Memphis, TN: Rock, Blues, Elvis, Civil Rights, and Marching Ducks

Memphis is famous around the world as the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” not only because Elvis and B.B. King are rooted in Memphis, but also because almost 20% of the early inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame came from within a 100 mile radius of Memphis.

There are more than 1,000 commercially recorded songs with “Memphis” in the lyrics.  The most popular and therefore most likely to stick in your head:  Walkin’ in Memphis and Going Back to Memphis.  The least likely: It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp.

Musical references and shrines and odes and monuments crowd the city in the most delightful way.

You can even take tours devoted solely to the musical underpinnings of Memphis.

After boarding the “Love and Happiness Bus” (yes please!) ….

…your musical tour guide (an actual musician by night) proceeds to give you three hours of history, storytelling, and groaner jokes interspersed with fantastic renditions of songs by all the greats … Elvis, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many more, as you tour the city. My only complaint, no blue suede shoes…?  Red — really?

Of course, a trip to Memphis is not complete without seeing Graceland Mansion, Elvis’ family home.

The jaw-dropping tour of his 17,000 sq ft. “happy place” was truly extraordinary and one of the most interesting and well-done tours we’ve seen.  Here are just a few of the rooms in the mansion:

Music Room.  Love the peacocks.

Dining Room.  Elvis sat at the far end so he could see everyone coming and going.

This was a party house, folks, with no shortage of friends and family members 24/7/365.

Original kitchen, where a cadre of cooks spilled out food round the clocks for the aforementioned never-ending parade of family members and house guests.

Mirrored staircase to the lower level had us not knowing if we were coming or going!

Wet bar in basement level.

Elvis was a voracious reader (mainly spirituality books) and also loved television (mainly news and football).  After reading that President Lyndon B. Johnson had three televisions so he could watch news on all major networks at once, Elvis took that idea to his downstairs media room. 

Elvis loved to play pool and had the ceiling and all the walls of his billiard room covered in 400+ yards of pleated fabric.  It took 3 people 10 days to hang all this, and to this day a team of five archivists vacuum-cleans the pleats weekly using a special attachment. 

The “Jungle Room” den features luxurious green shag carpeting and an indoor waterfall of cut field stone, as well as furnishings that only somebody as famous as Elvis could pull off. 

The Jungle Room was converted to a recording studio at one point and Elvis cut the bulk of his final two albums right here.

Elvis, his parents, and grandmother are all buried at Graceland, as well as a memorial to his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon.

The guitar pick (lower left) was left by Paul McCartney in 2013, so “Elvis can play in heaven.”

The anniversary of Elvis’ death in August draws up to 40,000 people each year from all around the world to Graceland.

The second floor of the mansion, where the bedrooms are located, remain the exact same as the day Elvis died of a heart attack at age 42, and are rarely seen by non-family members.  Elvis’ plane, the Lisa Marie, on which he famously took his family from Memphis to Denver to eat peanut butter sandwiches and then return right home, is also available to walk through.

Graceland also has a relatively new complex across the street called “Elvis’ Memphis” which houses a nicely-curated collection of Elvis memorabilia and multi-media presentations.

Elvis’ auto collection

Famous musical artists explain what Elvis’ contributions meant to their own musical careers.

Lots and lots and lots of unbelievable costumes from throughout his career.

Sam Phillip’s legendary Sun Studio, where the first rock-n-roll single was recorded.  No, not by Elvis …. Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ ‘Rocket 88’ .  The speaker fell off the roof of their car and broke apart on the drive to the studio, so they stuffed it with newspaper which resulted in a super-cool sound that everybody loved. 

The cool looking corner building was not the original Sun Studios, however.  It was a diner, though Sam Phillips did do all his business deals in the diner, since Sun Studio had no air conditioning (clearly the Starbucks “satellite office” of its time).  This was the real place, next door.

And here is the actual interior of Sun Studios.  It is the most famous recording studio in the world, and musicians still record here at night (tours only during the day), hoping to grab a little bit of that magic mojo that has infused thousands of successful recordings that were made here.

Sun Studio is also the place where Elvis recorded his first single, “That’s All Right,” in his signature style, and when it was played on a local radio show, the phones lit up as callers demanded to know who was singing, and the DJ was forced to play the song 14 times in a row.  And, as they say, the rest is history.  This is the actual microphone that Elvis used.

Last time U2 recorded here, they left a drum set behind.  The tour guide joked that they hope U2 will record again here soon, simply so they can take their stuff away with them this time.  John Mellencamp, Def Leppard, Maroon 5, and many other major musical acts have recorded here over the years.

Memphis’ Levitt Shell was built in 1936 and recognized as the site of Elvis’ first professional live rock-n-roll show.  

Of course, Elvis killed it, as only Elvis could, and later recalled of the momentous event: 

Beale Street is a short but lively stretch of Memphis jam-packed with music venues and clubs, and the place where B.B. King and many other famous blues musicians forged their early careers.

Beale is the official “Home of the Blues” (until you google Chicago, or St. Louis, or many other cities who make the same claim, but we’ll go with it).

Tiny Mr. Handy’s Juke Joint Blues Hall is the fave Beale Street location for fantastic live blues, named for W.C. Handy who was “The Father of the Blues.”

Philip was super-bummed he left his harmonica collection at home, as he was sure he would have been invited up to do a set with these guys.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, 50 years ago this April.

This was not planned, but I loved how this photo showed up with equal parts black and white lighting, apropos of the location.

MLK Jr., the best-known Civil Rights leader of all-time, was shot and killed while standing on this balcony.

The room is promiment as you approach the National Civil Rights Museum, and after winding your way through the entire complex, you find yourself at the last stop, on the inside of the hotel, looking back out at the front with the same view that MLK Jr. would have had. 

The 13″-square concrete patch visible below the wreath above was repoured to remove the bloodstain left from the assassination.  In the distance is Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House, from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot that killed MLK Jr. 

View from the room where James Earl Ray performed his evil deed.

Room 306 (where King died) and the adjoining Room 307 of the Lorraine Motel were withdrawn from use and left as a memorial behind plexiglass.  

The exhibits inside the National Civil Rights Museum were beautifully done and the visit proved to be much more emotional than either of us expected.

Of course, the desires of blacks and all other minorities during the 50’s and 60’s still ring true today, and the museum was a wonderful reminder of how much work remains to be done.

We would be remiss in leaving Memphis without mentioning the Peabody Ducks, perhaps one of the strangest and most useless traditions in American history.  

For 85 years, every day, at 11 AM, live ducks are delivered via an elevator from their penthouse on the top of the Peabody Hotel, to the hotel lobby where they march to a fountain and float around for the afternoon.  Then at 5 PM, they reverse the process and march back to the elevators. We did not personally observe, since people line up for hours in advance to watch this head-scratching tradition.  Duck is not served anywhere in the Peabody Hotel, perhaps making their Chez Philippe the only french restaurant in the world that does not offer duck.

We loved Memphis’ rock-n-roll roots, and back at the Lucky Charm, we could only agree that “Life Rocks When Your Living Room Rolls!”

With our musical education complete, we sadly rolled away to our next stop: Arkansas!

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