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The Stax Museum of American Soul Music captures the history of the record label that broke barriers with racially mixed groups and a unique sound.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music captures the history of the record label that broke barriers with racially mixed groups and a unique sound. (Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press)

Memphis hits high notes

With music and history in its soul, the city captivates

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2005

MEMPHIS -- The ''Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll" was a new destination for me, where I expected to enjoy the music, museums, and fine Southern cooking. What I hadn't expected was the crying.

I'm not talking about tears for Elvis. I didn't even go to Graceland. The tears were prompted by the passion behind the music made here, especially out of Stax Studios, where both sound and color barriers were broken. They sprang from my sorrow after visiting the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s slaying, and because that single act of violence at a Memphis motel almost killed the city, too. I even shed a few tears seeing all the cute children watching those adorable little ducks make their twice-daily splash in the lobby of the Peabody Memphis, where I stayed. I used up the rest of my boo-hoos when the Rev. Al Green walked out to greet his flock.

Pass the Kleenex travel pack, please.

My first purveyor of passion was Sherman Willmott of Shangri-la Projects Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Tours. ''I do tours for people like me, for people who want to see the soul of the town," said Willmott, 39, who started the business last year. Much of the tour was about who produced what kind of sound where with which band members at which studio. There was more. Willmott's favorite restaurants (Cielo, for instance), interesting clubs (Wild Bill's), his opinion that Jim Jarmusch's 1989 film, ''Mystery Train," perfectly captured the Memphis of the moment. (Willmott worked on the set.)

''That was the bottom, after Dr. King was shot in 1968," he said. Now there's a boom all over. New museums, sophisticated restaurants, a historic arts district.

Willmott, a Williams College graduate who often traveled to Boston clubs to catch bands, spent much of his youth in Memphis and returned here after college. He opened the ultra-cool Shangri-la Records in 1989 (and has since sold it), and now runs Shangri-la Projects, producing albums, mostly compilations of garage rock. What the modest Willmott is proudest of, and what makes him the perfect guide, was his role as the first curator of Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003.

''It was the best contribution I could make to this city. Stax was the greatest thing to come out of Memphis," he said of the studio that, from 1960 to 1975, produced music by the likes of Memphis native Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, and the racially mixed Booker T. and the MGs. (Willmott plays music by all of them during the tour.)

Though the original building on the south side of Memphis had been thoughtlessly destroyed, artifacts were gathered, exhibits were created, and quality speakers were installed. I returned to Stax for a longer visit the next day, dabbing my eyes every so often when the music I was raised on and the stories of a refreshingly colorblind studio and audience overwhelmed me. The two-year-old Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum is another terrific spot for singing along, but Stax is my favorite.

We did drive-bys and quick stops all over town -- to Lauderdale Courts, the public housing complex where Elvis lived, and to Sun Studio, where he got his start. Sun also was home to Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. Willmott showed me poor neighborhoods and cool ones (Cooper-Young, Overton Square, South Main Arts District). You can do your own Willmott tour with his must-have ''Kreature Comforts Low-Life Guide to Memphis" ($3), available at several places in town or at www.shangrilaprojects.com. Willmott gave me much, and left me wanting more, which I got the next day from my second savant, Tad Pierson.

Pierson, 53, gives tours of Memphis from his beige 1955 Cadillac. ''It's not a low-profile job," concedes Pierson, who has been running American Dream Safari for more than a decade. By now, he seems to know everyone in town, from musicians and artists to street folks. Pierson specializes in blues sites, but he has a growing list of specialty tours -- architecture, gardens, gospel sites, and a trip to Tupelo, Miss. He'll escort folks to neighborhood blues and soul clubs that are miles from Beale Street in distance and clientele. On the side, he sells his trademark Memphis Mary, ''smoky-flavored" Bloody Mary mix.

Although Pierson has a shtick, he doesn't milk it.

''People have said, 'You should do tours dressed up as Elvis.' I cannot do that. Without sounding too pedantic, travel is a sacred thing," he said.

Although he prefers the more multifaceted music-loving customer over the all-Elvis-all-the-time sort, they nonetheless have his respect. ''Being a road junkie myself, I never make fun of anyone's pilgrimage," he said.

Pierson introduced me to the soul-food restaurant Alcenia's, run by the wonderful B.J. Chester-Tamayo. ''Hey, baby," she said, handing me a menu and giving me a hug and a peck on the cheek. I wasn't getting special treatment; that's how Tamayo greets most every customer, old and new. It got me misty-eyed.

When I visited the National Civil Rights Museum, I was on my own, which was a good thing, because the tears would not stop. Part of the museum is cleverly housed in the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated. Exhibits lead up to the room where he was staying on April 4, 1968, and you look onto the balcony where he was standing when he was shot. Gospel songs sung at his funeral wail through the speakers. It is absolutely chilling.

On my way out of Memphis, I had one more good cry. On the outskirts of town and just beyond Graceland is the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where Green, 59, preaches and sings, often simultaneously. Backed by a rocking electric band, Green delivered a more than two-hour gospel and sermon. But the soul singer made sure his listeners knew who was in charge: ''I'll tell you the truth -- Al Green the man has no heaven to put you in. You'd better worship God."

By all measures, it was a religious experience.

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

 MEMPHIS, TENN. : If you go: Memphis

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