient history. Even the Beatles invasion, which happened when I was a baby, has always seemed like some totally different historical time. (I have a theory that all this has something to do with black and white TV…)
But there at Sun, you get an amazing sense of the history of modern American music. You can see the clear and straight line that runs from the blues, soul, and country, morphing right into the new form of Rock.
By the way…how did the birthplace of the blues and Rock n Roll (Memphis) and the epicenter of American country music (Nashville) all end up in Tennessee?
But it doesn’t stop at Rock and Country. Turns out, “soul music” has deep roots in Memphis too. Our Sun tour guide suggested we take in the Stax Records tour as well.
So, on Friday afternoon, before catching the plane, we went by there. It’s actually a good ways away from downtown, but it was well worth it. This little place was arguably one of the places soul music began…Otis Reading, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Johnny Taylor, Booker T and the MGs, and dozens more all got their start at Stax. Here’s a nice list of many of them….) They boast that they are the only soul music museum in the world.
One of the things you learn about Stax is that is was perhaps America’s first truly integrated business. Blacks and Whites shared all the duties, up through senior management, and down through the roster of musicians. The self-guided tour makes the point of just how unique this was, and about how nobody at the time really thought about it much. It was just an creative and organic place where nobody thought about race…until MLK was shot. And there was apparently something about that event that changed Stax forever.
If you go to Stax, make sure and take plenty of time for the self-guided tour. The Sun studio is one room. The Stax museum is exhibit after exhibit packed with tasty info. about many, many musicians.
(Additional note: Since I posted this blog, I’ve heard from Tim, who helps run the official Stax blog. He reminds us that right now Stax has a new exhibit honoring Otis Redding, and featuring photos from the private collection of his wife. You can learn more by clicking here. It’s a good blog too…)
One more music-related item about downtown Memphis. There’s a Gibson Guitar factory there too. So, of course, we took that too. They seem to specialize in the hollow body electric, B.B. King’s “Lucille.” Here’s a couple of pics from that tour…
I’m really pleased our Sun tour guide suggested the Stax Tour to us. I highly, highly recommend finding the time to go to Sun and Stax, back-to-back. It can teach you just about seventy-percent of what you need to know of America’s contemporary music history.
“Now security they did not see him
They just hovered ’round his tomb
But there’s a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room”
We took our obligatory trip to see the Jungle Room, and the rest of Graceland, on Thursday afternoon. Truthfully? I don’t think either one of us was obsessed with going. But I suppose for the same reasons the whole world feels like they must go to Dealey Plaza when they visit Dallas…you sort of feel like you have to go.
Graceland is actually a name that predates Elvis. When he bought the place in the late 1950s, it came with the name attached…was named for some woman…I can’t remember….
Modern Graceland should really be called “Elvisland,” ala “Disneyland.” It’s a hugely commercial enterprise, and has a “theme park” feel to it. Not only can you tour the mansion, but also Elvis’ planes, cars, art, and a whole lot of his 70s-era costumes. (You know, the white suit, and cape…) Each of these are in separate buildings. To tour the entire place really takes the better part of a day.
Charles asked us to take a picture of the most kitschy thing we saw. I think we both agreed it was the fur covered bed:
Yes, Elvis was over-the-top. And, yes, like so many other icons, he’s really now little more than a caricature of himself in our cultural zietgeist. But, let me say this…when you walk through the “trophy room,” when you see an entire long hallway of gold and platinum records, trophies, awards from presidents and princes, it’s very impressive. You start to get the sense of just how huge he was in his time. We may joke about his music and legacy, but I’ve never seen that many gold records anywhere…and I doubt there’s another place with more. Then, when you see all the visitors, millions a year, who still come to Graceland even today, you get the sense of just how huge he still is. (Many young visitors too…folks who clearly were born after his death…)
We paid for the “VIP” tour, mostly because we don’t like standing in lines. And as we waited at the first bus stop, to make the short trip across the road to the mansion, the employee designated to wait with us said, “So, is this your first trip to Graceland?”
Which of course, begs the question: Who goes more than once?
But given that just about every other docent (too fancy a word for Graceland?) also asked the exact same question, we eventually got the drift that lots of people do.
“They’ve got catfish on the table
They’ve got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green be glad to see you
When you haven’t got a prayer
But boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis.”
Memphis has a certain spiritual-vibe that is very present in the air, but hard to quantify in words. I know it must be deeply connected with the music. I mean, think of the musicians who came from here…Elvis…Al Green…BB King….WC Handy….Aretha Franklin (as a child…)…Isaac Hayes…and even, lest we forget, Justin Timberlake. Jeff Buckley died here, and there are still rumors about the cause of his death to this day. Elvis died here. And you know the stories about him.
You just have this sense that there’s some kind of vortex here that brings all those famous musicians here at the same place.
Of course, the most famous person who died here was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it’s that assassination that adds yet another layer to the rings of Memphis’ tree. I joked earlier that going to Graceland was like going to Dealey Plaza. Really, the correct analogy is that going to the old Lorraine Motel is like going to the Sixth Floor Museum. On Wednesday, we planned to spend the whole day seeing the town, and touring the new National Civil Rights Museum, at the site of the old Lorraine Motel. However, some really tough stuff that I don’t want to get into here was happening with one of the courthouse employees back in Dallas. And so, Dennise had to stay on the phone most of that morning dealing with a terrible emergency.
