Travel Report: Memphis Nostalgia.
May 2007 & May 2009.
It felt good to finally get out of the damn car. Ok, the journey from Nashville had only actually taken four hours. But hey, I’d never enjoyed car journeys. Plus I was simply itching to get to grips with Memphis. Stretching my legs and taking in my surroundings, I remember smiling to myself as a light breeze washed over me from The Mississippi River. “Memphis, kid” confirmed Jon, with a nonchalant shake of his car keys.
The Mississippi was almost perfectly still that afternoon, not a hint of activity. Strolling down the promenade, we soon came across a grand old vessel belonging to Memphis Riverboats. These guys offer the best cruises in town, particularly if one wants to go down the dinner and live entertainment route.
They’ve been doing Mississippi cruises since the early 1960s. Mr. John Lozier, referenced on the boat, was the company’s first captain. He oversaw thousands of cruises for over twenty years before passing away in 1988 after a two year battle with cancer. He was just forty five years old.
I may have been tempted by a Memphis Riverboat Cruise, had we not already made other plans. As it turned out, we’d decided to go waaay more lowbrow with tickets for Ride The Ducks. Our chariot that day was The Duckmobile, an amphibious vehicle that served as a bus for the city centre sights, then a boat for some cruising along The Mississippi.
That duck tour a was fun albeit touristy experience. While boarding, we received a duck mouthpiece that made a quacking sound when you blew on it. Man, I think I still have that thing in storage somewhere.
In any case it was cool to chug through the city picking off major landmarks. We passed the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and The Stax Museum of American Soul. Completing a trio of iconic musical spots, the duckmobile pulled up outside Sun Studio, where a pair of benched visitors gave us a playful wave.
Known as “the birthplace of rock n’ roll”, this legendary recording studio dates back to 1950. Opened by pioneering producer Sam Phillips, this is where the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf all came to cut some of their best records.
These days you can take tours of the old joint, which still operates as a nighttime recording studio. They charge $200 an hour if you wanna come and lay down some tunes. On my second Memphis visit, I made do with a lemonade in their ground floor cafe.
Eventually, the Duck Tour ended up riverside, rolling down a stone ramp towards the muddy waters. Sliding in, up went the wheels and suddenly we were cruising, quickly leaving the street far behind.
It was pretty calm out there on The Mississippi. Until, that is, our driver asked us if we’d ever heard of the river’s famous flying fish. We had not. “Ok guys, let me show you” he said, with a mischievous grin.
The Mississippi River.
Thus our captain began whirring the duck boat around in circles, encouraging us all to “hold on folks!” His skulduggery soon created a whirlpool effect in the water and then… BAM.. I found myself hit square in the chest by a flying fish!
It was slimy… it was stinky… it was hilarious for everyone except myself. Still, kinda impossible not to see the funny side once I got over the initial shock. A fun end to what had been an enjoyable tour.
While writing this article, I discovered that Ride The Ducks was permanently shut down in March 2019 following a fatal accident in Branson, Missouri. The incident saw 14 people drown on Table Rock Lake when high winds and thunderstorms capsized the duck boat.
Feeling somewhat quacked out, we headed to Beale Street, “the official home of the blues”. Established in 1841, the street became one of America’s most thriving areas for African American culture and business.
Between 1910 and the 1940s one of America’s most exciting music scenes unfolded here, with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King all playing on Beale Street. Their music helped develop the famous Memphis Blues Sound, a heady concoction of declamatory vocals backed by banjos, mandolins, harmonicas, kazoo and… later… electric guitars.
Today this legacy lives on in the zillion blues bars situated on Beale Street. At night the entire area explodes into life, though it was delightfully peaceful when I first arrived on that sleepy afternoon.
I didn’t mind this at all. In fact, it allowed us to sit peacefully and soak up the feel of the place. Grabbing a table outside Rum Boogie Cafe, Jon ordered a round of Big Ass Beers. Looking out across Beale Street, I tried to imagine the scene when, in 1968, the city’s sanitation workers marched in protest of their abysmal working conditions.
