We arrived in Memphis after dark and checked into what, on Google Street View during the day, looked like a decent hotel in a decent neighborhood. It was, after all, just down the street from Graceland, and certainly The King would have picked a nice part of town in which to live, right?
Our first clue was at the hotel lobby. The desk was behind glass and a pulled-down metal shade, and we had to pick up a phone to call the night clerk to check us in. We thought maybe it was a matter of after-hours arrival (although it was only 7:30 p.m.), but as I slid my credit card and driver’s license under the glass, I asked the guy through the slotted talk screen about the neighborhood and he grunted noncommittally. The elevator, next to which was posted a sign about not leaving trash in the hallways and no smoking allowed, opened to a faint cloud of cigarette smoke. TVs blared and people argued behind the other doors on our floor, and the hallway smelled of fried onions and stale ham.
My mom, my brother Matt and nephew Tyler were driving down to meet us, and since they had booked a room at the same hotel at my recommendation, I thought I’d better send them a warning text about the sketchiness of the place. I justified it by the cheap room rate and proximity to Graceland, where we would be spending most of our time in Memphis. When they arrived we met in their room to plan our weekend. When Matt turned on the heater it filled the room with a pungent burning odor and set off the smoke alarm. “It smells like mouse do,” Mom said. Our only choice was to laugh. As Matt says, the one thing in your life you can control is your attitude.
And it doesn’t take much to have a good attitude when you’re talking music history. Memphis is a pilgrimage site for lovers of blues, rockabilly and soul music, and Graceland is the natural first stop. Armed with an iPad audio tour narrated by John Stamos, we set off to explore the mansion. The home is surprisingly modest by today’s standards, where many middle-class houses are over-sized and upscale.
The mansion décor seems tawdry and low-end but in its day it was the height of ‘70s fashion, with my favorite stop in the house being the Jungle Room. The trophy room contains a stupefying number of gold records and awards from around the world, although unbelievably Elvis won only three Grammys — all for his gospel work and none for his contributions to rock and roll. Between the displays themselves and the multimedia extras, you really need several hours to soak up all the Elvisness.
Our VIP tour also included the affiliated museums across the street. We made time to see the automobile museum and two other museums chock-full of Elvis memorabilia, more gold records and jumpsuits, and assorted outfits and accessories. We also went in his two airplanes, and after walking through the enormous Lisa Marie Convair 880, the smaller Lockheed JetStar didn’t seem as fit for a king. The overall impression you get when touring Graceland, which attracts visitors of all ages from all over the world, is that Elvis’ draw and legacy will live on forever. He lived large but not nearly long enough.
With the afternoon progressing we had to pull ourselves away to squeeze in a visit to another stop on the music pilgrimage route — Sun Studio. This little recording studio is arguably the birthplace of rock and roll, the spot where American musical history was made. We took the guided tour here and learned that producer and Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips was initially unimpressed by Elvis. Instead it was Phillips’ assistant, Marion Keisker, who first recorded Elvis and pushed to get his talent recognized. Numerous Memphis-based blues artists owe their early careers to Sun Studio, but even non-blues fans can appreciate Sun as the place where the famed “Million Dollar Quartet” event happened on Dec. 4, 1956. On that day Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash all stopped in and Phillips recorded the jam session. The sense of history and importance of place were palpable. How lucky we all are that so many musical artifacts have survived, and how joy-inspiring it is to me that so many people care to see theses relics.
We stopped in with the throngs downtown just in time for the famous afternoon duck parade at the Peabody Hotel, but it was so crowded that I could only catch the faintest glimpse of a duck tail or two as they waddled out of the fountain onto the red carpet. From there we dashed down the block for another Memphis must-do, dinner at Rendevouz for Memphis-style (dry-rub) barbecue.
We ended the evening with a stroll along Beale Street, where live blues floated out from bar after bar lining the street. Despite the fact that it was a Saturday night, the crowd here was smaller and more subdued than that in Austin the Saturday before. The crowd here was also older, and Memphis in general lacked the cosmopolitan, hipster panache we found in Austin. It’s hard to say how much of the crowd difference was due to a different tourist demographic, different city personalities, or the fact that we didn’t stay out very late (we’d been on our feet all day and on music history information overload).
The next day we checked out and drove back downtown to the Arcade diner (one of Elvis’ favorite hangouts) to sample the famous sweet potato pancakes. The service was slow but the pancakes were worth the wait — some of the best I’ve ever had. Mom, Matt and Tyler departed for the return drive to St. Louis, and Hector and I took a walk up Main Street. We were surprised to find the place nearly abandoned on a Sunday morning. While this may be an unfair characterization based on a very short amount of time spent there (we should have spent at least another day to tour the Rock and Soul Museum and the Civil Rights Museum), Memphis left us with a sense of looking to the past rather than to the future. But for history buffs and music lovers, that’s all right, mama.