In Search of Memphis Magic

Story and photos by Dorothea S. Michelman

From the blues to rock ‘n’ roll and soul, all roads lead to Memphis, Tennessee, where American popular music still sets the tune. Whether it’s country your ears cotton to or if you’re more attuned to gospel or rhythm and blues, it’s all here: a mecca of cultures and musical traditions meeting and merging into new sounds and new traditions. Black and white, rural and urban, rich and poor together added new threads to the musical tapestry of Memphis music, creating a brand new sound.

In search of that sound, I first headed for the new Gibson Guitar Factory, whose second floor now houses the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and a unique partnership between Memphis and Washington. In a (literally) unusual move, the National Museum of American History has recaptured this fascinating musical heritage for today’s visitor in its long-term exhibition Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads. Now under the auspices of the Memphis city government, this is a Smithsonian first: an exhibition whose home will be in the community which inspired it, an opportunity to share more of the Museum’s collections with those living beyond Washington, D.C. The show’s mission is to preserve the legacy of music in Memphis and the surrounding Mississippi Delta while examining the social and cultural changes which made it possible. And a dazzling legacy it is: as Pete Daniel, one of the curators, observes, “Memphis was the crossroads where blues, country and gospel from the rural South converged with the urban musical styles and were reborn, first as rock ‘n’ roll and later as soul.” Enhanced by a panoply of musical memorabilia ranging from photographs to handwritten lyrics and Minnie Pearl’s costume and hat, “Rock ‘n’ Soul” explores the development of rock ‘n’ roll music and rhythm and blues in Memphis from 1930-1975, a sound which would embrace the world. Throughout the galleries, jukeboxes sing out the field hollers, blues, country and gospel shared by white and black sharecroppers during the 1930s and ’40s, a tangible sign of the power of music to bring together where society would – and could – divide. By the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, black and white musicians and their audiences were mingling at nightclubs, and a few white-owned radio stations were employing black disc jockeys, including rhythm and blues singer Rufus Thomas and a young ex-tractor driver named B.B. King, whose famous guitar “Lucille” is on display adjacent to the Gibson Guitar Factory. Here, docents offer a 25-minute tour through the 16 workstations involved in crafting an electric guitar from start to finish: a painstaking process taking about 2 weeks and resulting in prices ranging from $1200 to $4500.

From the Gibson Guitar Factory, historic Beale Street is just a few steps away. Today a three-block entertainment district featuring 30 nightclubs, restaurants and shops, Beale Street once exemplified American independence during an era of racial discrimination, a street of black lawyers and doctors as well as the blues musicians for which it became renowned, thanks in great measure to composer and musician W. C. Handy, who arrived in Memphis in 1908 and who was instrumental in popularizing the blues, a priceless gift to Memphis and the world.

And what would the magic of Memphis music be without Memphis recording studios? The 51-year-old Sun Studio, for instance, where in 1953 a delivery truck driver named Elvis Presley strolled in … . Fifty years later, he may no longer be with us, but the impact he made most certainly is, as evidenced by the lines of tourists at Graceland, the imposing home he purchased in 1957 for $100,000. (Memphians apparently don’t go – or won’t admit to it – but hundreds of thousands of tourists do.) Sun also helped launch a multitude of other now-famous names, including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Of equal renown was Stax Records, which during a relatively brief existence (1960-1975) played a critical role in defining the soul music era and gave a name – the “Memphis sound” – to the innovative, gritty music released on the Stax label. Today, the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music honors the studio for these achievements and more – Stax was an integrated business from its management down to its bands in a period when such a concept was nearly unheard of, and deeply involved in the life of the community. This, too, is part of its lasting contribution.

