If Nashville built its musical bones on country music, Memphis became a musical mecca with the blues on Beale Street in the early 1900s.
Later in the 20th century, Sam Phillips, Sun Records and Elvis Presley ushered in the era of rock ‘n’ roll, rock-a-billy and rhythm and blues. Stax Records celebrated soul. and now the city moves with the beat and shakes with the sound.
I began my explorations of the music of Memphis with a pilgrimage to pay homage to the King. Yes, Graceland, this temple of exaggerated taste and Elvisian excess.
Elvis bought the mansion in 1957, redecorating it several times. It is easy to decorate the decor. I had to keep reminding myself of the year and the fact that I too had green carpet. Always do it, but not on the ceiling. and the golden harvest refrigerator and avocado sink in the kitchen also brought back memories.
The living room features antiques, mirrored tiles and a fireplace on one wall, white rugs and white upholstery. The windows are framed with heavy royal blue velvet curtains. Through a wide opening, flanked by clear glass and peacock stained glass, visitors can glimpse a white grand piano in the music room.
A large Italian chandelier hangs above the dining room table with Noritake “Buckingham” wedding china of Elvis and Priscilla. Elvis, who placed great importance on family dinners, always sat at the end of the table.
The Jungle Room and the Pool Room would compete in the most outrageous interior design category. The Jungle Room, inspired by Elvis’ visits to Hawaii, is covered in green carpet, floor and ceiling. The billiard room resembles a Middle Eastern tent with walls and ceiling covered in 450 yards of wildly patterned pleated fabric.
The outbuildings house other Elvis memorabilia. The Trophy Building features family stories, gifts given to Elvis, personal effects, photos and more. This is where you will get an idea of what a good person Elvis was.
The last stop is the meditation pool and garden. Here Elvis, his mother, father and grandmother are buried.
As press, I was given the VIP tour, a more extensive tour than the one I had taken before. This tour includes an area where Elvis’ father and stepmother lived. He now holds a collection of jewelry and personal items from Elvis. Elvis obviously loved gold – gold jewelry, gold-plated guns, gold-rimmed sunglasses, and even a special gold social security card.
We were also allowed in the archives building. The walls are covered with photos and cabinets containing more memorabilia. One of the most interesting items was Elvis’ first cell phone. Obsessed after watching James Bond (“From Russia with Love”), Elvis paid between $3,000 and $4,000 for the 18-pound instrument. The other special treat was the chance to put on cotton gloves and pose for a photo with one of Elvis’ D76 Martin guitars.
After the home visit, my hosts and I headed to Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex. The museums here displayed everything from Elvis’ car collection, his costumes, his movies, his gold records, his time in the military – basically everything about Elvis.
I enjoyed his music, but this visit made me appreciate him much more as a person and a humanitarian. and he did not broadcast his charity or fame. The only award he ever accepted in person was being named one of the nation’s 10 Outstanding Young Men, given in 1971 by the Jaycees for his impact on music and culture and his many charitable endeavours.
My musical tour of Memphis had just started. Next stop: Sun Records.
It was Sam Phillips’ recording studio where a young Elvis walked in to make a record for his mom. He then recorded numerous discs for Sun. The small museum is packed with information about Phillips and a host of stars who got their start with the label.
How cool to see the “Million Dollar Photo” of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis during an impromptu jam session in the very room where it took place.
The Stax Museum of American Soul is a much sleeker facility, also filled with exhibits on names everyone knows: Aretha, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Otis Redding and others. I knew Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper from the movie The Blues Brothers, but learned more about their association with Booker T. and the MGs
One of my favorite exhibits – easy to miss amidst all the glitz – was a map of the area around the Stax Museum showing where various musical artists lived. The amount of talent in this small community was staggering.
In addition to Aretha Franklin, there were names I didn’t recognize — including Memphis Slim, Reverend William Herbert Brewster, and Lucie E. Campbell — who are recognized in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Between my trips to Nashville and Memphis, I was learning so much more about American music. But I wasn’t done learning – there were two more museums with more to see and hear.
The Memphis Rock and Soul Museum in the FedEx Sports and Entertainment Complex tells the story of rock and soul from the cotton fields to the heights of glory. Featuring exhibits created by the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibits highlight Memphis’ musical history from the 1930s through the 1970s. A digital audio guide provides plenty of additional information and over 100 pieces of music.
My final stop was the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, a short walk away. Nestled between the Hard Rock Café and legendary draper Lansky’s, the Hall of Fame salutes nearly 100 musical personalities who have been connected to Memphis.
You can go from A to Z – Aretha to ZZ Top – to learn about musicians of all genres, including opera star Marguerite Piazza. Artifacts range from outrageous outfits to a destroyed piano, but my favorite is two-thirds of one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Caddys.
End the day with a stroll down Beale Street, where it all began. Music pours into the street from multiple locations. The beating of the bass and the rhythm of the drums make the heart of the city beat.