Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in southwest Tennessee, Memphis proudly calls itself the birthplace of rock & roll and it certainly can back up that claim.
Although it has been 35 years since his untimely death, it’s still impossible to think of Memphis without thinking of Elvis Presley. Elvis’s home, Graceland, was opened to the public in 1982, five years after his death, as a way of generating revenue for his estate.
While the merchandising can be a bit much, Graceland is certainly worth visiting because of its beautiful grounds and because you get a full understanding of why this charismatic entertainer became an American icon. Yes, there are the walls of gold records, the fancy cars, his personal jet, the Lisa Marie, which he purchased from Delta Air Lines after the birth of hid daughter, and of course, the signature white jumpsuits. More importantly however are the exhibits that showcase Presley the performer such as his 1968 NBC “comeback” special.
Elvis made his first recordings at Sun Recording Studios which was owned by the legendary Memphis music impresario Sam Phillips. The current Broadway musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” is a fictionalized account of the goings-on there in its 1956 heyday when artists as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were getting their starts. Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich would later pass through its doors located at 706 Union Avenue where tours are still given daily.
Stax Records was one of the premier soul music labels in the 1960s and early 1970s thanks to a roster that included Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Booker T & The MG’s, Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers. The company defied the social norms of the South at the time as black and white musicians always played alongside each other and the same could be said for the entire Stax workforce. Sadly, bad luck and some bad business decisions forced the company into bankruptcy in 1976. The Stax Museum, which opened in May 2003, celebrates the aforementioned Stax artists as well as those from Memphis’s other famous soul label, Hi, which was the recording home of Ann Peebles, Willie Mitchell and most famous of all, Al Green.
The Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum, located two blocks from Beale Street (the best known thoroughfare in downtown Memphis on account of its barbecue restaurants, nightclubs, and Times Square-like neon), tends to get overlooked because of Memphis’s other musical expositions. The Rock ‘N’ Soul does have plenty of exhibits on Elvis, the Sun Records gang, as well as Stax and Hi’s stars, but the museum also remembers one of my favorite bands of all-time, the Box Tops, as well as behind-the-scenes movers and shakers as record producer Chips Moman and influential disc jockey Dewey Phillips who was the inspiration for the current Broadway show, “Memphis.”
The most traumatic event in Memphis’s history was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. The site of the tragedy, the Lorraine Motel, is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum that opened to the public in 1991. The Civil Rights Museum contains videos of the remembrances of surviving civil rights leaders; clips of 1960s newscasts that featured legendary anchors Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, and the tandem of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley; as well as Ernest Withers’ classic photos of both marches and confrontations with bigoted authority figures.
Withers’ photographs can also be found at the gallery that bears his name on Beale Street and at the prestigious Brooks Museum of Art in leafy Overton Park. On a lighter note, the Brooks Museum also has a collection of Elvis pictures taken in 1956 by famous New York photographer Alfred Wertheimer.
The Memphis Zoo is located next door to the Brooks. It’s one of just four American zoos to have pandas and one of the few to feature South American black-footed penguins. Yes, traditional crowd-pleasers as bears, elephants, big cats, and large and small primates are here as well.
Memphis Riverboats has lunch and dinner cruises on the mighty Mississippi. While the food is passable at best, and the interiors are far from plush, it’s relaxing to get out on the water, particularly on a hot day.
The Peabody is Memphis’s answer to the Waldorf-Astoria but its rates are a lot lower. The hotel is famous for its duck marches in the lobby that take place at 11 AM and 5 PM as they shuttle between their rooftop home and the fountain in its majestic lobby. The Peabody’s Capriccio Grill is one of the town’s best restaurants. Elvis’s preferred clothier, Lansky Brothers, still have their store here, and yes, they’ll gladly sell you a pair of blue suede shoes.
Memphis is a major hub for Delta Airlines and there are two flights a day between Memphis International and LaGuardia. Delta, incidentally, is in the midst of spending $160 million on renovations and expansion at LaGuardia and the airline is promising service to new cities from here.
For more information on Memphis, call the Memphis Visitors Bureau at (888) 633-9099 or log onto www.memphistravel.com.