Roll on down to the hometown of Elvis Presley, the bluesy sounds of Beale Street, and five VIPs (very important poultry).
By Mark Schechinger
It’s not just the sights that attract millions of people to Memphis every year. It’s also the sounds rooted deeply in the city itself that draw the masses.
Memphis is cited in nearly 400 songs, more than any other place in the world. It offers a similar number of notable attractions, including music clubs, museums, festivals, historic hotels, famous homes, and prominent concerts.
Located in the southwest corner of Tennessee, alongside the Mississippi River, Memphis is recognized year after year as being one of the friendliest American cities. It is the nation’s only five-time winner of the National City Beautiful Commission’s award for cleanliness. It is called the “Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It features the second-most recognizable home in America and it hosts a barbecue festival that has been touted as the world’s best. To many, Memphis seems to be the place to tour.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto crossed the Mississippi River near Memphis in 1541 and planted a Spanish flag on its riverbank. In 1783 the United States claimed the land as part of the treaty signed after the Revolutionary War; prior to that, Spain, France, and England had played musical chairs with it. General Andrew Jackson, General James Winchester, and Judge John Overton founded Memphis, and the village was incorporated as a city in 1826.
Today Memphis is perhaps most renowned as being home to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. It is said to be the second-most recognizable private dwelling in America after the White House. There, the sights and sounds of Memphis seem to come together on a grand scale, even for non-Elvis fans.
Music sung by the king of rock ‘n’ roll plays throughout the Graceland complex as shuttles whisk visitors through the famous wrought-iron gates and up the red brick road to the home of Elvis. Begin your tour at the mansion itself. A digital audio guide, featuring the voices of Elvis and his daughter, Lisa Marie, is provided that describes the various rooms, including the extravagant “Jungle Room,” which was used as a studio; the Trophy Building, where hundreds of gold albums, memorabilia, and concert outfits are displayed; and the Meditation Garden, Elvis’ final resting place. More rooms have recently been opened or renovated, including the kitchen, Elvis’ parents’ bedroom, and the racquetball court.
Several museums are located on the other side of the mansion grounds. The Automobile Museum showcases Cadillacs from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s and other rare autos once owned by the singer. A simulated drive-in shows Elvis movies, focusing on cars featured in the films that are now in the museum. Next door to the autos is the Sincerely Elvis museum, which displays hundreds of personal items and artifacts. Also on the grounds is the Bijou theater, where a 22-minute movie called Walk A Mile In My Shoes presents a look at the king’s career.
You can dine on a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich “” Elvis’ favorite “” and other specialty menu items at the 1950s-style Rockabilly’s Diner; enjoy traditional buffet-style meals at the Chrome Grill; or satisfy your sweet tooth at the Shake, Split, & Dip ice cream parlor. In addition, exclusive shops throughout Graceland offer a plethora of souvenirs and music that plays throughout the day.
Elvis’ custom jets are on display in yet another museum on the complex. Visitors can climb inside two of them, including the “Lisa Marie,” an 880 Convair jet that was personalized for the singer’s tours and includes items Elvis needed for the trips, such as a conference table, TV, phone and, naturally, a king-sized bed.
Reservations to tour Graceland are not required, but are recommended. Admission to Graceland may be purchased separately for each part of the tour (the mansion, the auto museum, the Sincerely Elvis museum, and Elvis’ jets). The Platinum Tour Package includes admission to all of these attractions; it costs $25.25 for adults and $22.73 for seniors (62 and over) and students. Members of AAA receive a 10 percent discount on tickets purchased from the Graceland Reservations Department; phone (800) 238-2000. (You must purchase in advance to get the discount.) For more information, visit www.elvis.com.
Behind Elvis’ jets is the Memphis Graceland RV Park & Campground. It is conveniently located near downtown yet far enough away to offer a little taste of nature and a large helping of solitude. It is one of several parks in Memphis that are listed in the Convention & Visitors Bureau guide (see below). For more information about Graceland RV Park, phone (901) 396-7125.
Next, travel Elvis Presley Boulevard toward downtown, approximately 15 minutes away. The first landmark to come into view is the historic Peabody Memphis Hotel. According to legend, the Mississippi Delta begins in its lobby, and if you stand there long enough, your chances of meeting someone famous are fairly good. Previous Peabody visitors have included President Andrew Jackson, General Robert E. Lee, writer William Faulkner, and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
The Peabody Ducks also are VIPs (very important poultry). Be sure to visit the hotel lobby either at 11:00 a.m. or 5:00 p.m. to watch the five mallards (four hens and one drake). In the morning, they waddle down from their rooftop penthouse and march out of the elevator, where a red carpet is rolled out to the music of John Philip Sousa. The ducks then parade down the carpet and up the stairs to a marble fountain in the lobby, where they swim for the day, much as Peabody ducks have done for 60 years. At 5:00 p.m. the red carpet reappears and the birds ceremoniously return to their posh home for the night.
A couple blocks south of the Peabody Memphis Hotel is Beale Street, considered the historic crossroads of American music. This is where the blues and its progeny, rock ‘n’ roll, exist side by side. You’ll find street-side blues jam sessions and cafes featuring live music, including establishments such as B.B. King’s Blues Club, a Have A Nice Day Café (featuring 1970s disco music), and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Restaurant. The famous Pat O’Brien’s bar in New Orleans opened its fourth franchise location in September 2002 along Beale Street, too.
The annual Beale Street Music Festival, held early each May, is followed later that same month by the city’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The latter is a three-day festival held near the riverbanks that includes grilling, carnival activities and displays, all sorts of contests, and musical concerts.
