As we travelled west on Interstate 40 from Nashville the landscape became flatter as we moved into the area of Tennessee given over to agriculture; a complete contrast to the eastern mountains. Tennessee is divided into three distinct regions – East, Middle and West and each has its own distinctive landscape. This division, depicted by the three stars to be found on the flags, buildings and sidewalks of Nashville is a throwback to when the state was founded and divided off from North Carolina. The approach to Memphis had none of the drama of the Nashville skyline. The noticeable thing about Memphis is just how low-rise it is in comparison to many major US cities we’ve seen. It has a retro feel to it and on the approach from the I-40 it looked a little neglected with grass verges uncut, houses unpainted and roads unmaintained.
We’re staying in another converted garage; this time it looks like a large summer house and sits at the back of a large garden in a typical timber house about three miles from Downtown Memphis.
Even here the sidewalks are cracked, sunken and sometimes broken, with grass and weeds poking through. We noticed that this changes from house to house and it seems that each house is responsible for the section of street in front of it, although we don’t know that for sure. Grass verges along the streets are cut up to the line of the next house resulting in a patchwork appearance.
Beale Street is the place to be in Memphis and is the street sung about in Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking in Memphis’. When we arrived the street was cordoned off as there was a vintage car rally going on.
We wanted to hear the best music in town and so went to BB King’s Blues Club. Luckily, we got a table straight away; one of the last tables available and the cover charge was only $3 each. The club is on two floors and was soon packed to the rafters with cheering, clapping and dancing people, listening to the group on stage playing some great stuff. We ordered ribs (what else?) that came in three sizes: regular (sheet of about six ribs), large (two sheets stacked one on top of the other) or gigantic (they just led the animal in on a lead!). They were fall off the bone amazing and certainly lived up to their billing, just like the band. Unfortunately, the band was coming to the end of its gig and was replaced with another band playing Soul, which is not really my cup of tea but Rachel loved it. I made the mistake of visiting the washroom without any Dollars as there was a young man there insistent on helping me wash my hands. He stood next to me all the time, just watching! I went to a wash basin but he had already helpfully turned on the taps of another, so I felt obliged to switch. He sprayed soap into my hands and with the flourish of a magician produced a paper towel from thin air and gracefully floated it down onto my shoulder, where it stayed ready for use. I was embarrassed to reveal I had no money with me but promised I would return later to provide his expected tip.
“S’all cool man,” he said, “s’all cool.”
I took that to mean I could leave and he wouldn’t hurt me, so I dashed for the exit! When I told Rachel she decided to postpone going to the loo until the last possible minute to avoid running the gauntlet of the womens’ washroom helper.
By the time we left it was dark but Beale Street was just getting going, with music tumbling out of every bar and club along the street.
Next day we had a slow start and visited a café at the end of our street for breakfast. Inside was a labyrinth of rooms filled with old, second hand retro furniture making the place look and feel like the Prime Time Diner in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, for those who have been and know what I mean. People were dotted about the place with books and laptops and seemed to be studying. Some were listening to music. Some older folk were having business meetings. All appeared to be chilled in a very American sort of way. It was all very shabby chic and none of the furniture matched. You even had to clear away your own table when you were finished giving it a school canteen feel. The breakfast of waffles, bagels, salmon, cream cheese and capers was excellent.
We took the car into town and the place was eerily quiet. It was only after an hour, when we were reduced to a dripping mess from the 105 degree heat that we realised that only crazy Brits would be out in this sort of temperature. Seeing the Mississippi River for the first time made the slog worthwhile.
We managed to drag ourselves to our next destination – a bus tour around the city.
We got on the bus and settled down and were soon greeted by a woman called Nancy, who I was convinced had escaped from the local asylum, who started handing out instruments – tambourines and shakers – and suddenly we were back in kindergarten. Nancy began hammering out chords on her guitar and we were encouraged to play and sing along.
We were just beginning to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into when Nancy stopped playing and began a talk that turned out to be fun and interesting and interrupted only for further singing of songs relevant to the stories she was telling. Here are a few of the things we learned.
The famous Peabody Hotel keeps ducks on the top floor and every day they are led down the elevator and into the hotel lobby where they march towards a fountain along a red carpet and jump in while onlookers simply watch. The ducks are VIP guests and this ritual has gone on for many years. Next door to the hotel is Lansky’s – the ‘Clothier to the King’. The story goes that a very young Elvis Presley used to window shop there every day. He had no money because he was just starting out, trying to get his first gigs in the city. Mr Lansky took pity on Elvis and invited him in to look around at the clothes he could never hope to afford. Lansky liked Elvis and decided to give him a line of credit to allow him to buy clothes in which to perform. Well, the rest is history and Elvis, when he became famous, remained a loyal friend to Mr Lansky for the rest of his career. We saw the small apartment where Elvis used to live and it turns out that the young future king of rock and roll lived in that apartment just a stone’s throw away from the young future king of Blues – BB King. Memphis is certainly blessed! One of the first places Elvis performed here was the Levitt Shell – a small stage in a park.
