Memphis

Black and white and blues all over.

November 1997By Comments

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE, THE BROAD-SHOULDERED HUB of the Mid-South, is best known as the place where Elvis Presley happened. Of course, it’s no coincidence that Elvis happened here, something often overlooked in the race to visit Graceland and buy a bunch of kitsch. However you want to tag the city—home of the blues, birthplace of soul and rock and roll—Memphis is the place where several generations of brilliant black and white musicians worked out the essentials of modern American music. Elvis may have been a natural, but it’s only natural that he found his sound here.

If you’re going to spend a weekend in Memphis looking for history, though, you’ve got to dig deep and you’ve got to be persistent. Superficially, Memphis’ various musical institutions are no match for the state-of-the-art interactive exhibits housed in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And unlike Austin, there’s not a club on every corner; Memphis has always been more of a studio town. Furthermore, it ain’t pretty. Amble around downtown and you’ll realize quickly that this is one Southern city that never made the transition to Sunbelt metropolis.

But drive around town while listening to Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” played three times on the same day on WDIA 1070-AM for no other reason than King was a hometown hero and the song still sounds good, eat some of the best barbecue and soul food on this green earth, and top it off by taking a stroll down what remains of historic Beale Street, and you’ll get a good grasp of why we Americans sound like we do. Underlining that impression is the eerie feeling you get wherever you go that something of great significance happened here, something the local leaders weren’t necessarily proud to show off until recently.

The best place to start is the Memphis Music Hall of Fame—Museum and Archive (97 South Second Street), housed in a nondescript storefront next door to a guitar shop and across the street from the famed Peabody Hotel. Almost every local player of note is represented here, including father of the blues W. C. Handy, Memphis Minnie, and Furry Lewis; wildcat rockabillies Charlie Feathers, and Billy Lee Riley; blues shouters Little Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland; Al Green, Ace Cannon, and Ann Peebles, artists who made Stax and Hi the definitive rhythm and blues labels of their era; recording studio legends Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T. Jones, and Willie Mitchell; and postclassic modern rocker Alex Chilton (of Box Tops and Big Star renown). There are all sorts of minute details to marvel over: the guitar Roland Janes used to record Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp,” the saxophone Bill Justis played on the instrumental hit “Raunchy,” the hat Charlie Rich wore on the cover of the album Behind Closed Doors, and the electric razor Isaac Hayes used to keep his head shiny during his Black Moses phase.

Another Memphis must-see is Sun Studio (706 Union Avenue), the place where the recording careers of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, and B. B. King started. The actual two-room studio where rock and roll began is more or less the same as it ever was. A mere $8.50 buys a half-hour tour inside, a bargain for the chills I got hearing snippets of Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” The studio also features a cafe downstairs and a museum and gift shop upstairs.

Afterward, circle the block to Phillips Recording Studio (639 Madison Avenue), where owner Sam Phillips moved after abandoning Sun in 1959. Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully” and the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” are two of the dozens of hits recorded there. Thirteen blocks east of Phillips’ place is Memphis’ current hit factory, Ardent Studio (2000 Madison Avenue), where ZZ Top, among others, lays down tracks in a building that has all the charm of a faux French provincial funeral home. (Neither Phillips nor Ardent offers tours for the general public.) Stop in down the street at Shangri-La Records, for a copy of “Kreature Comforts: Lowlife Guide to Memphis” (you can order one before you go for $2.50 plus postage: 1916 Madison Avenue, Memphis TN 38104). Go west toward the river to see Poplar Tunes (308 Poplar Avenue), the small shop still in business where Hi Records was founded and that Presley kid would come to watch customers listen to the 45’s he’d just recorded.

For the most part, Beale Street, the storied Negro Main Street of the South, is just another city-sponsored liquor mall in the tradition of Dallas’ West End and Austin’s Sixth Street: a four-block strip of historic buildings housing clubs, restaurants, bars, and shops on a brick-paved street with the obligatory souvenir drinking glasses, horse carriage rides, and a Hard Rock Cafe (No. 315). There is also Elvis Presley’s Memphis (No. 126), a localized version of a Hard Rock. The big difference between Beale and other urban fun zones is that you can actually hear a bit of Memphis’ past in clubs like B. B. King’s Blues Club, Blues City Cafe, and Kings Palace Cafe; at W. C. Handy Park and in alleyways where blues bands perform for free on small stages throughout the night; and at the earthy, funky Center for Southern Folklore (No. 209), where an idiosyncratic one-eyed octogenarian named Mose Vinson ably demonstrates what real blues piano is all about. Beer, cappuccino, and Moon Pies are on the menu.

Beale should also be inspected during the day to experience A. Schwab Dry Goods (No. 163), a dusty department store crammed with esoteric notions and merchandise (pine tar soap, bacon irons, overalls, socks) and an extensive stock of Sonny Boy voodoo items. Next door, Tater Red’s (No. 153) stays open late and stocks an equally imaginative array of hoodoo products, all made locally. In addition to the usual Bend Over spray, Other Lawyer Be Stupid candles, and Bitch Be Gone incense, there are bottles of scented red Keep Away Elvis Impersonators oil as well as custom-made Albert King shadow boxes.

Eat what the locals eat at Ellen’s Soul Food (601 South Parkway), about three miles south of downtown: near-perfect fried chicken with the usual sides and exquisite cornbread pancakes. Greens are on the menu Fridays and Sundays only. Payne’s Bar-B-Que (1762 South Lamar) is a no-frills joint in a reconverted service station where delicately smoked sliced pork shoulder sandwiches are served Southern-style with fiery coleslaw for $3.

As you’re driving around, keep the radio tuned to either WDIA (where Rufus Thomas, a.k.a. the World’s Oldest Teen-ager, cohosts the Saturday morning six-to-ten shift) or WEVL 89.9-FM, the listener-supported station that plays homegrown blues seven days a week and showcases rockabilly on Friday night’s Rock House. If you get tired of driving, call American Dream Safari (901-274-1997) for guided tours of Memphis or the Mississippi Delta in a 1955 Cadillac.

I’ve never felt so comfortable in a church as I was at the Full Gospel Tabernacle (787 Hale Road). Maybe it was because I knew the founder and pastor was Al Green, the most dynamic of all living soul singers. Or maybe it was the ace five-piece band with the red-robed lead guitarist who had the flamboyant look and chops of Jimi Hendrix, or the 24-member choir, or the Caucasian preacher who led the congregation in an impromptu version of “Jesus Is on the Main Line (Tell Him What You Want).” Whatever it was, it was more than enough compensation for the absence of the Reverend Green, who, it turns out, was out of town. Augmented by feverish handclapping, inspired testimonials (“Shake the devil loose and get him out of here!”), and a young girl who went into such extreme physical convulsions she had to be relieved by nurses dressed in white, it was the best musical experience of the weekend: a grace land without irony.

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