No joke, the second I pulled into Memphis the smell of barbecue wafted into the car as if there was a rib room on every corner. Like Toucan Sam (remember him?), I wanted to follow my nose and find the restaurants that orchestrated this Southern welcome, but I suppressed my appetite because my ears were priority No. 1. I’d come in search of soul to a place that changed the future of the United States – even the world – with a tenacious tune.
Memphis makes you feel. It’s impossible to walk down the historic streets, chit-chat with locals (like the band giving a surprise street-side concert outside my hotel), or visit its famed music venues without sensing something. This is the result of a city that has come through so much, broken so many barriers, and lives to tell the tale.
Before the 1950s, segregation weaved its way into every walk of life from race to music. There was black, there was white, there was jazz, there was blues, there was gospel, there was country. By 1955, segregation gave way to surrender and musical genres crossed over. Rock and roll resulted. Memphis kept the rhythm of this historical tune.
Elvis, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and an orchestra of musicians-slash-history-makers got their start in Memphis. In an effort to get up close and personal with these soul survivors, I visited Sun Studio, a small recording venue famous for big impact. Sun Studio’s owner, Sam C. Phillips, was self-taught and didn’t know the rules that regulated the music business. His dismissal of convention is responsible for giving many local area artists – irrespective of color – their genre-blending start in his still-intact brick building on the outskirts of town.
Elvis’ game-changing fame was way before my time. I don’t have any mp3s or CDs of his music in my collection, yet somehow, I can sing many of his songs by heart. He’s an icon in a category of his own, so I drove 10 minutes outside of downtown to visit Graceland, his former home-now-museum. Standing in line to get my ticket I was behind a sixty-something man in khakis and a sweater vest who broke out in spontaneous dance when he got his ticket. The smile on his face stretched from ear to ear; he clearly was visiting his man-crush who sang the soundtrack of his youth.
Viewfinder Tip: You can’t visit Memphis without eating at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. One order is big enough for two.
Earphones straddling my head and an audio pack strung around my neck, I beelined past the photo-op wall for the King’s white colonial home, which he purchased in 1957 for $100,000 when we was 22. (Normally a massive tour attraction powered by audio sets would send me running for the hills, but Elvis’ pad housed a je ne sais quois that kept me enthralled.)
Traipsing around his shag-carpeted jungle room (which used to have a cascading water feature), his three-television rumpus room, and his everyday kitchen, Lisa Marie’s voice recounted memories like the flurry of activity that filled the three-level family home. “Dad was always ‘on’ when he came downstairs,” she mused, whereas upstairs was his private retreat. Not surprisingly, the tour sticks to the basement and the main floor. Beyond his residence, you can self-tour some of Elvis’ memorabilia, including the “Lisa Marie,” a Convair 880 jet that has a golden bathroom, an eight-seat boardroom, and a big blue bed.
Back in town, I toured the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, and Beale Street, a nearby block that might as well be a museum of its own. Between electric signs and gift shops, a bevy of bars like the original B.B. King’s Blues Club and Rum Boogie belt out a tune, as well as a familiar scent. Barbecue’s on the menu. This time, I’ll follow my nose.
Which destinations have spoken to your soul?