Memphis, June 2 and 3rd
The final stop on our June road trip was in Memphis. We arrived in the evening, on June 2, just in time to meet Oscar’s friend, Carlton, and his girlfriend, Lauren, for dinner. We chose a restaurant called “Sweet Grass” (near them, which is near Overton Park) and had a nice dinner. Next door to the restaurant was a place for cats…I am going to include a couple of pictures I took because I thought it was so unique: You’ll see that in the windows of the shop are many brightly colored metal tubs, and in each one (almost all were full) was a cat sleeping. Peer in the windows and you see, literally, dozens of cats, sleeping, prowling, grooming. I think you can adopt one from here. I hate to think of what it might smell like though!
We stayed at the Marriott downtown, a felicitous choice because it put us right on the trolley line for Beale Street, which would come in handy the second night we were in town.
Our first destination on Monday morning was the Sun Studio, also known as the Memphis Recording Service and the home of the Sun Records label. Started by Sam Phillips, Sun was the first studio to record Elvis Presley. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis also recorded with Sun.
The place and the tour have a funky, fun character all ably brought to our group by our guide Curry, (Yup. Not Cory, but Curry, like the food!) With as many jokes as gallons of enthusiasm, Curry took us through the history of Sam Phillips and Sun Records. Memorabilia from all the singers and groups fill the walls upstairs, and the tour is punctuated with clips actually recorded at the studio. Most of us on the tour, being of a “certain age” were familiar with the names and sounds. Accompanying each clip, we bobbed our heads and tapped our feet. There were two younger people in our group, (son Oscar was one of them) and it was ironic that they were stone still during the playing of the music. I couldn’t determine if they were unmoved by the beat or shocked into disbelief at the spectacle of the ancients getting down.
On the first floor of the studio is the actual recording room where Phillips first tried to record Elvis and only succeeded once they left the prepared music behind and got into a little improv on Elvis’s part. It should be a lesson to all of us to be who we are and not try to conform to the expectations of others. Throughout, there are great photos on the walls and the sense of music history is embedded in the whole building.
After Sun Studio, we climbed in the car and drove out to Graceland, Elvis’s house. Apparently, for many people this is a pilgrimage. It was merely historical curiosity that sent us to see it. Based on the infrastructure they have for visitors to Graceland, I would characterize it as a bit Disneyesque. It was not all that crowded the day we were there, but you can tell they are prepared for bus loads of tourists. I was thankful we did not have any trouble getting on a tour as soon as we arrived.
The parking and purchase of tickets, the shops and concessions are all on one side of the street, and the mansion is on the other. You can purchase three different levels of tours, from the basic audio tour of the house and grounds (the one we chose) to tours that include the cars, the airplanes, and any number of special exhibits. None of them are cheap, but we chose the basic because that was what we really wanted to see, our quotient of Elvis Mania being rather low.
After an absolutely horrible lunch at the Rock and Roll Cafe on the grounds of the visitors center, we went through the bag check – security line and boarded a mini bus to be take across the street to the mansion. The tour begins as you walk through the front door.
I liked the audio tour. It was easy to hear and kept the group quiet. Though you could stop and start it to give yourself some flexibility for taking photos, it kept everyone moving through the house at a leisurely but steady pace. With the second floor off limits (I thought the reason “it was always off limits to visitors during Elvis’s life”was pretty flimsy and probably stood in for a reason like “we don’t have the funds to restore it.” This punctuated by the fact that the parents’ bedroom is on the first floor and is open for viewing. )
On the first floor you get to walk through the front hall to see the living room, the parents’ bedroom, dining room, and kitchen, before going down stairs to see the TV room and the pool room (as in pool table room). Then it is back upstairs to see the “Jungle Room” before you exit the house to see the other buildings and the grounds. I read a review of Graceland before we went and saw it described as “tacky.” My tacky radar is fairly sharp and I did not find the house tacky. If it is anything, it is a great example of the decorating trends of the 60s-70s. The living room has an impressive stained glass doorway; the TV room is done in yellow and navy blue leather like a soda shop, the pool room is completely covered in fabric, and the jungle room is the epitome of shag carpet and jungle-themed furniture that would have been The Thing in the late 60s.
In addition to giving you insight into Elvis as a person and a family member (there are also sound bites on the tour from his wife and daughter), there is an exhibit of the awards and accolades that Elvis earned during his relatively short career. The sheer number of these awards is impressive. You will also see lots of memorabilia from his movies, and as you move through the timeline of his career, perhaps you will feel, as I did, a sort of mounting desperation that culminates in the outlandish costumes he performed in just before he died at the age of 42. For me, the sense of sadness I experienced at the end of tour was occasioned by the waste of talent that Elvis’s death represented.
From Graceland we headed back into town and landed on Beale Street. Something was definitely afoot. The sidewalks were lined with people, some Seated in their lawn chairs, obviously expecting a spectacle. It turns out they were waiting for a funeral parade, for Silky Sullivan, owner of a famous Irish bar on Beale Street by the same name. We hung around and got to see a New Orleans style funeral parade lead by a rag tag group of musicians.
After a short refresher at the hotel we headed back to Beale Street at 5 to meet Lauren and Carlton for Happy Hour. This time we travelled by trolley. It was a straight shot, about six stops from our hotel to Beale Street.
Our meeting place was to have been Silky Sullivan’s but it was closed until 7 for the wake, so we found an outdoor venue and drank happy hour beer and listened to live music. It was loads of fun, and the crowd, all tourists, were happy and engaged in the performance, so there was definitely a good vibration. We were even treated to an audience member’s performance that was so good, I had to think it might have been a plant, and a performance by the lead guitarist playing with his teeth! A couple of ladies from the audience volunteered to dance like “Ikettes” for the female singer’s rendition of “Rolling on the River” but they were awful at following instructions and so put on a funny show with their improvised dance routine.
We did make it to Silky Sullivan’s for another couple of rounds of beer once the wake was over, and following that we walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant called “Local” for dinner. Gerry and I were both beguiled by the name into ordering Moroccan Style Lamb Ribs only to be extremely disappointed by this cooked to desiccation rendition of meat, that was only edible because we were hungry. Honestly, it was so bad I wiped it from my mind and later when I tried to remember what I had eaten, I had to wrack my brain.
After dinner, Oscar and Carlton went out alone to talk, Lauren headed home, and Gerry and I went back to the hotel.
Tuesday morning we were up early, and on our way to Wisconsin having decided to finish the rest of the drive in one day. We changed drivers frequently and listened to the end of “After Earth” and the beginning of “The Golden Compass” on audiobooks, so the drive passed pleasantly and quickly, and we were home at the farm by 7:30 pm.