He was such an unknown that they called him Ellis Presley on all the promotional material for the gig. He played That’s Alright Mama and the girls loved him but were unsure of his music, which was different to what they were used to. So, to win them over he played Blue Moon and it sent them all wild. He was asked to play more so he repeated both songs, as they were the only songs he had prepared. These Memphians remembered his name after that.
In the evening we decided to take another Uber ride into town and Winfred arrived as promised within about 3 minutes. By the way, we’ve just heard on the news that there are major demonstrations at the moment by London taxi drivers about the impact Uber is having there. Trouble is brewing for Uber. Anyway, we chatted away to Winfred, who was a middle aged local black man driving a very big and plush car and I mentioned how quiet Beale Street was. That was a mistake.
“Yo think it’s quiet on Beale?” he started.
“Am not gonna sugar coat it for ya, no way,” he said, “yo gotta watch yo ass on Beale, know what am sayin’? Yo gotta watch yo ass.”
“Yo see these here Projects?” His thumb was directing our attention to the slum area to our left, which we hadn’t really noticed before. Young black youths were sat in doorways or hanging about in the streets. Windows were boarded up and gardens were basically wastelands.
“Dat’s the problem, know what am sayin’?” Winfred was just getting going and launched into a diatribe about the ills of the local ‘Projects’. Our eyes were now open and we could really see the neighbourhood we were driving through. We hadn’t been this way before.
“If yo got gas, yo keep drivin’ in these here parts. Yo don’t stop, unless you want yo wheels gone. Yo know what am sayin’?” We were beginning to understand and felt ourselves sinking deeper into Winfred’s leather seats below window level.
“Yo think it quiet on Beale? Yo watch yo ass. Other day, a guy mindin’ his own business on Beale, jus’ walkin’ and some other guy jus’ looked at his woman and that was it; words were said and the other guy pulled out a gun and shot him dead, right der in da street, know what ah mean?”
“Yo think dem barriers are for da traffic? Hell no, they for keepin’ da peace, know what am sayin’? Yo gotta watch yo ass on Beale.”
We were getting the picture and I was sorry I had even brought up the subject of Beale Street, which is where we were heading. After another five minutes and a couple more horror stories about Beale, guns and asses we pulled up outside BB King’s on Beale and this particular ass no longer wanted to get out of the car and wanted its mum! We thanked Winfred and ran for cover, which happened to be the Blues City Café and there we stayed all evening listening to a Rockabilly band. Beale was now buzzin’ (if ya know what ah mean) and to avoid the carnage prophesied by Winfred we called Uber and stepped carefully out onto the street. Within 30 seconds (no kidding) we received a message that our saviour, Moses was arriving and it gave us his number plate so we could spot him. We looked up and there was Moses, driving his pickup truck, miraculously parting a sea of people as he came. From putting in the call to sitting in the back of the truck only one minute had passed – now that’s a taxi service!
The next day we visited Graceland; the former home of Elvis. It turned out to be the highlight of our Memphis experience. Although it was pretty tacky in places the tour through the Elvis mansion was extremely good. What strikes you the most is how ordinary (by modern day standards) the house appears to be. Elvis bought the house for $100,000 and it’s not unlike what you would expect your average successful businessman to own now. Elvis owned many television sets, which in those days was impressive. He had a snooker room, racket ball court and stables with horses. A small crew looked after his business affairs from an office building next to the stables. Elvis seemed to live a relatively ordinary family existence when at home in his mansion in contrast to his megastar life on the road. The tour ends with a walk past his grave, where he rests with his parents and grandmother and a memorial to his twin brother who died at birth. This part of the tour was very respectful and it was very moving. We left Graceland in a reflective mood. Here are a few photos of the tour.
In the afternoon we took a paddle boat tour on the Mississippi River. It was a nice relaxing end to a hectic afternoon.
Our last night in Memphis was again spent on Beale Street in the Jerry Lee Lewis club. The band was on fire – literally! Within minutes of coming on stage the band leader set about squirting lighter fuel all over his piano and set it alight with his cigarette lighter. Next, the drum kit – he set the cymbals alight in the same way. The drummer, hitting the cymbals, sent flames shooting toward the ceiling. The room was filled with smoke and the cheering of the crowd. We had never seen anything quite like this. But it was a lot of fun and the music was great too.
Our memories of Memphis will be Graceland and the cool bars and great music.
Next, New Orleans…