Feeling kindred spirits
MEMPHIS - Because I am a music fan by avocation and rock critic by vocation, this city - home to the legendary R&B and rock music labels Stax and Sun Records, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and artists as diverse as legendary soul titans Al Green and Aretha Franklin, proto-power popsters Big Star and urban pop smoothie Justin Timberlake - was always on my list. After repeated visits over the years to other meccas such as Austin, Texas, and Nashville, this spring, Memphis’s number came up.
My friend Joe and I arrived, fittingly, with Green blasting on our rental car stereo. Voracious music consumers and good friends since working at the late, great Massachusetts record store chain Good Vibrations in the ’80s, we made Memphis our final destination on a weeklong musical road trip through Tennessee that included stops in Nashville and in Pigeon Forge to visit Dollywood.
Even with nearly four days at our disposal and an excursion to the mammoth annual Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park, we were unable to see and hear everything this city - which bills itself (like some other cities do) as the “birthplace of rock ’n’ roll’’ - has to offer.
It seemed like the sidewalks and buildings were singing to us when we got to the Beale Street, the city’s main drag of clubs, bars, and souvenir shops. And in a way, they were.
There was the thwap-thwap-thwap rhythm of the feet of a young boy practicing a gravity-defying tumbling routine he would perform later for tips. There was the heated riffage of a hot blues band doing a cover version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy’’ wafting from the open door of a club. There was the exuberant racket of a group of buskers in front of the New Daisy Theatre hooting out original blues and teasing passersby who would stop and dance for a spell. And there were the raised musical notes slipping under our feet proclaiming the pride and joy the city has in its musical exports, commemorated on the Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame.
By midnight Beale would be a bustling thoroughfare filled with lubricated tourists, good old boys on the prowl buying cold ones at a street vendor, listing college kids, blaring sounds, and flashing neon. But on our first pass on this Thursday afternoon, ducking in and out of T-shirt shops and an ancient Schwab’s dry goods store, the street gave off a slower, laid-back pulse.
Our next stop was Graceland. About a 10-minute drive from downtown, the King of Rock’s compound is a sprawl of strip mall gift shops anchored by the mansion on one side of Elvis Presley Boulevard and Heartbreak Hotel on the other.
While rooms devoted to gold and platinum records and all of those flashy jumpsuits spoke of the myth, it was the living area of the mansion that offered a glimpse of the man behind those powerfully swiveling hips. Tacky? Maybe in some places, notably the animal print-festooned Jungle Room. The modest pool, homey kitchen and family room, and simple bedrooms spoke of a guy who knew the value of a sense of home and a place to enjoy the fruits of his much-celebrated labor.
Our Elvis immersion was completed at the ’50s-style Rockabilly’s Diner with a grilled peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, a buttery, gelatinous treat not for the faint-hearted.
Getting away from the glitz, we headed over to Sun Studio, the place where Presley launched his career, as did fellow members of the “Million Dollar Quartet’’: Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.
Even though it was the shortest tour we took at the smallest venue - basically two rooms, one a museum-style exhibit and the tiny recording studio - our knowledgeable and convivial tour guide, Jake Fly, made the visit the most enjoyable.
On the job since last August, Fly is a true music fan. He has probably gone through his routine hundreds of times, but there was still genuine awe in his voice when he talked about the first recording of distorted guitar or pointed to the spot where various members of the “MDQ’’ stood as they cut their classic sides.
Joe and I got a little giddy handling the microphone used by Presley, Cash, and Roy Orbison, but we managed to abide by Fly’s one restriction to the group: “Don’t lick it.’’ There was an energy in the little room, even filled with tourists, that made it easy to understand why contemporary artists such as U2, Bonnie Raitt, and John Mellencamp have come to this space to soak up a little of its magic.
Later, at the festival, watching Lewis, the last man standing of the “MDQ,’’ perform “Great Balls of Fire’’ and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’’ and receive a hero’s hometown welcome from the crowd brought the Sun experience full circle.
If Sun began to tell the story of the ways in which blues, country, gospel, R&B, and rock are intertwined, the equally illustrious halls of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music cemented that truism.
A more traditional museum experience with chronological exhibits, the power of the Stax visit came in grasping the sheer breadth of the people who sang, wrote, and produced music for the label and helped integrate the city with its multiracial house band. The list is long and varied - Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers - and the songs could fill several jukeboxes - “Dock of the Bay,’’ “Hold On, I’m Coming,’’ “Green Onions’’ . . .
The Stax exhibits evoked a sense of familial creativity, a community coming together to express its joys and sorrows collectively at one of the most turbulent junctures in US history. And perhaps most mind-boggling, a small neighborhood map showed how many gifted folks - including Aretha Franklin - lived within blocks of the E. McLemore studio.
The sounds down by the river at the festival - a three-day, multistage, open-air affair - were more contemporary as we took in the blazing pop of the New Pornographers, the quirky funk of Macy Gray, and the modern rock of Stone Temple Pilots, each exhibiting a Memphis influence.
When we weren’t soaking up musical history - or American history at the poignant and thought-provoking National Civil Rights Museum - Joe and I were eating.
Several mornings in a row we found ourselves parked a few blocks from Beale Street at Cockadoos, a charming breakfast spot on South Second Street that offered great service, a homey atmosphere, and a delectable Memphis barbecue omelet.
Without pretense or frills, Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous (a favorite of Timberlake’s) offers up simple, perfectly spiced barbecue at ridiculously affordable prices. For a more elegant night out, Itta Bena’s, a hidden gem reached through an unmarked door over B.B. King’s Blues Club, offers comforting Southern cuisine with a gourmet flair, including a melt-in-your-mouth fried avocado appetizer.
Before heading back north there was one more variety of Memphis music we had to witness. About five minutes past Graceland is the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Here the Rev. Al Green presides over Sunday services when he’s not on tour.
On this Sunday what the church lacked in fullness of congregation it more than compensated for in fullness of spirit.
Roughly 30 members of what were clearly Green’s faithful flock sat on the left side of the church while another 20 or so tourists, including Joe and me, held down pews in the middle for a full-blown Southern church experience complete with a sermon enlivened by Green breaking into song.
After nearly 90 minutes of jubilant song and prayer, Green decided it was time to “get on up outta here’’ and let everyone get a sandwich. A parishioner gently reminded him that he still had not given communion. He smiled a dazzling grin and claimed he could get it done in a jiff.
A jiff turned into a half-hour praise fest as Green asked each person approaching the altar where they were from. A double-digit contingency from Sweden, as well as folks from California, Germany, and a couple all the way from New Zealand happily received the most musical sacrament imaginable.
A quick stop at Earnestine & Hazel’s, a juke joint, former brothel, and, apocryphally, partial inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,’’ for a greasy and delicious “soul burger’’ ended our visit with an appropriately gritty bang.
For rock and soul fans, Memphis is the kind of place that, if you let it, renews your faith in the spirit of music to be a true inspiration.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.