“When I was walking in Memphis…
Were we to plan this trip, knowing what we know now, I would definitely choose to come to Memphis before Nashville to avoid a disappointing comparison. Last night we came down to the famous Beale Street and at first sight, in the late afternoon heat and sun, I was certainly underwhelmed. Whatever I was expecting, this was not it. So, OK, there were bars blasting out music but the whole place was run down and, to be fair, a bit seedy. Memphis generally, or at least the parts we have seen, appears rather run down and the contrast with the fun, happening, smart and sophisticated Nashville was marked.
It would not be us to be downhearted for too long and we started off by watching an outside performance from a local group. The truly fabulous bass guitarist, we soon discovered, couldn’t sing, the equipment was giving them trouble but they got people to dance. “Do you want to dance?” asked Carolyn. “No”, was my quick and curt response!
We had explored Beale Street (15 mins max) and so opted to eat at a bar with professional musicians who, minus a drummer, belted out a variety of blues numbers. A bit stylised but an excellent keyboard player and I was intrigued by the lead guitarist who played better when he had a fag in his mouth. The ribs were good and I was delighted to sample fried green tomatoes for the first time. I had loved the film ‘Fried green tomatoes at The Whistle-stop Cafe’. Unusual but tasty and definitely recommended.
So on to day 2 in bright sunshine and punishing heat. (Apparently it is unseasonably hot – temp is 33 degrees C whilst writing this section). What should we pick? Somehow it felt rude to be here in Memphis and not visit Graceland. We both came to appreciate Elvis more in our later years and, to be honest, it was not a “must do”. However, despite the cost, Graceland won the day, well, the morning. The tour, accompanied by iPad, was slick, Disneyesque in its operation, and quite superb. We restricted ourselves to the mansion and avoided the clothes, the discs and many exhibition halls, sound stages and aeroplanes (?!). Sorry, Elvis.
From there it was a musical voyage of discovery via the Stax Museum and the Museum of Rock and Soul. Stax was the recording company which brought on writers and performers of blues, soul and into the more modern musical genres. It was a multi racial company and performers worked alongside one another very happily regardless of race. It was the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King which drove the wedge between the races in Memphis and brought about the downfall of Stax. Fortunately, the music lives on, wounds heal (at least in the world of music) and Memphis continues to pride itself in bringing its own sound to the world. Both museums were excellent with audio sets providing even more enjoyment, even to the point where you could listen to juke box hits from the period being illustrated. Memphis welcomes performers from all over the globe to perform there – the FedEx Stadium is about to host, amongst others, The Foo Fighters in October. No big names whilst we are here but we came for the local Memphis sound.
What did we need after a hot and heavy day? A swim in the guitar shaped pool. 6.30 in the evening was a perfect time, although the water was cooler than I expected. A warm shower and ready to go again – but a local restaurant this time. We had gone in search of a late lunch between the Museum trips and, naturally, some would say, decided to check out the quirky sounding bar for a quick bite to eat. It was only after ordering a drink to go with the food that we discovered the kitchen had closed, so had to down cocktail slush puppies on an empty stomach. One trip to Wet Willies for frozen cocktails is fine for one day, and I still say it was the strongest strawberry daiquiri I have ever experienced, so a local eaterie will be just fine.
Carolyn’s Curios & Musical Notes 🎼🎶🖌
Well, Memphis was, as Kath said, ‘rougher’ than Nashville but, without many expectations on my part, I could have anticipated it. Nashville is being regenerated and, frankly, it’s more White! Why does that matter? Ask an African American. I went to Graceland because it is next door to our hotel and, whatever I thought of Elvis in my teens, there is no doubt that he changed the face of music and teenagers generally. But, I wanted to go to Stax Records and see Beale Street. And, tomorrow, remembering that Martin Luther King Jnr. was shot here, we will go to the Civil Rights Museum.
Graceland? Well worth a visit if only to ‘tick it off’. The mansion was smaller than I’d imagined and we weren’t allowed upstairs into the ‘private quarters’. “Elvis always met people downstairs”, we were told. It was interesting but I sensed, for the first time, some real sadness in his life. The house seemed somewhat claustrophobic, somehow. I could imagine the ‘entourage’ (hangers-on?) boosting his ego and filling his life and his home barely giving this amazingly talented, rich and worshipped man opportunity to explore his human needs. I’m sure he exuded happiness many times but that home caused me to wonder about the man not the icon. Mirrors were in evidence…
Without doubt, the whole slick operation of the Graceland business was very impressive – well done and thanks but would the man behind the image have approved? I hope so.
Yesterday, after our drive here, we ‘hit’ Beale Street. Kath has said she was ‘underwhelmed’. It was more than that. Her optimism and usual cheerfulness took a blow. We picked up some live music as we had planned but there was an air of disappointment. I described it elsewhere as Blackpool on a weekend condensed into two blocks with lots of live music. At least two police cars at each end of the street and a police station on the street paints a picture. None of the police got out of their cars to smile and chat adds some shading. However, the music was what we came for and we got some. A great funk bass player at the outdoor set which included a great segue version of Ride Sally Ride and Walking the Dog followed by a blues band playing various classics many covered by Eric Clapton was our musical repast.
After Graceland, we had two more visits planned – both less expensive and, as it turned out, both giving great value for money. The Stax Museum and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum are very much worth a visit – musically and socially.
Despite extremely eclectic tastes, if I had to pick a favourite genre, I’d pick Stax Soul. If I had to pick a band, I’d pick Booker T and the MGs! The MGs were not, as explained by the label’s publicity arm at the time, named after Memphis Group. They were named after the British sports car! They were the house band for Stax and played on so many hits – Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Delaney & Bonnie and many others in the 1960s. My link with Stax goes back to my college days when I was asked to join a band as a replacement for their injured drummer. My previous experience had been with a band/group playing mainly Shadows, Ventures instrumentals. The college band played Stax Soul tracks and my experience was broadened. I remember playing at a USAF base near Oxford and an African American asked if he could sing with us. He was great but asked me if I could cut out some of my fills. (I was a little slap-happy and loved running around the kit! I was pre-punk punk drummer, I reckon). Anyway, I got a groove, as they say, and the band had never sounded better.
What is special for me is, also, that Stax was multi-racial. Booker T. and the MGs had, for their most successful period, two African-Americans (Black!) and two Caucasians (White!). Until the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr, race “never entered the door”. Steve Cropper (great guitarist) has said that Stax would still be going in racial harmony if that event hadn’t happened. Stax folded in 1974 but its music, heritage and, now, museum and academy, live on. Racial segregation is not long gone and its roots still cast a very long shadow.
The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum repeated some of Stax’s history but added Sun Records and Hi Records. It traced the history of pop(ular) music back through the blues of the cotton sharecroppers (black and white) to the church choirs to jazz and to rock ‘n’ soul. As a museum, it was impressive in that the audio tour allowed dozens of songs to be chosen to listen to on the equivalent of a juke box. (A Juke, by the way, was a ‘rowdy whore house’!) We both listened intently with occasional involuntary hip wiggles.
A final note… my favourite Booker T. track is not their biggest hit, ‘Green Onions’, nor the Test Match Special theme music, ‘Soul Limbo’. My favourite for a variety of reasons is, ‘Time is tight’. The title is, I’m sure, related to the tight and crisp rhythm of the band. However, as I listened to it as we came out of the museum – and at least four other times today – I was reminded that time for us all is finite and limited. It’s a resource to be used not wasted nor stored away. Carpe diem – seize the day and… do what you can for yourself and for others… whilst you can! Time is tight, indeed.