“Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life”
First stop was Memphis’ more infamous claim to fame the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The hotel looks exactly as it did in 1968, apart from a wreath on the balcony of room 307 where the shooting happened. It is now a museum that charts the progress of the National Civil Rights struggle. There is a woman outside who has been protesting since it opened that the site could be better used to provide homes for the poor, she has been there 20 years, 20 hours a day and beside her tattered stall… her luxurious Hummer!
Across the street the guesthouse, where James Earl Ray allegedly fired the shot, I suppose there must be some interest in looking out the window to the motel opposite. Overall, with the family reunions, stalls selling food and reggae music playing, it still felt a reverent place, despite being in a very bad part of town! Apparently, we went through some stunningly scary areas to get there, which also included Aretha Franklin’s birthplace.
Next, off to the Peabody Hotel to see the ducks, the other odd Memphis tradition. Sally from Chicago who had been on our coach the previous year when we were in Morocco told us about this. Twice a day since 1933, a procession of ducks come down in the lift and walk the red carpet to the fountain in the centre of the hotel lobby, then the whole thing is reversed. This draws huge crowds, some getting there a couple of hours before to get a decent spot – the march lasts about 5 seconds!
“I Walk the Line”
No visit to Memphis would be complete without a tour of Sun Studio, where it all began for Elvis and many other famous recording artists, such as Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. The young guide was knowledgeable, telling us lots of little stories and anecdotes. Obviously, the upstairs room with the records and pictures was good but I was waiting for the recording studio. It did not disappoint. It is small and innocuous; the soundproof tiling original and there are black taped crosses on the floor where the famous have stood to record. We got to hear taped recordings, including the first recorded Elvis track. How cool! It is somehow more exciting to hear it when you’re standing in the room it was recorded in!
“Then I’m walking in Memphis/Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale”
That night it was a meal on Beale Street, the big live music place in Memphis and charged with electrifying talent. When we arrived, it was crowded and as it was a weekend, there was a high police presence but there was not a push or a shove in sight, only plenty of southern hospitality. It’s pretty much the only street where things happen and we were expecting the full-on Memphis experience of blues clubs. What we got was an abundance of cover bands, which frankly was not as great as we had been led to expect. Sure, it was evocative, there was lots of music emerging from every doorway but it wasn’t exciting – I was expecting BB King or Johnny Cash to appear on stage but instead I got karaoke. I did find a Janis Joplin shirt for my daughter who adores her music and OH got one with Miles Davis who he first saw live over 50 years ago Yikes!!
“Saw the ghost of Elvis / On Union Avenue / Followed him up to the gates of Graceland /Then I watched him walk right through.”
Okay so I didn’t, but I had Cher stuck in my head for the whole of the visit to Memphis.
I have never been an Elvis fan, but watching videos on the coach as we started our tour he came across as a rather shy young man. This new insight into the ‘King’ made me slightly curious to see what his home was like as previously I had envisaged a large tacky mansion filled with glitz and over the top bad taste.
Elvis Presley Boulevard, where Graceland is located is sadly, like many areas of Memphis quite run down with lots of abandoned businesses, however Graceland is thriving. We were on the Platinum tour, which includes the house, movie memorabilia, aircraft and automobile museum. However before we got there, we were dropped on the other side of the road where a load of spurious little museums have popped up including the nonexistent Heartbreak Hotel.
“But there’s a pretty little thing/waiting for the King/down in the Jungle Room”
Cher would not be allowed to walk straight up to the gates, she would have had to queue for a shuttle bus like the rest of us. We faithfully donned the headsets in the bus as we crossed the dual carriageway and entered the gates. We had to wait outside for our tour to start and then we were off on a fun-filled feast of sightseeing around, just a few of Graceland’s rooms. The tour was excellent, the audio player using sound bites of Elvis informed us about the various locations which you could tour pretty much at your own pace taking as long as you liked over displays.
Even from the outside, the house is nowhere near as large as I had imagined. We visited the living room, dining room, mum and dad’s bedroom, the TV room and jungle room, a marvel of thick shag-pile carpeting on both floor and ceiling. It was quite tasteful in a 70’s sort of way. The office, outbuildings, which all had mementos, the automobiles and the aircraft.
I did find the last stop on the tour a little surreal as we ended up at the graveside of the whole Presley family, but thank goodness there were no weepy women around.
A tour of Graceland is worth doing, whether you are a diehard, Elvis fan or not. All this Elvis worship might seem a bit extreme to the casual bystander, but this is the man who has sold more records than anyone. So even for me it was fun and well worth a stop, but I was a bit Elvis’ed out by the end.
Memphis is a diamond in the rough; some may find it dirty, dangerous, and destitute, but I love it.
Tomorrow – taking Willie Neson’s City of New Orleans train down to Lafayette.