Rock and soul memories are relived and created in this Tennessee city each day.
By Anna Lee Braunstein, F351629
Memphis and music are synonymous. W.C. Handy said it best in his song “The Memphis Blues”:
Folks I’ve just been down, down to Memphis town,
That’s where the people smile, smile on you all the while.
Hospitality, they were good to me.
I couldn’t spend a dime, and had the grandest time.
Handy originally wrote the tune above with different lyrics as a political campaign song for Memphis mayor E.H. Crump. He changed the lyrics, and in 1912, “The Memphis Blues” became America’s first published blues song. Handy was at the forefront of a wave of African-American blues musicians who either moved to the town or performed in clubs on its famous Beale Street over the following decades.
One living legend of Beale Street is the King of the Blues, Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King. His recorded music fills the air from his B.B. King’s Blues Club, where diners can enjoy some of his favorite foods while listening to this distinctive sound. Rhythms from a mix of musical genres reverberate from bars and restaurants lining the street designated by Congress as the Home of the Blues. On weekend evenings Beale Street resounds with music coming from street performers, clubs, and food venues. Just walking the street sets toes a-tapping.
Another Memphis musical king was Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Graceland, his former home, is a destination for fans from all over the world and the second-most-visited house in the United States after the White House. Modest by today’s celebrity standards, the Tudor-style mansion was purchased by Elvis in 1957 for $100,000.
In 2012 Graceland is marking the 45th anniversary of the death of The King by opening three new special exhibits. “Icon: The Influence of Elvis Presley” celebrates his influence on other musicians and features artifacts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as items from the collections of other major musicians. Elvis’ only child, Lisa Marie Presley, chose the items for “Elvis … Through His Daughter’s Eyes.” More than 200 personal possessions, photographs, and home movies show the special relationship between father and daughter. His 1972 tour is the focus of the award-winning documentary “Elvis on Tour.” Additional clothing and jewelry are part of this exhibit.
A visit to Graceland starts at the ticket booth on Elvis Presley Boulevard across from the mansion. Three tour options are available, and how much you see depends upon which option you choose.
The interior decor of Graceland is a mix of homey and exotic. Living room tables hold family pictures, and kitchen cupboards are filled with Franciscan Apple dinnerware. African animal skins cover chairs, and jungle masks hang from the walls in the den. Visitors see all this and more while enjoying an audio guide of personal stories told by Elvis and Lisa Marie.
The tour of the first floor of the mansion continues from the living area through the den, music room, and racquetball room. The high walls of the Gold Room are lined with gold and platinum records. Amidst all this glitter are touching displays such as the cancelled checks showing Elvis’ philanthropic support for many religious and community organizations in Memphis.
Several buildings around the mansion are filled with treasures from Elvis’ life. His glittering costumes share display cases with his army uniform and wife Priscilla’s wedding gown in The Fashion King exhibit. Indoor and outdoor exhibits reveal his love of flashy cars, fast jets, and roaring motorcycles. In the Newsmaking display, walls feature newspaper stories written about The King from his first performances to his death.
The entire Graceland complex encompasses several attractions, shopping venues, and restaurants. Across the street is Memphis Graceland RV Park and Campground, and if you’re just visiting, daytime parking for your RV or towed car is available in a regular lot, for a fee. For more information, call (800) 238-2000 or go to www.elvis.com.
Sun Studio bills itself as the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll.” It certainly was the birthplace of the career of Elvis Presley and helped to foster the success of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and others. Today you can tour the same rooms where these musicians immortalized their great music and even make your own recording as a memento.
Other important Memphis musical memorials are located downtown. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music stands right at the spot where tunes such as “The Dock of the Bay” were recorded. The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum houses a comprehensive collection of cool costumes and plenty of music, all curated by the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of American History.
The Memphis musical tour continues at the Gibson Guitar factory, where the “greatest guitar makers” create these instruments. The 45-minute tours emphasize the craftsmanship that makes these instruments prized by musicians throughout the world.
