Friday, October 17, 2008

Memphis, TN

We were supposed to go to New Orleans. That was the plan. I couldn't have been more excited. I love jazz (though I'm a new entrant) and nothing could possibly be more exciting than being in a jazz bar in New Orleans. Not only would I have passed out from happiness but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have come home again. I'd still be there in a bar somewhere sleeping under the counter and doing dishes to pay for my meals. And every evening I'd be listening to jazz. Real jazz.


Then this happened. It was deemed unsafe to go to New Orleans on account of the weather. The alternative suggested was Memphis. I can't say I was impressed. (how could I miss out on All That Jazz?) I was informed that Memphis had its version of Bourbon St (Beale St) and that I would still be able to go out drinking. I was unconvinced. The idea of spending an evening on the turps has never been a motivation of mine. But eventually I was convinced to get over myself and give Memphis a go. I'm glad I did.

Here's the email that changed my mind:

Only fools rush in to a hurricane, and if we stay in the ghetto and pine for the green green grass of home we'll all get the GI Blues. So lets get out of the Ghetto and travel the lonesome highway, we can get a room at the Heartbreak Hotel and find a quiet spot to listen to some moody blues. But lets not get all shook up and find ourselves doin the jailhouse rock or worse crying in the chapel because you got drunk with a hard headed woman. Because you know if your a Hound dog you'll be returned to sender. Hey, maybe there's a museum or gallery worth visiting so we can check how great thou art is. It's now or never folks, pack your blue suede shoes and lets rock-a-hula-baby.
Thank-you, thank-you very much.

The drive was long. We left early on Saturday morning (after dropping in to Texas Roast for some coffee) and headed North and East from Dallas, Texas.
We traveled through a little town called Texarkana and into the state of Arkansas. (Texas + Arkansas = Texarkana. Get it?) The day was hot and the road long and flat.

We stopped at a terrible little Burger King for lunch (I wished we hadn't) then finally crossed the Mississippi into Tennessee and Memphis around 5pm.

Relaxing in the Hotel before going out for dinner

After checking in and a quick shower we piled back into our little minivans in search of food and music. See the thing Ju's Little Sister didn't realise when she said 'no' to Memphis, is that Memphis is the City of Blues. That's right. And she couldn't wait to get to listen to some. Of course the only place we were going to please everyone with food, booze, and blues was Beale St.

I was fascinated. I won't get into the music because as central as that was to my enjoyment of the city I can't possibly do it justice in this blog.

The city was warm and light and people were already out in force enjoying themselves. The liquor laws state that alcohol can be consumed on the street, but glass vessels are prohibited. This explained why, when we went into the BBQ-house and ordered Coronas, we were given plastic cups. Once the meal was finished we tipped the remaining beer into the cups and took it with us out the door. The bars all opened onto the street, and you could order your next beer or bourbon as you walked along without having to go inside. This was especially handy as a lot of places had a cover charge.

Our first priority was a quick drink and some good music and luckily for me the first bar we walked in to that night was the best house on the street - BB Kings. We negotiated the cover-fee (probably not with the savvy we thought we did) and were escorted to a corner table under the balcony. BB Kings has a house band. I didn't want to leave.

We crossed the road for some BBQ Ribs then wandered up and down the street in the warm evening air marveling at the music emanating from the bars all around. There were little alleys which led to small parks where bands were playing for nothing more than tips. Blues, Rhythm, and even some Rockabilly. I'm still not sure exactly what that is. I went to bed that night very happy.

The next day we decided on a tour of Graceland and while I was impressed with all the memorabilia I did get the feeling they really focused on his earlier career and while there was a collection of all his jumpsuits - the less-than-perfect days were really glossed over. Perhaps I'm just not a big enough fan! It was special though and I really enjoyed myself.

From Graceland and Elvis Presley Boulevard three of us walked while the rest drove - destination: Sun Studios. On the way I found some of the buildings a little interesting. I don't know who would share my gentle fascination with the state of the area but I took photos any way, to remind myself of what the city was like:

It was no more than twenty minutes walk before we came upon our pot of gold.

Sun Studios and this really was the highlight of my trip. Upstairs are posters and amps, recording equipment, neon signs, recordings and paperwork from when Sun Studio was Memphis Recording Service, run by Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker. I have stood in the very room where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and plenty of others all made their recordings. It was *Amazing!*

(you may want to click on some of these to see/read better)

When Sun Studios was simply Memphis Recording Service

Some of the old gear

The Elvis Case. Guitars played by him and the jacket worn on his first TV appearance (before they x-rated his wild legs).

706 Union Ave is the address of Sun Studios. Presumably Marty Stuart left his guitar at someones house...

I learned a lot about the music of the era and was impressed with the tour. I liked Sun Studios better than Graceland because the history was more encompassing and I felt I learned more about Elvis here than his old home. But I also learned about the making of more than Elvis (as already mentioned). I left Sun Studios with a t-shirt, two CDs and a great satisfaction that I'd come to Memphis after all.

We filled in the rest of our time visiting the blues bars at night and the area by day. The Civil Rights Museum where Martin Luther King Jr was shot was powerful but not quite what I had expected, and the paddle boat ride on the Mississippi was fun as well as informative. I learned there how the first Holiday Inn was started and that FedEx also originated in Memphis (Its headquarters are still there). I learned about the shifting of boundaries and the river as the country grew up as well as a bit here and there about river barges. I was intrigued - but I don't think I'll ever be eating catfish.

We went back to BB Kings on our last night

Some of the group decided to stay - and they did, all night.
But the rest of us took this last chance to explore the annual Folk and Blues Festival which was in full swing (unbeknown to us until we arrived).

I said at the start of this post that I wouldn't spend too much time talking about the music, and I'm glad I haven't because I've already gone on for longer than I thought I would. There are photos and stories I would love to cover but I think this is as long-winded as it should be.

Soon I will post up a couple of videos - a busker group playing on Beale street, and another busker doing some acrobatics. 'till then - adios.



Ju's little sister's aunt said...

What a fab entry - you really hit the jackpot on several counts. I love blues music and you certianly got to hear about the big names. BB King's is WORLD FAMOUS - I am so envious. National Radio has a session at 2300 hours once a week called "Beale Street Caravan" which features the musicians from there. Also there has been a radio series about the recording studio - I am envious (again). Memphis certainly has a relaxed lifestyle by the sound of it - people are too busy with the music to be yobbo??
Thank you for taking the time to write the blog - it was too short and I really enjoyed it!

Will enjoy hearing about the election over there!

simon said...

I agree but I must say I think you are homesick!

Martin Stickland said...

wow ya little fluffy monkey you!

Looks like you are having a great time and all that jazz, I mean all that blues.

Been a bit slow on my blog too due to one thing and another but I am glad that you are ok.

Keep smiling!!

lorenzothellama said...

Lovely to see you back blogging!

Lucky you going to Gracelands but really I prefer Neil Simons 'Graceland' on his 'Africa' album.

Memphis looks lovely, and Texas looks a pain. Peter lived in Texas for two years and never really came to terms with it.

Roll on the time you go back home to your beloved New Zealand, your family and roly-poly Plumpy!

Ju's little sister said...

Auntie: I'm glad you thought it was too short and I look forward to talking more about it at Christmas.

Simon: I'm not really homesick, I miss my cat, decent work hours and my closest friends, but it is the work here that's getting me down.

Martin: foo-foo puff

Lorenzo: I will have to listen to Neil Simon's Graceland it already sounds better than the Presley Mansion!