They did so in full view of The National Guard, who stood with rifles and bayonets at the ready. Adding to an already tense atmosphere in the city, the workers’ had the full support of Martin Luther King. Unfortunately, the demonstration played out as a precursor to his assassination just a few days later.
It seems strange to transition from The Civil Rights Movement to American Idol, but here I go. At the next bar I ended up chatting to a boisterous woman by the name of Margaret Fowler.
We had barely gotten past the “Where are you from?” chitchat and she was already telling me all about her recent success on Season 6 of the popular singing competition. Heck, she’d even brought an incredibly tatty old magazine feature to prove it. Just in case I’d doubted her story.
According to several articles I found online, Margaret had an excellent audition singing Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools. However, when she registered for the competition, she listed her age as 26, when she was in fact 50.
Once the judges uncovered this, she was eliminated from the competition. Nevertheless, the show invited her to return and take part in the season finale. Sadly, I’ve read that Margaret passed away in 2017.
When exploring Beale Street, it would be unforgivable not to pop your head into A. Schwab, a general goods store dating back to 1876. This is the oldest building on the street which, until 2011, had been owned and run by generations of the Schwab family.
Inside I found a quirky range of tourist memorabilia, as well as clothing, hats, candles, toys and a large soda fountain. After some browsing, I came away with a paperback copy of Me and a Guy Named Elvis by Jerry Schilling. The author was a key member of the so-called Memphis Mafia and a lifelong friend of Presley’s. It’s a riveting, highly recommended read.
With the afternoon light fading, Beale Street began filling up. There were couples, groups of drunken guys, police officers and buskers. At some point I met a local performer who called himself Elvis Priestly. He definitely had the King’s distinctive talking voice down. Moreover, he assured me, he’d be putting on “a hell of a show” that night at The Blues City Cafe.
Hence we were soon settling down at a table in anticipation of Mr. Priestly’s performance. While waiting, we got to enjoy an absolutely fantastic soul outfit called The Masqueraders. Billed as one of the longest-lived yet little known groups in soul music history, these guys have been performing live across the country since the 1960s.
In 1968 they had a minor hit with I Ain’t Got To Love Nobody Else. Over the years, they also contributed backing vocals for stars such as Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley and The Box Tops. By the early noughties The Masqueraders had become fixtures at the blues bars of Beale Street.
In a twist that surely nobody who was familiar with their story saw coming, in 2017 they enjoyed some of the biggest exposure of their careers after appearing on America’s Got Talent. Their stunning performance of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come was a huge hit with Simon Cowell and the panel. The Masqueraders subsequently progressed to the quarter finals of the competition.
I’ll never forget that night listening to them perform on Beale Street. And it was made all the more memorable when Sam Hutchins jumped down off the stage to dance with a bunch of us. Much, much respect.
I wish I could say the same for Mr. Elvis Priestly. It had been fun chatting to him out on the street, but his actual show that evening wasn’t amazing. After a few very wobbly numbers, we decided to move on.
On my second day in Memphis it was off to Graceland for a tour of Elvis Presley’s stunning mansion. He bought the place, along with 14 acres of private farmland, in March 1957 for just over $100.000. The name Graceland actually dates back to a previous owner, whose daughter was called Grace.
The King lived at Graceland for just over twenty years. And he certainly spared no expense in remodelling and expanding the place to his precise requirements. Take the exceptionally kitsch Jungle Room, for example, with its stone waterfall, mossy green carpet and white ceramic capuchin monkeys made in Italy.
Elsewhere, in the main living room, one can admire/be appalled by the fifteen foot white sofa, peacock stained glass windows and baby black grand piano.
And then there’s the billiards room and the so-called Trophy Building, that houses all his awards, in addition to the swimming pool in his father’s bedroom. In between, in the seemingly endless hallways, stand glass exhibits of his personal items. Like this prized collection of guns, pictured below.
Outside, in the Meditation Garden, it was a sad and surreal moment to come face to face with the great man’s grave. Elvis died in the bathroom at Graceland on August the 16th 1977. He had suffered a heart attack at the tender age of 42. He lies in a plot alongside his mother Gladys, father Vernon and grandmother Minnie Mae. There’s also a memorial stone for his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon.
