Walking in Memphis

Saturday, October 10th, 2015 9:58 pm by .

Late morning and I’m walking in Memphis. Hot and steamy, with Marc Cohn’s lyrics bouncing around my head. I spot Jacqueline Smith still camped out on the corner of Mulberry and Butler Street opposite the Lorraine Motel, a place she has occupied  for over 27 years.

Jacqueline used to be a housekeeper at the Lorraine as well as a permanent tenant. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of room 306 changed all that and propelled the motel into the history books. What was an area of low income and mainly black tenants, became a target for gentrification development and when the motel eventually closed in 1988 to ultimately become the National Civil Rights Museum  and shrine to Dr. King, Ms Smith was forcibly evicted and has maintained a one woman vigil here ever since.

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“How can they spend $9 million expanding this place when there are unemployed and homeless people needing help” she tells me. I begin a debate with Jacqueline  about how development can create jobs and then realise the futility of discussing a subject somebody feels so strongly about, they have lived in the street for 27 years.

I politely walk on.

Over to the Central BBQ opposite, almost an institution in Memphis; a place of all things smoked and pulled. “We have our very own ghost upstairs” says Jerome as he plonks a plate of smoked brisket down in front of me. “one of our guys went up there one night and swears he won’t never go back.” Personally, I reckon the ghost has good taste, because what I’m eating and drinking is very good Tennessee comfort food at an unbeatable price.

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From here, South Main Street stretches back ruler straight towards Beale Street and Union Avenue and along the way, the signs of gentrification are very evident; trendy restaurants like South of Beale and Pearl’s Oyster House hold hands with fancy apartments hidden behind vintage brickwork. It’s difficult to get lost walking in this part of Memphis, when just off to the left, the Mississippi River awaits, ready to catch any errant pedestrian going a little off menu. Frankly, it’s the best landmark there is.

It’s a bit early for Beale Street’s musical draw, but the Gibson Guitar factory tour more than satisfies my musical urges for an hour or so.

The historic Main Street Trolley rattles to a stop in front of me and feeling a little self indulgent, not to say a little steamy, I fork out the $1fare for a roundtrip down Main and back. Well I say fork out,  truth is, I only have 90 cents in change but with a “that’s cool” Sam the trolley man waves me onboard. It must be the English accent that wins him over.

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Memphis seems almost at capacity this week because of a convention of Baptist ministers from all over the USA and I’m sharing the trolley with more than a few sisters of the Lord. As we pass the legendary Orpheus Theatre, Sam the man leans around and asks us “who’s that girl singer doin’ concerts over there dis week?”

The sisters look at each other and shrug.

“Gladys Knight” I say confidently.

“Nah”  says Sam “I’m thinkin it’s that motown singer who did Midnight Train to Georgia”

“Oh you mean Gladys Knight” says one of the sisters.

“Yeah that’s the one”  says Sam.

” Err, that’s what I said”  I whine and suddenly everyone’s cackling. Sam says. “man you Brits kill me, you just don speak the right English”

We get to top of Main and Sam parks the trolley and joins us in the back.

I look at him blankly. “Thought this is a round trip”

“Lunch time” he says, and unwraps silver foil from a tray someone dropped in from a local restaurant along the way. “best chicken in the South right there” he tells me through a mouth full of food. The sisters are aghast, each having a recipe of their own they swear is the best and a fierce debate is in full swing. What started as a simple bus ride, has become a local soap opera. Only in America.

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Finally, with his lunch break over, Sam drops me off at Union Avenue and with a wave from the sisters he rolls on.

I walk in Marc’s footsteps down Union Avenue hoping to “see the ghost of Elvis”  and instead, at the corner of Marshall, I see the legendary Sun Records, the studio where Sam Philips discovered Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison  Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course the man himself, Elvis. $12 get’s me a 90 minute tour, pretty good value I’m thinking, after all, this is musical archaeology right here.

With the spirit of Elvis now firmly in my thoughts, I feel the need to take the pilgrimage to Gracelands. It’s too far to walk, so I stroll back to my hotel and jump in the car for the 10 minute drive to Elvis Presley Boulevard. Marc is singing about Elvis’s ghost in my head as I pass the gates of Gracelands “and I watched him walk right through.”

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Despite my long felt reservations about over exploiting the Elvis legacy, I find myself enjoying Gracelands. A lot. The menu of entry prices is elaborate from $36 for the tour of the mansion and grounds to the full on  “Entourage VIP Tour” at $77. I opt for the Platinum tour at $45 which also gets me a walk through Elvis’s two jets, (now thankfully not going anywhere after the estate bought them off the previous owners who were threatening to move them to another location) his car collection and  archives.