Visitors may wish to start touring the area at the corner of Beale and Main streets, where a 1928 vaudeville theater called the Orpheum stands. The theater has been restored to its former opulence, with crystal chandeliers, gilt decorations, ornate tapestries, and triple balconies. It is one of the South’s premier centers for the performing arts.
Many Victorian homes stand on nearby Adams Street. The 1852 Mallory-Neely House is closed in January and February, but the rest of the year it is open for tours, Tuesday through Sunday (901-523-1484). On the same street is the Woodruff-Fontaine House, built in the 1870s, which is open year-round daily except Tuesdays (901-526-1469). And the Magevney House, built in the 1830s, was the site of the first Catholic Mass said in Memphis; it is open Tuesday through Saturday (901-526-4464).
Tours of the town are offered by independent operators, one of which transports visitors in a pink Cadillac. Contact the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information about theme tours of Memphis.
While you’re downtown, look up on the hill and you may see the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave., where Elvis made his first recording. A 30-minute tour of the studio enables visitors to hear actual recording sessions of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Contemporary artists such as Bono and Paul McCartney have recorded there, too. The tour also includes displays of rare memorabilia and records. Tours are available daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on the half hour. Phone (800) 441-6249 for more information.
The Memphis Zoo offers the sights and sounds of nature. A recent $30 million renovation has helped the zoo to earn its reputation as one of the world’s finest. The new China exhibit is a real treat, and state-of-the-art displays simulate assorted worlds of the animal kingdom. Approximately 3,000 animals occupy the facility, including lemurs, siamangs, assorted cats, nocturnal creatures, amphibians, and birds. The zoo is open year-round; phone (901) 276-9453 for more information.
The new Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, located downtown inside the Gibson Guitar Factory on Lt. George W. Lee Avenue, is home to an exhibition put together by the Smithsonian Institution. Titled “Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads,” the exhibit explains the social and cultural music of the region. Visitors can watch videos narrated by legendary Memphis soul artist Al Green; see a huge collection of memorabilia, including clothing worn by Elvis, Minnie Pearl, and others; and use a free audio gallery guide to hear music and a narrated history of famous area musicians, as well as the roots of the blues. The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is open daily, and admission is charged; phone (901) 543-0800 or visit www.memphisrocknsoul.org.
Scheduled to open the last weekend in April 2003 is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which will focus on the lives of famous regional soul artists from the 1960s and ’70s, such as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Sam and Dave. The careers of these stars and others were launched at Stax Records. The company produced tunes such as “Soul Man,” “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Theme from Shaft,” and many more classics. For more information, visit www.soulsvilleusa.com.
Live music can be heard regularly at the Center for Southern Folklore, which includes a cafe and museum and offers a taste of Southern tradition. Concerts are performed at lunchtime and in the evenings. Music includes rockabilly, soul, gospel, and blues. Exhibits at the museum include crafts, folk art, and historic photography. The center is open from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. Phone (901) 525-3655 for more information about concerts.
Not all of Memphis’ past is musical. Burned into the memories of many Americans is the tragic day when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. Today the inside of the hotel is filled with exhibits as part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991. The museum encompasses thousands of square feet and chronicles the history of civil rights movements throughout the world in an emotionally moving way. A recent $10 million expansion covers civil rights history from the King era to the present. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesdays), and admission is free on Mondays between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. For more information, phone (901) 521-9699 or visit www.civilrightsmuseum.org.
From late April until Labor Day, Libertyland Amusement Park offers its own set of sights and sounds. Three live theater shows are offered and more than 30 rides include the Kamikaze and the Zippin Pippin roller coasters, a double water slide, and an authentic 1909 Dentzel carousel. Phone (800) 552-7275 for more information.
Memphis’ early days were busy with showboats that stopped at the city during Mississippi River excursions. Today, those days are relived on the Memphis Queen Line, which offers scenic rides and evening music shows aboard fine-looking paddle wheelers. You can take a 90-minute sight-seeing tour or a two-hour dinner cruise on the mighty Mississippi, where images of Mark Twain tales are said to come alive. For information about prices and charters, phone (800) 221-6197.
The “queens” cruise past Mud Island River Park, but you can get there by taking a tram, which, as locals will tell you, is the same one used by Tom Cruise’s character in the film The Firm. Once on the island, you can visit the Mississippi River Museum, which includes 17 galleries replete with a steamboat replica and historical information about the river, including a 5-block-long scale replica of the river. The Memphis Belle, the original B-17 bomber from World War II that was flown for 25 combat missions and never lost one crew member, also is on display on Mud Island. For more information, call (800) 507-6507 or visit mudisland.com.
The Chucalissa Archaeological Museum is approximately 6 miles south of downtown Memphis atop a site occupied by American Indians during a period of years, the last of which ranged from approximately 1400 into the 1500s. Guides explain the life of the people who lived there during that time with the help of a simulated village and an original excavation site. An interpretive nature trail, a ceremonial structure, workshops, and legendary tales make this museum a favorite. It is located next door to T.O. Fuller State Park, where camping is available. For more information, phone the museum at (901) 785-3160; for campground information, phone the park at (901) 543-7581.
At day’s end, visitors are known to return to Beale Street, where popular nightlife includes the world-renowned sights of B.B. King’s Blues Club or the elegant Peabody Memphis Hotel “” where the sounds include the blues, or, perhaps, the quack of ducks.
The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a tourism guide that includes a list of area campgrounds as well as information about other attractions. Contact:
Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau
47 Union Ave.
Memphis, TN 38103