Along with her bountiful treats for the ears, Memphis offers a feast for your other senses as well, whether you seek delights for the eye or delights for the palate. Consider Dixon Gallery and Gardens, once the private 17-acre estate of cotton baron Hugo Dixon and his wife Margaret. This magnificent mansion is home to an exquisite collection of French and American Impressionists and Post-Impressionist art, centered on masterworks by Monet, CĂ©zanne, Renoir, Gauguin, and Degas. At the entrance, the visitor is welcomed by the imposing portrait of “Mrs. Crofts” (1775) by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Other remarkable works include Monet’s “Village Street,” (1870), Boudin’s “Venice” (1895), and Morisot’s “Peasant Girl Among Tulips” (1890).

Or perhaps the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, showcasing works from antiquity to the present, including the renowned Kress Collection of Renaissance and Baroque art. Among its treasures are Van Dyck’s 1638 “Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria” and Hopper’s “Cape Cod” (1938).

For contrast, our final stop was to the Peabody Place Museum, which encompasses one of this country’s largest collection of 19th-century jade sculptures, as well as intricate ivory carving and cloisonnĂ©, not to forget two particularly striking foo dogs who in ages past stood watch over the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Following our exhilarating trek through the Memphis musical landscape, quietude and reflection in the company of some of the world’s masters in painting was the perfect conclusion to our journey. Indeed, from food for the soul to soul food, there’s magic in Memphis.

WHEN YOU GO:

For further information please contact:
The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, 47 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-543-5300; www.memphistravel.com

LODGINGS

Madison Hotel, 79 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 866-44-MEMPHIS (toll-free reservations); Tel. 901-333-1200 (direct); www.madisonhotelmemphis.com

The Peabody Hotel – Memphis, 149 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 1-800-PEABODY (toll-free reservations); 901-529-4006 (direct) www.peabodymemphis.com

Wyndham Garden Hotel, 300 N. Second Street, Memphis, TN 38105; tel. 1-800-WYNDHAM (toll-free reservations); 901-525-1800 (direct).

Sleep Inn at Court Square, 40 Front Street, Memphis, TN 38293; Tel. 1-800-4 CHOICE (toll-free reservations); 901-522-9700 (direct).

RESTAURANTS

Grill 83 at Madison Hotel, 83 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-333-1224 (direct); www.madisonhotelmemphis.com
Elvis Presley’s Memphis, 126 Beale Street, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-527-6900 (direct) ; www.epmemphis.com

Brushmark Restaurant at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art,
Overton Park, 1934 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, TN 38104; Tel. 901-544-6225 (direct); www.brooksmuseum.org

Neely’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant (downtown location), 670 Jefferson Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 1-888-780-7427 (toll-free); www.memphisbarbecue.com

Texas de Brazil, 150 Peabody Place, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-526-7600 www.texasdebrazil.com

Huey’s Downtown, 77 S. Second Street, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-527-2700 (direct) www.hueys.cc

SIGHTSEEING

Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, TN 38116;
Tel. toll-free: 1-800-238-2000; 901-3322 (direct); www.elvispresley.com

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, TN 38104-2765; Tel. 901-544-6200; www.brooksmuseum.org;

Sun Studio, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. toll-free: 1-800-441-6249; www.sunstudio.com

The Dixon Gallery & Gardens, 4339 Park Avenue, Memphis, TN 38117; Tel. 901-761-5250; www.dixon.org

Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 870 E. McLemore Avenue, Memphis, TN 38106; Tel. 901-946-2535; www.soulsvilleusa.com

Peabody Place Museum, 119 S. Main Street, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-523-ARTS; www.belz.com/peabodyplace

Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Gibson Guitar Memphis;
145 Lt. George W. Lee Avenue, Memphis TN 38103;
Tel. 901-543-0800 (Museum); www.memphisrocknsoul.org. ;

Gibson Guitar Memphis;
Tel. toll-free: 1-800-4-GIBSON; www.gibsonmemphis.com

Beale Entertainment District, 203 Beale Street , Suite 300, Memphis, TN 38103; Tel. 901-526-0110; www.bealestreet.com

Dorothea S. Michelman, Tel./Fax: 703-941-3780; E-mail: dmichelman@starpower.net

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