Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Adventures in the South - Memphis, Part 2

To start Adventures in the South from the beginning, click here.
To read Memphis Part 1, click here.

Our second day in Memphis opened up with the return leg of our visit to the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum, picking up where we’d left off, and among other things learning more about the development, and ultimate demise, of Stax.  But Stax was just one of a number of significant studios and labels in Memphis in the 60s/70s, and the museum painted the broader picture too.  And it also showed how black music reflected an increasing assertiveness in the black community in the wake of the civil rights movement, epitomised by major stadium gigs headlined by the Isaac Hayes and others.
Dynamic Duo left, Million Dollar
Quartet right
Another “museum” visit took up the middle of the day – to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio.  For such a legendary rock’n’roll location, it’s a small space, and it doesn’t take long to do the tour of the upstairs exhibition space.  But of course the highlight is actually the visit to the studio floor itself, where you can pose with one of the original mics used in the 50s, on the actual spot where Elvis recorded his vocals – an X literally marks the spot.  On the wall is the famous picture of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and it’s fascinating to hear about the one-off, unplanned jam session that took place between them – and which Phillips astutely recorded. I especially liked the letter sent by the studio manager Marion Keisker to her son, serving in Germany at the time, which recounted the story in her own folksy way, oblivious to the momentous nature of what had just occurred.
While we were at Sun we bumped into a couple from Dublin, who told us they were staying at the actual Heartbreak Hotel – and it was “a shit hole”.  Laughing, they went on to say that the only option to eat seemed to be “Elvis’s favourite burger joint”, to which the hotel had a direct line to make bookings, and to which they could be chauffered in a pink Cadillac. It was, the couple reckoned, a too cosy arrangement – and the burger place was rubbish too.  Be warned, folks!
And on that note we were off to Graceland ourselves a little while later.  What to say about Chez Elvis?  Well, it’s the Valhalla of kitsch, perhaps.  The house itself is surprisingly small – but jeez,
Wheels of Steel in Beale Street
the decor!  Whether it’s the ‘Jungle Room’, with its collection of wild animal carvings, or the basement pool room with its suffocating drapes, the ambience is OTT.  There are a number of outbuildings as well, where back in the day Elvis and ‘the boys’ would mess about with whatever the recreational flavour of the month might be – a racquetball court that now houses his costumes, for example.  Just who were ‘the boys’, I kept wondering?
Back in town, we grabbed a decent bite to eat, and set out in search of our own recreation – to discover that Wednesday night is ‘bike night’ in Beale Street.  On a warm summer night, the place was mobbed with happy go lucky biking types and their pimped up, customised hogs, making for a noisy, colourful scene.

But what we really wanted was some honest to goodness blues music – and we found it at the Rum Boogie Cafe.  For a couple of bucks entrance fee, we got treated to the Ghost Town Blues Band, and were chuffed to find that these guys were the business.  Playing classic (but not obvious) covers and originals, with horns, cigar box guitar, the works, these guys felt like more than a gang of local wannabees.  Subsequent investigation revealed that they’d taken part in serious ‘blues challenges’, and had released a couple of albums well worth acquiring – Dark Horse and Dust The Dust (and there's another released since). One of the guys from Jerry Lee Lewis’s place the night before turned up, and promptly got up on stage to jam.  They were having a good time, we were having a good time, and it was the ideal end to a great day in Memphis.
The Ghost Town Blues Band at the Rum Boogie Cafe

To continue reading Adventures in the South with Memphis Part 3, including the Stax Museum, click here.

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