My visit to Memphis had been great, but all too brief. Happily, I managed to return just a few years later with a pair of old friends from home. Naturally this meant a second night out on Beale Street.
This time I hung out at B.B. King’s, arguably the city’s most famous blues club. It opened in 1991 under the ownership of B.B. King, a pioneering Memphis Blues singer. Known as The Beale Street Blues Boy as a young man, and later The King of the Blues, B.B. King made over forty albums between 1957 and 2008.
Considered one of the world’s greatest ever electric guitarists, he was one of the most prolific tourers in American history, performing over 200 concerts a year well into his 70s.
On the night of our visit, we enjoyed an intense live set from Preston Shannon, a respected Memphis-born artist famed for his brand of grooving, danceable blues.
Indeed I remember my friend Steve jumping up from our table and knocking out some serious dance moves of his own while Shannon performed some impressive teeth-playing on his guitar. Sadly, I see Shannon died in January 2018 after a battle with cancer.
On day two of trip two, my comrades set off for Graceland to see Elvis’ famous house for themselves. This left me with the opportunity to explore downtown Memphis on foot. Resolving to stay away from Beale Street, my wanderings soon took me to The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April the 4th 1968.
The Lorraine Motel.
King had come to Memphis just a few days earlier to support the struggles of the city’s African-American sanitation workers. Tensions were especially high due to the discovery of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who’d been found crushed in the back of a garbage-compacting truck.
King was leaning over the balcony railing of room 306 chatting to Reverend Jesse Jackson when he was suddenly shot in the face from across the street. An ambulance swiftly transferred him to St. Joseph’s Hospital, but he was pronounced dead a short while later.
The man convicted for King’s murder, a racist criminal by the name of James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty in order to avoid a jury trial and possible death sentence. Today the Lorraine Motel stands as part of the city’s National Civil Rights Museum.
I really enjoyed my Memphis exploring that day. My stroll took me past the legendary New Daisy Theater, a live music venue since 1936. Al Green, John Lee Hooker, Prince, Nirvana, Alanis Morissette and Oasis are just some of the acts to have played here. In 1997 Bob Dylan rented the place out to shoot video footage for his album, Time Out of Mind.
I also stopped by the gorgeous Peabody Hotel, a luxury Italian Renaissance style structure opened in 1925. I’ll make no bones about it, if I make it back to Memphis a third time, this is where I’m staying!
That afternoon, I popped in simply to catch The Peabody Ducks, five resident mallards who undertake the daily journey from their rooftop home down to the lobby via the elevator. Led by the hotel’s committed duckmaster, they then waddle to the lobby’s grand fountain for bathing and general merriment. Much to the delight of watching guests!
This charming tradition began in the 1930s when then General Manager Frank Schutt returned from a hunting trip with three live English call ducks. He found it amusing to leave them in the hotel fountain, which proved popular with the guests. Over the years, a number of celebrities have stood in as guest duckmasters, including Kevin Bacon, Joan Collins, Stephen Fry and Oprah Winfrey.
Towards the end of the day, I stumbled across The Folk Alliance, a nonprofit folk music and arts store on South Main Street. I was idly browsing through their records when a striking painting on the wall grabbed my attention. It was a beautiful portrait of Beale Street, with children breakdancing in front of B.B. King’s. From the moment I saw it I knew I wanted to take it home.
“Oh that’s not really for sale”, explained the guy at the cash register. “It was kind of a donation”. But I wasn’t to be swayed. Was there any way at all he could contact the artist? There was… he did… and after a brief exchange its creator said the painting could be mine for $200. After a moment with myself I happily handed over the cash.
The painter is a local man called Stephen Hudson. Described by some as “The da Vinci of Memphis”, he’s made quite a name for himself producing works that capture the spirit of the city’s historic buildings, riverfront and The Mississippi Delta.
I was delighted at having secured the painting. However, I remember feeling distraught when British Airways lost it during my flight route back to Brussels. Luckily, it turned up several days later and is one of my favourite travel mementos.
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.