Graham McKenzie takes a trip down memory lane
I first visited Memphis some years ago and afterwards I was pondering why I found the city one of, if not the most, fascinating city in the whole of North America. That feeling returned on my recent trip there and the conclusion I have come to is that so many of the significant events and developments within the city have actually happened in my lifetime. As a consequence, I can easily relate to all of them, recollect distant memories and, as always with music, recall when I first heard the sounds. It offers a journey through time that combines the magic of that music alongside the significance of the civil rights movement that creates an essential destination for Silver Travellers who seek a rich, comprehensive, and multifaceted travel experience.
The Kings Palace
Memphis is synonymous with music. As a Silver Traveller it is most likely you grew up during a time when rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and rhythm and blues were at their zenith. It was the influences in Memphis that played such a pivotal role in shaping these musical genres, and a visit to the city is like stepping back into the heyday of American music. Let’s start with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – Elvis. Just a short distance away from the downtown area you can visit Graceland, the long-time home of the Presley family. Inside, what by superstar millionaire American standards is a quite modest home, you can see some of his gold records, be open mouthed at some of the colour choices for décor and generally roam around the place. Outside you will find the family graveyard which now has the more recent addition of Elvis’s daughter – Lisa Marie. In some respects, it seems quite macabre that millions of people over the decades have been able to purchase a ticket, pay their respects and gaze at what one would think is somewhat personal and private. Nevertheless, people do in their thousands and whilst you won’t find out much about the man himself, Graceland remains for many the site of homage to the King. Across the road you can get further into the Presley legend as it features his cars, his suits and jackets from the Vegas era, his motorcycles and his aeroplane plus you can literally fill your boots with Elvis gifts of varying quality.
The Music of Memphis
Head back downtown and you will discover where it all started for the man. Moving to Memphis in his early teens you can visit the public housing the family lived in and the school where he used to get beaten up for being a ‘mama’s’ boy. Beale street is, however, where he and countless other musical stars would obtain their musical influences. An area that was predominantly frequented by African Americans, Elvis would visit, listen, and observe. When you visit today you get the feeling that what he experienced in the fifties is not far from what is there now. Lots of live music of all genres but the soulful heartbeat of the blues remains at its core. Elvis also got his taste for extravagant clothing from local threads retailer Lansky Brothers who are still in operation (within the Peabody Hotel) and are still selling lavish outfits including some retro items from the Presley range.
The heart and soul of Music
Around Memphis you will find many iconic musical locations. Keeping with the Elvis theme we have what is commonly known as the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sun Studio which is where legends like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded their earliest hits. A guided tour will transport you to the very spot where musical history was made. Sun Studios is just a short distance from the very modest home where the Queen of Soul – Aretha Franklin was born.
The Stax Museum immerses visitors in the world of Memphis’s very own soul music. The raw sound of Stax acted as a counterpoint to the emergence of Motown in the Sixties and Seventies and received great acclaim in the UK during a tour in 1967. In addition to the original recording studio, which is still in use today, you will discover the stories of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and other soul pioneers who, for many, provided the soundtrack of their youth.
Tired of being alone
Just a walk away is the lesser-known Royal Studios. The recording artists here are however in the very well-known category with names such as Ann Peebles ( I can’t stand the rain), Tom Jones and Rod Stewart amongst many but all are superseded by local boy Al Green who went through an early seventies purple patch with classics such as ‘Let’s stay together’ and ‘I’m still in Love with you’ . Interestingly Britain’s favourite Batchelor boy Cliff Richard also recorded at Royal in 2011 when he recorded a duet album called Soulicious when he collaborated with some of the bigger names in Soul singing from across the USA.
The music in Memphis has, like many things, a backdrop of race, slavery, and civil rights struggles. Perhaps the biggest reminder of this is the Lorraine Motel where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968. What came before and after makes the city a significant destination for Silver Travellers who lived through these transformative times even if it was thousands of miles away. Today the Lorraine Motel has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum which chronicles the struggle for civil rights in America. It acts as a powerful reminder of the social changes that took place during our generation.
Escape from Slavery
Delve deeper into the history of civil rights by visiting the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. This historic site, a farm built and owned by German immigrants, was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping the enslaved escape to freedom. Explore hidden tunnels and learn about the courageous individuals who risked everything for equality, the secret codes and language that was used by the use of patterned blankets to give instructions to those on the run. To learn of the struggle and jeopardy that enslaved Africans were put under, the punishments, the lynchings, and the way that they were selected and sold is an experience not to miss, if one wants to understand more comprehensively the struggles that have continued to this day.
Pick me up at eight and don’t be late.
My tour of the city and the secrets it contains was conducted by local operator American Dream Safari. Not only is this an intimate, one on one, detailed historical journey that will entertain and educate but you are driven around in a cream coloured 1955 Cadillac. Put your shades on – at once you become Superfly.
Food Glorious Food
Memphis is however not just about music and history. It’s also a food lover’s paradise. Your visit wouldn’t be complete without savouring some of the city’s delectable offerings. Savour succulent ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, and tangy sauces at iconic joints like Rendezvous Charlie Vergus and his charcoal smoked ribs . Experience the soul of Memphis through its soul food. If you have not tried it, get stuck into collard greens, cornbread and sweet potato pie, these dishes are a testament to the city’s rich culinary heritage. Modern Memphis cuisine is also wider than the barbeque and soul food for which it is known and indeed excels at. The modern ‘culinary’ scene goes way beyond traditional food and I enjoyed a wonderfully authentic Tapas evening sitting outdoors at the Catalan inspired Panta Restaurant. This was followed by a night cap watching the sun go down over the Mississippi from the rooftop bar at the Memphian Hotel which just happened to be across the road.
Get one’s ducks in a row
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention in more detail the Peabody Hotel. An institution in downtown Memphis and home not only to Elvis’s tailor but also the famous ducks. If you stay there, you are in for a treat as it oozes old time American class with wooden walls, chandeliers, grand piano, and afternoon cocktails. The main dish is served up in the foyer at around eleven every morning, just in time for morning coffee, when the lift doors will open and out will trot half a dozen or so ducks. They will waddle twenty yards to the fountain and take up residence until late afternoon at which point, they will, after much pomp and circumstance, waddle back into the lift and up to the top floor where the Duck Palace is situated. It’s a tradition that has been going on for decades and still draws in the crowds every day. On the face of it the whole event would appear to be just a tad bizarre but sure enough it happens, and I witnessed it.
A generational destination
In conclusion, Memphis is a multifaceted destination that beckons Silver Travellers with its rich musical history, its pivotal role in the civil rights movement, and its warm Southern hospitality. As you explore Graceland, dance down Beale Street, and reflect at the National Civil Rights Museum, you’ll find yourself transported back to the era of your youth, a time when music and social change were intertwined. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the magic of Memphis – a city that will forever hold a special place in the hearts of the Silver Traveller generation.
For trips to Memphis and tours of the USA’s southern states which take in this city, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.