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Memphis: Delightful Dilemmas & Beautiful Battles

No exaggeration: Memphis is magical.

There’s much to appreciate about blues music and anyone who is right here, right now reading this likely knows what I mean. There’s simply the sound of it that reaches your ears and settles in your heart, the top-notch musicianship, the mutual appreciation between performers and audiences, the easy camaraderie among fans, and the history of the genre itself, to articulate some of the appeal. Whether it’s one, all, or some combination of those things, I have just learned Memphis will give it to you on a silver—or blue, as it were—platter.

Beale Street was a place of beautiful battles and one delightful dilemma after another. The minute my feet hit the top of the block I was simultaneously summoned by the sounds of the house band’s horns and harmony at BB King’s Blues Club to the right and by the venerable Earl “The Pearl” Banks, a true Memphis treasure, at Blues City Café to the left. A little further down, I stopped to listen to a band of veteran musicians set up between buildings paying a bluesy tribute to some Motown, but then I heard the siren song of a guitar solo across the street at Jerry Lawler’s and had to go take a listen. By that time, I was only halfway down the block so I forced myself to leave, my walk a weave from one side of Beale to the other, in and out of clubs that ALL had fantastic performers on stage, and ended up at Rum Boogie Café where Vince Johnson was clowning a little with and playing some spectacular harmonica for audience of blues fans who were all in it together. It was one of the best places I’ve ever been!

Speaking of the best places I’ve ever been, the next day brought a short drive to the Stax Museum, where I got a little soul for my soul. A very short footbridge covers the distance between blues and soul, although soul was more mainstream from its start, which happened to be right there at the Stax studio. It was an honor and a privilege to walk the same halls and stand in the same recording studio as Albert King, Little Milton, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding (my personal Stax favorites) while hearing their music and getting a good close look at things they wore, instruments they played, awards they won, and records they made. I’ve been listening to two of those records in particular, 45s of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” for my entire life; Soul Man belonged to my older brother and Dock of the Bay belonged to my older cousin and some of the earliest memories I have are of sitting on the floor in my brother’s room spinning them on the small portable record player that I was relegated to (my brother’s “big” stereo was off-limits to a sister 14 years his junior). I may have lost my brother and my cousin but I never lost those 45s, complete with their names written on the labels in their respective adolescent scrawls; I listen to them regularly for both the music and the memories. I hated to leave Stax, and I’ll go back again, but there was much more of Memphis to see.

Certainly, Graceland is part of that much more of Memphis to see to we took a ride down Elvis Presley Boulevard to take a look. Whether you’re an Elvis fan or otherwise, Graceland is an iconic place that few people have never heard of or seen on a screen so while I decided not to invest the time necessary to take a tour, I walked along the stone wall and looked up through the gates that are adorned with his outlined image and a smattering of musical notes in the iron, along the winding driveway and through the big trees to that famous façade of gray stone, the green shutters, and the white pillars marking the front entry of one of only two houses that Big E has ever owned and the one at which he spent most of his precious little time off of the road. For a moment I tried to ignore the shuttles bringing people in and out for tours, the clusters of tourists here and there on the property and across the street stepping up onto his private planes and looking at his cars, and tried to imagine the tranquility of his home, his sanctuary, where he could be a person and not a performer. I’ll invest the time for a tour on my next visit; this time, I was in a hurry to see a little more of Memphis on this trip.

I did invest time in the second studio visit of the day: The legendary Sun Studio on Union Ave., small but standing tall and shining bright. The Stax museum was modernized, its artifacts, information, and displays were contemporarily curated, but Sun Studios was the opposite in that outside of the collection of artifacts, a goodly portion of the place is exactly as it was in the past. In particular, the recording studio itself has remained unchanged since the 1950s; there is still tape on the old linoleum tile floor that Sam Phillips put down to mark the spots where the recording musicians, including Elvis Presley, were to stand during sessions. The docent told us the story of Elvis making his first recording there and also the story of when Elvis returned to visit Sun Studio after he had signed with RCA and Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins showed up to visit him, thus comprising the Million Dollar Quartet. It was surreal, for certain, to be in the studio where they all got their start, where rock n roll was borne of blues, country, and rockabilly, and it looks exactly the way it did when all that happened. The docent also shared some details about Sam Phillips’ vision, luck (both good and bad), and happenstance that gave us some of the most memorable music of more than one generation. Just like at Stax, it felt like an honor and a privilege to occupy the same space that the makers of the music that I’ve forever loved once did. I’m looking forward to my second visit there on my next trip to Memphis.

That day drew to a close with dinner slightly off of the beaten path at a place called Arnold’s which, according to word on the street and people who like it, has some of the best BBQ ever, anywhere. That’s not my thing, but I can tell you for certain that the mac and cheese was out of this world! Their peach cobbler was wonderful, too, and closely rivaled by Blues City Café’s pecan pie, which I indulged in later that evening when I found myself back on Beale for another round of delightful dilemmas and beautiful battles. The next day, Memphis gave way to Mississippi as I found my feet standing on the crossroads in Clarksdale…and Cleveland…and Rosedale. Which ones do you think Robert Johnson meant? I now have a definite opinion, but that will be a blog for another day…

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