A third King associated with Memphis — but in a tragic way — was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. The site of this tragedy has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, a place of learning and honor. It is a tribute to Dr. King and others who fought and died for the rights to equal access in society for all Americans.
The motel was purchased and rescued from decay by the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation. With the addition of nearby properties, the foundation has created both a memorial to Dr. King and others who died for the cause of civil rights and a place where visitors can learn the struggles and sacrifices they endured. After examining the changing exhibits in the gallery, visitors enter the theater to view Witness, a film narrated by Samuel Billy Kyles, who was with Dr. King when he was assassinated. Rev. Kyles is frequently at the museum and happy to talk to visitors.
Displays chronicle the bringing of the first slaves to America in the early 1600s and progress through the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow laws, and the boycotts and demonstrations during the 1950s and 1960s. Historic events including the forming of the NAACP, Brown vs. Board of Education, and the March on Washington are featured. Visitors can enter a replica of the bus in which Rosa Parks protested against segregated seating. Several exhibits are dedicated to the assassination of Dr. King and the search for and conviction of his killer, James Earl Ray. The tour continues into Dr. King’s motel room with a view of the balcony on which he was shot. Across the street is the site where Ray fired the fatal bullet. Further exhibits explore the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in America and throughout the world.
In 1932, an idea said to be influenced by too much whiskey fomented in the mind of Memphis’ Peabody Hotel general manager Frank Schutt. He released some live decoy ducks he had used on a hunting trip into the hotel fountain. The idea sure made the place popular. Eventually a “Duck Master” was hired to train the fowl to march from their own elevator through the lobby and frolic in the fountain. And so it is that at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. each day, a recorded version of John Phillip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” fills the lobby and crowds of camera-wielding tourists get set for the March of the Ducks. The tradition is something to see.
Another offbeat site is the National Ornamental Metal Museum in the historic DeSoto Park area just south of downtown. Three beautiful buildings formerly used as a military hospital now contain the only museum in the United States dedicated to the art of metalwork. It is filled with a wonderful array of decorative art ranging from jewelry to garden art to antique armor. Outdoors in the whimsical sculpture garden, imaginary creatures frolic around six-foot-tall sunflowers. A real blacksmith is at work in the Schering-Plough Smithy, creating sculptures, tools, and trophies.
If you’ve ever wanted to travel like Elvis and ride in a chauffeur-driven 1955 pink Cadillac, Memphis provides just the opportunity. The Caddy picks up tourists at the Graceland campground as well as hotels and motels and drives them in style to Marlowe’s Ribs & Restaurant for a good down-home meal. Or, pick your own pink Cadillac tour of the city and surrounding areas, available from different vendors. Another great way to see the city is aboard a MATA Tram. For general transportation without your car or motorhome, try the restored vintage trolleys that run around town and take riders to the main sites.
Memphis prides itself on its barbecue but also offers a range of ethnic and fine dining choices. The Memphis in May International Festival is a monthlong celebration of ribs as well as the town’s great music.
Day or night, Memphis can fill your hours with things to do or let you lay back and enjoy the sound. By far the best way to end a day in Memphis is to watch the sky turn yellow, orange, and red as the sun sets over the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge that spans the Mississippi River.
Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau
47 Union Ave.
Memphis, TN 38103
Memphis Area Campgrounds
The following is not a complete list, as the area offers many more camping facilities. Consult your favorite campground directory or the Family Motor Coach RV Marketplace, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.familymotorcoachrvmarketplace.com.
7777 Walnut Grove Road
Memphis, TN 38120
(901) 757-7777 general information
(901) 355-1977 reservations (required for full hookups)
Elvis Presley Boulevard RV Park
3971 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Memphis, TN 38116
Memphis Graceland RV Park & Campground, C12407*
3691 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Memphis, TN 38116
Memphis Jellystone RV Park, C11448*
1400 Audubon Point Drive
Horn Lake, MS 38637
T.O. Fuller State Park
1500 Mitchell Road
Memphis, TN 38109
*FMCA Commercial Member Campground