I look for my allotted bus for the short journey across the boulevard and through the famous gates and after grabbing a customised iPad and headphones. I ask a guard, “Is this my bus to the mansion?”

“Ahuh” he says

“Ahuh ahuh” I reply in my best Elvis.

Nothing. He doesn’t get the joke.

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The iPad gives me a lot more info as I walk around the ground floor of the mansion, an authentic snapshot of a luxury 70’s house interior. The upstairs is off limits and I can’t help but wonder why. The man cave basement cues more Marc lyrics  “there’s a pretty little thing, waiting for the King, down in the Jungle Room.“.

I wander through the pool area and see people sitting and just looking out at the mansion grounds. I swear one lady has been sitting there unmoving for over an hour. It is sad and unnerving, but at the same time extraordinary, that an entertainer can have such a hold over people, so many years after his passing.

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Night has fallen and I’m back on Beale,  “ten feet off of Beale” sings Marc,  to catch some live blues coming out of bars on both sides of the street. All the live music bars on Beale are free to enter bar a few dollars in the tip box for the band. I get drawn into The Rum Boogie Cafe, where a particularly excellent rendition of BB King’s “The thrill has gone” is going down. It’s raw, it’s genuine and the players are sensationally laid back  Ironically, BB’s own club a few doors down seems to have lost its own thrill with just a handful of people in there. I pass by the statue of the father of blues music, WC Handy, as I hear Marc telling me he’s  “watching over me” but it’s not just Handy’s spirit I feel, it’s the countless other famous names who first plied their trade here too like Albert King, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and of course BB King.

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Another day dawns and it’s breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant, the oldest cafe in Memphis since Speros Zapatos founded it in 1919. Elvis was a regular here, and luckily his booth is unoccupied so I slide in. It was the closest one to the back door, so he could slip in and out unnoticed whenever he needed to. The cafe is now run by the fourth generation Zapatos family member and it is most definitely a slice of Memphis history just a block away from Beale Street. I forgo Elvis’s favourite toasted peanut butter and banana sandwich for a bagel and cream cheese, but even so, I feel a little King-like.

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Today, I’m making another pilgrimage, a short drive down to the wrong side of the tracks so to speak, to East McLemore Avenue and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The area here is still very run down as it was when Stax first used this old cinema as a recording studio, because it was all siblings Jimmy Stewart and Estelle Axton could afford, with much of the initial revenue coming from Estelle’s Satellite Records shop in the cinema’s foyer. They were a great partnership and even the name Stax was made up from the first two letters of their surnames. In many ways, the Stax studio is as revered as Sun Studios, spawning such great artists as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett and Rufus Thomas and backed by the genius house band that was Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes, Donald Duck Dunn, Al Jackson and horn players Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson. Steve Cropper now lives in Nashville, and I was lucky enough to meet him on a recent trip there.

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The studio and original control booth are a fitting climax to a tour through Stax’s musical history and ultimate demise. But these days, Stax has more to give. A group of community leaders, philanthropists and former Stax employees formed the Soulsville Foundation to revitalize the area, set up a music academy and tuition-free school for neighbourhood children, and open a museum to tell the Stax story. It is a fitting finale for a legendary label that is giving something back through its many visitors, to this still deprived part of the city.

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I’m walking back down South Main as the light fades looking forward to another night of delta blues on Beale and Marc is back in my head for one last reprise. “They got gospel in the air and Reverend Green be glad to see you, when you haven’t got a prayer. But boy you got a prayer in Memphis”

Maybe they should let Jacqueline Smith know that.

All images (C) Andy Mossack

I want to go Walking in Memphis where can I find out more?

Andy Mossack’s Walking in Memphis experience was part of a joint Kentucky and Tennessee road trip called “Only in America tour” available through Bon-Voyage from £1,695 per person and includes car hire, flights to Cincinnati Ohio and return from Atlanta Georgia, 14 nights mid to high end B&B accommodation and a personalised North America road book with full itinerary and travel tips.

Stax Studio tour $13 Adults $10 children aged 9-12

National Civil Rights Museum $15 Children 4-17 $10

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau 

UK Airport car parking: I Love meet and greet offers valet parking at Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow airports. Costs vary throughout the year with a week’s parking at Gatwick starting from £78. Book at www.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk

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