Sunday, July 26, 2015

Adventures in the South - Memphis, Part 3

Last day in Memphis, and our first port of call was the Peabody Hotel, to witness the eccentric but entirely endearing ritual of the Peabody Ducks.  For over 80 years now, the top hotel in Memphis has had a happy band of ducks living in a rooftop haunt, with their own keeper to attend to their needs.  Each morning they descend from their penthouse apartment in the elevator, before scuttling along a roped off red carpet to a fountain in the foyer, watched by a large crowd of chuckling tourists.  Then at the end of the afternoon they jump back out of the fountain and retrace their steps.  Bonkers, but worth a gander, if you'll forgive the mixed wildfowl metaphor!
Duck rituals observed, we took a turn on the Main Street Trolley car, ending up at the National Civil Rights Museum.  At the time of our visit the museum was undergoing a major refurbishment, and its regular exhibition was out of commission.  But no matter, because there was plenty of food for thought to be had from their temporary exhibit, about the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing hunt for the apparent perpetrator, James Earl Ray.
The preamble to the assassination is a telling illustration of why the Civil Rights Movement
The balcony at the Lorraine Motel - downright spooky
was necessary, as King visited and revisited Memphis in the context of strikes among the city's black refuse collectors.  Black sanitation workers were paid less than their white counterparts, and didn't have the same pay and conditions in bad weather, and their discontent was crystallised by the deaths of two black workers due to a malfunctioning bin lorry.  But their protests had been met with a hard line from the recently elected mayor, who resorted to calling out the National Guard in response to demonstrations.

Following the assassination, James Earl Ray escaped to Lisbon and London, via Canada, before eventually being caught.  Now, I can just about accept that a no-mark jailbird like Ray, with no real experience of guns, might have been able to fluke a fatal shooting.  But was he really capable of tracking King's movements around the South for weeks beforehand, and then escaping to Europe with the aid of a false passport?  I ain't buyin'.
As fascinating as the story was, there were two moments in the tour that crystallised it.  The museum is located across a back lot from the Lorraine Motel where King died, and the exhibition included a facsimile of the grimy bathroom where Ray apparently stood in the bath, aimed a rifle out of the window, and fired the shots that killed King.  But more chilling still was walking across the way to the motel, and climbing up to the balcony where he was shot.  Standing there, with the hymn 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' playing over loudspeakers - which King had asked to be played at an event that night - was a deeply eerie experience.  It takes an effort of will to drag yourself away from a scene like that.  But eventually we moved on, encouraged by the midday heat.
After a breather to reflect on the King exhibition, we headed for one last museum stop, away from downtown Memphis - the Stax Museum.  Built on the site of the original Stax studios, it tells the story of how popular music transcended the racial barriers typical of the South, as young black and white musicians hung out together, and then played together on some of the most seminal records in soul music.  It's an inspiring story on the most local level too, when you consider that someone like Booker T. White was genuinely a kid from down the block.
What more can you say?
As you progress through the museum the influence of the guys in the background, like Isaac Hayes and his writing partner David Porter, becomes clearer.  Eventually they step out from the writing room and the producer's chair to take centre stage.  Most significantly, in the case of Isaac Hayes, with his composition of the Oscar-winning 'Theme from Shaft', and his headlining performance at the giant Wattstax festival in LA.
Truth be told, the tour is a tad overlong, with too much space devoted to the later, less fresh periods.  But it's interesting to observe how the small beginnings, energy, and relative simplicity of the early days metamorphosed into a level of bling fit to compare with Elvis.  Unfortunately, even as Stax was spawning superstars, the whole enterprise was ultimately undermined by dodgy dealings and unsympathetic building owners, until eventually, obscenely, this landmark Memphis enterprise closed its doors, and the building was torn down.
The museum has been built on the old site, incorporating a replica of the old studio, and also a music college for local kids.  So a phoenix ended up rising from the ashes.  But it's a tale that typifies the carelessness towards black music culture that used to be possible in Memphis - and also enabled the demolition of much of the original Beale Street.  Happily, hopefully, such tragedies are now a thing of the past, as the tourist potential of the city's musical heritage is recognised.
Back downtown, our evening began with a visit to a legendary Memphis eatery.  Just across
The Rendezvous - ribs don't come better than this
the road from the Peabody Hotel, in a basement down a narrow lane, is the Rendezvous - a rib joint that's been visited and endorsed by that well known fan of lip-smacking grub, Bill Clinton.  The ribs lived up to the billing too, even if we wimped out again and opted for half portions.

Over in Beale Street, the musical fare on offer in the Rum Boogie Cafe wasn't up to the quality of the Ghost Town Blues Band from the previous night, as a rather plodding middle-aged crew went through their middle-of-the-road paces.  But down the street in an outdoor spot we caught the last few belters from an old soul queen, while chatting first to a friendly black family who'd driven god knows how far for a visit, and then with a local white couple who seemed to take out similar skin colour as a cue to share some rather sour opinions.
The night finished on a high next door though, in W.C. Handy's, where mein host Chris McDaniel shared vocal duties with Natalie Jackson to knock out a couple of sets of party-mode soul and blues with a well-drilled band, getting the assembled company on their feet and dancing.  As Natalie belted out 'I'm Tore Down', there was a distinct sense that this is what it was all about.




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