I’ve been watching Trevor MacDonald’s series travelling along the Mississippi on ITV. It’s a little superficial, but I’ve enjoyed the episodes shown so far. Last week he visited Memphis, Tennessee and it brought back memories of my own visit in 2009. Inevitably the programme featured some of the sites associated with the musical heritage of the city – Beale Street, Sun Studios and Graceland.
Memphis played a key role in the development of popular music during the 20th Century – particularly the Blues, Rock and Roll and Soul.
During the early 1900’s, one of the main thoroughfares in the city centre, Beale Street, echoed to the sound of Blues music being played in its numerous clubs and bars, many of them owned by African-Americans. Today the street is a major tourist attraction, lined with bars and restaurants, including one owned by Blues legend B B King. It’s heaving with people out to enjoy themselves during the evening on weekends. But i found the atmosphere much more relaxed than similar areas in cities and towns in the U.K. And music is still a major aspect of the nightlife with most of the bars featuring bands and musicians busking in the street.
Given it’s importance as one of the major centres of Blues music, it’s not surprising that Memphis featured prominently in the history of Rock and Roll. Sun Studio, just outside the city centre, was where artists such as Sam Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash cut some classic records. And of course it was where Elvis Presley recorded his first hits.
I took the mini-bus that runs from the city centre to the studio. Visitors go upstairs to view a small exhibition before before being taken back downstairs into the studio itself. It was very small, and it was a bit of a crush, but, like many other people, I was able to stand on the spot where Elvis stood and hold his microphone.
You can’t go to Memphis without visiting Graceland, so I joined the throngs at Elvis’ former home, is on the outskirts of the city, near to the airport.
Graceland was much smaller than I expected – and the portico on the front made it look much grander than it actually was. It was large – but nowhere near as big as I’d imagined.
As well as the house itself there are a number of other attractions, including a museum full of cars and motorbikes owned by Elvis and his two jets.
Memphis was also a major centre for soul music in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was the home to Stax and other labels including Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records.
A visit to the Stax museum was a real highlight of my trip. Stax records was a hotbed of talent including Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Booker T. & the MGs, and Rufus and Carla Thomas.
The studio, a converted cinema, had, tragically, been demolished in the museum together, swapping experiences of growing up with the music – me a white man from 1989. So the Stax Museum is housed in a realistic replica of the original building. As it was quite away from the city centre. I took the free mini-bus from my hotel with two other guests staying there – a New Jersey policeman and his wife. We got talking and toured the museum together, swapping stories about growing up with the music, sharing a common enthusiasm despite our very different backgrounds.