Once things were more clear and calm back home, we finally got out the door sometime after noon, and we took the short walk down to the site. The old Motel –save the original facade and the parking lot– is gone. It’s as some giant came in and sliced off the Lorraine, and then built a large, three story structure in the back of it, where the rooms used to be.
That big building is the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s a really fantastic museum, and we can’t recommended it highly enough. It really does give you a sense of much of America’s history during the past 50-100 years. Much of the story many of you will already know. But in that context, in that place, it takes on a certain resonance and power.
As you weave your way through the museum, you take a journey through America’s Civil Right’s story; which, of course, includes the life of Dr. King in so many key points. And then, at the end of the tour, you take one last turn, and suddenly you are not in the museum anymore. You are standing inside the facade of the old Lorraine. You are right in the rooms where King and his entourage stayed that fateful day. You are looking out the window on the balcony where he fell.
It’s very powerful.
Across the parking lot, another section of the museum has opened. It concentrates more on the assassination itself and the events that came after. It also talks a lot about the legacy of King and the continuing struggle for Civil Rights around the globe.
If you go to Memphis, you need to take the time to go here.
“Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would —
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said —
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
And I said “Ma’am I am tonight”
So, now comes the most strange and amazing story of the trip. As I said before, it’s almost like our trip mirrored this classic Marc Cohn song. Even this verse.
It happened out on Beale. On Wednesday night, after we ate at Rendevous, Dennise, me, Charles and Mary, were just walking down the street…taking in the feel of “biker night.” As I said before, there were musicians and bikers all up and down the street.
And, here and there, there were street musicians on the street. Near the very end of Beale we came upon on bluesologist, set up on the sidewalk, with his guitar, amp and microphone. He was a classic street musician. Case open for tips. CDs for sale. You’ve seen him before.
His name was Sam “Black Smoke” Wiggins. Thanks to Google, I later found out that Sam spends a lot of time down on Beale, just playing there on the street. During the days, he hangs out in front of WC Handy’s house at the end of the block.
Here’s a short sample from his CD.
So, we’re just walking by, and he’s in between songs. And he looks over at me and says “Hey, want to play a couple?”
Now, there were four of us walking and talking together that night. We all came up on him at the same time. How did he know to ask me? How did he know I played?
So, I was a little freaked out, and I’m a little shy anyway, so I just stood there for a second. But as you might imagine, Dennise, Charles and Mary egged me on. So, I sat down and played a few while Sam took a smoke break. I mostly fumbled around. We’d just done the JT cover show with “Connections,” so I played “You’ve Got a Friend.” A played a couple snippets from several of my songs.
So let me say for the record, this was a cool, cool moment. Just the idea of playing on the street, on Beale Street!!! It felt like some kind of sacred baptism into musical history. Here’s Dennise’s iPhone pic:
Then, it got even stranger…
I’m handing Sam his guitar back, thanking him for the chance to play, when he asks me this:
“Say, are you a preacher?”
The question stunned me…even more of a shock than the first one. There was nothing about me to indicate that I was a preacher. But I said, “Yes, actually, I am.”
Then, still reeling, I said, “But how did you know?”
And then he actually looked a little stunned too. He said, “I don’t how I knew.” Sheepishly, he said, “In fact, I’ve never asked anybody that kind of question before…and I don’t know why I asked you.”
It’s hard to fully describe both the surreal sense of connection I felt with him, Beale, and the whole moment, and the surreal surprised I think we both felt. I hadn’t played any religious songs. Heck, I had a beer in my hand.
So, I stood there a little longer. I bought on of his CDs, and we exchanged addresses. I need to write him.
But ain’t that a kick? We all walked back to the hotel a little subdued. I kept pushing Charles, Mary and Dennise, but all three swore they hadn’t let on either that I played, or that I was a “preacher.”
I have always believed in what some call synchronicity; what I have always called grace. I also believe there are spiritual places, where spirit just speaks more clearly to you; and spiritual moments, when strangers can connect in surprising ways. That moment was certainly one of them for me. And I had the Mark Cohn song on my head. Did I want it something like that song to happen, and so it happened? That’s a little too much to believe.
Yet, I do believe that we’re much more likely to see connections, grace-moments, when we”ve got our spirits, and eyes, wide open. So, maybe just paying attention was a part of it too. Or maybe it’s spiritual and artistic kindred souls. Or maybe it’s just dumb luck.
“Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain”
The last night we were in Memphis, Dennise and I went back down to Beale one more time. We saw Sam again, and he let me play a second time. We talked to him a little more. Then, we talked over to W.C. Handy Park, just across the street really, where a full band was playing on the little stage there. They were in the middle of their last song, actually…an incredibly good cover of SRV’s “Little Sister.” I thanked the lead player after they got done, and he reminded me that that day was the anniversary of Stevie Ray’s death. Another cool synchronicity.
Memphis is a very special place. Man, what stories. What history….what spirit.