JOHNNY ROBINSON: No Blues For Memphis

Beale Street occasionally naps but never really sleeps.

“That’s the largest free-standing elevator in the world,” a local proudly points out. “Higher than the Statue of Liberty.”

Perhaps it’s easy to amaze me, but this is no exception. Marybeth and I are inside the glass and steel skeleton of a 32-story pyramid. We’re surrounded by – surprise – bass boats and hunting gear. Yeah, it sounds like just another weird dream of mine, but no, the riverside pyramid, formerly a sports arena, is for now the home to a Bass Pro Shops superstore.

Hmm, why not? The elevator in the center of the space goes to the lookout decks -and fancy restaurant- up top. Why a pyramid? ‘Cause we’re in Memphis, Tennessee, on the banks of the Mississippi River, and the soaring edifice is a nod to the city’s namesake, the ancient capital of Egypt, which rose from the flanks of another world-class river, the Nile.

Memphis occupies the highest of the Chickasaw Bluffs on the lower thousand-mile course of ‘The Big Muddy,’ and that distinction apparently was enough of a reason for a bunch of river rats to establish a trading post on the site in 1819 or so. There was then no stopping the growth of Memphis, and today the city is home to over 650,000, making it the largest city by far on the mighty Mississippi. And I bet you thought it was St. Louis.

“Whoa, that sounds delicious. I’ll have the same!” I exclaim to our abundantly-pierced and footloose waitress. We’re at Albert’s, in the heart of Beale Street, and the plate of barbecue and fixin’s that Marybeth has just ordered has my name on it too. Reminiscent of The Big Easy’s Bourbon Street, Beale may nap but it never sleeps. It’s jumpin’ on the weeknight we visit, music blaring from every battered swinging door. And I know it doesn’t really get groovin’ until way after my bedtime.

Yes, Memphis breathes music, mostly of the salt-of-the-earth, nitty gritty variety. Whether blues, soul, rock, the city’s music scene is one to be soul-felt, not just heard.

The home of soul music is the original Stax Records studio, where the likes of Isaac Hayes, Ike and Tina Turner, and Booker T. and the MG’s got their start. They tell us that compared to the polished acts of Motown in Detroit of the same era, the Memphis sound is soul “in the raw.” The museum part of the place is rich in everything soul; We cannot take it all in. But we love learning more about ‘60s-era soul legends, including Rufus Thomas who, besides wearing some of the more outlandish costumes of the time, originated some wild dances like the “Funky Chicken.”

Walking from Beale Street through some neglected and decidedly earthy blocks, (this is home to the blues, remember), takes us to another music epicenter, Sun Studios. Yes, this is where Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis got their starts, but arguably more important is that it’s from where powerful bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King blasted into their influential musical orbits. We’re fascinated with it all, including getting a good feel for Jackie Brenton’s Rocket 88, widely regarded as the first true rock ‘n roll recording.

The docking and undocking of a Mississippi River boat is an interesting test / dance of watermen skills.

Memphis’ Mud Island is a several-mile-long island in the Mississippi River. The island was strangely formed by gestures and upheavals of the great river in the early years of the twentieth century. It’s home to some lucky Memphis residents, but it’s also the location of the Mississippi River Museum.

This place is full of elaborate exhibits including a full scale mock-up of the bow half of a vintage stern wheeler. It definitely gives us a clear window into the culture, history and soul of the big river and its denizens. “I feel the urge to board a riverboat headed to New Orleans!” I announce to a nonplussed Marybeth.

I’ve been museum gazing too long…She ushers me out into Mud Island Park, under a brilliant blue sky, where we navigate  – on foot – a stone and concrete, small-scale version of 1000+ miles of the Mississippi. Intricately detailed and complete with a stream of water lazily running through it, the model river stretches for a quarter of a mile.

A little later we pause on the pedestrian bridge linking Mud Island to the city to eat sandwiches I had stuffed in my jacket pocket and to feel the fall breeze in our hair. As a bonus we get to watch the berthing of a tourist riverboat

“Oh yeah, we have to check out The Peabody!” Marybeth reminds me as we tromp through our extended Memphis walking tour of discovery. The Peabody is the city’s grand old hotel, and among other things it’s known for its resident ducks which spend their leisurely days bobbing about in the fountain of the lavish lobby.

We say howdy to the mallards, but we don’t  linger long enough to watch the ducks be ushered back to their quarters -a rooftop penthouse!- at the end of the day. Ducks or no ducks, The Peabody’s a beautiful hotel and we enjoy this taste of class and finery. “We’ll stay here next time, right?” Marybeth asks. “Right!” Before we hit the streets again we check out the $280 Elvis shirts for sale in the Lanskey’s Clothing store in the hotel. Yep, Elvis was outfitted at Lanskey’s. Remember those wild jumpsuits?

By the way, what about Graceland? Yes, of course you must see Memphis’ hallowed ground of Elvis before you die. It’s outlandish, delightful, practically sacred ground. We saw it some years ago, and ok, once may be sufficient.

Our last stop on our independent self-guided get-to-know-Memphis-better tour is the Civil Rights Museum. Built in and around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, the museum is fascinating, highly informative, and most of all profoundly moving.

Our time in ‘Bluff City’ is up. Time to move on from this unique American – and ‘only in  America’- town. With a mixture of sober contemplation over Martin Luther King Jr.’s steadfast legacy, and the joyful boppin’ of Carl Perkin’s Blue Suede Shoes in our hearts and minds we put Memphis – and the sinking sun- in our rear view mirrors and roll east.

Johnny Robinson