Slice of Memphis: Hip-shaking, lip-smacking Tennessee fun
Rob Hastings soaks up blues, rock'n'roll and a troubled history on the banks of the Mississippi
Saturday 08 February 2014
Standing downstream from the wide arches of the Hernando DeSoto bridge in Confederate Park, antebellum cannons look out over the vast brown Mississippi, across to Arkansas. These guns stare at a river which, 151 years ago, saw iron-clad Union warships steam down from the North to fight the breakaway southern slave nation in the US Civil War. Their presence also hints at the political history that – together with the blues music roaring out from bourbon-soaked bars – ensures Memphis is still a fascinating visit for any traveller in the American south.
Confederate Park is one of three green spaces the city has renamed recently – as the less politically-charged Memphis Park – in a controversial move to erase references to the region's history of racial discrimination and, some say, to rewrite history. Another, Forrest Park, was named after a Dixie cavalryman who went on to become the Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. It has been temporarily renamed the Health Sciences Park.
Other elements of the city's history endure, however, in its lively blues bars and engaging museums. Leave the park and walk down Riverside Drive, turning left on to Union Avenue. Then go right on to South Main Street to reach a complex of buildings that forms the National Civil Rights Museum (001 901 521 9699; civilrightsmuseum.org). The extensive renovation is due to be completed in April, but it remains open.
Step around to the entrance and you'll see why it's located here. It was from a window of a boarding house on this road, still slightly open now just as it was back in 1968, that James Earl Ray fired the shot which killed Martin Luther King Jnr as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
The museum is worth a visit for its analysis of that sad event, even if it spends considerable time and space dismissing far-fetched conspiracy theories. While you can see the balcony without paying the entry price, a ticket will allow you to walk up to pause and reflect on the spot where the Nobel Peace Prize winner died.
From the museum, follow South 2nd Street to Huey's (001 901 527 2700; hueyburger.com), where a Smokey Melt Burger ($6.25/£3.85), with a game of baseball, make for a tasty all-American break.
From here, it's a couple of blocks down to Beale Street, the neon-lit road revered as the cradle of blues music. Travelling musicians would play here as long ago as the 1860s, with its heyday in the 1920s. The popular BB King's Blues Club is open all day (001 901 524 5464; bbkingclubs.com) for the Beale Street Blues Boy's "favorite dishes" (fork-tender brisket with mashed potatoes and crispy onions is $15/£9.30; a bowl of beer chilli $7/£4.70) and live music from the BB King All Stars. A little further on, flick through the racks of the Memphis Music record store (001 901 526 5047) to see what local acts have to offer.
Though fun during the day, Beale Street is best appreciated at night, when raucous guitars, trumpets and pianos blare out of almost every doorway. While you're passing through, look out for Mr Handy's Blues Hall (001 901 528 0150; free) for a return visit later, opening at 5pm. The small, dark bar is one of the more authentic joints on Beale. Bands rock out and blues singers show off their vocal cords at full volume, spilling off stage to collect well-deserved tips mid-song.
Further down is Silky O'Sullivans (001 901 522 9596; silkyosullivans.com; free), where a pair of pianists will often face off with requests from the crowds dancing in front of the bar.
Carry on right to the end of Beale and you'll arrive at Sun Studio (001 800 441 6249; sunstudio.com; $12/£7). It was at this unassuming record studio, on 5 July 1954, that Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right" with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Special events are taking place throughout the year to mark the 60th anniversary of the "birth of rock'n'roll".
The King later sang here alongside Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins – an impromptu meeting in 1956 that led to them being dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet". Bob Dylan and U2 are among the others to have recorded here and the studio is still open every night for paying musicians to emulate their heroes. Thankfully, you need not be able to sing or play to wander on down via Union Street for a daytime tour. The place looks modest, and the exhibition upstairs is hardly state-of-the-art. But the tour guides are friendly and know their history, as they play songs that were laid down here and the ghosts of legendary musicians feel closer still.
Stand on the spot where Howlin' Wolf or Roy Orbison sang, soak in the atmosphere of a room unchanged in decades and pose for photos with an old-fashioned microphone. For anyone with even a passing interest in guitar music, it's an essential visit, and the ideal end to a day in Memphis before a night back on Beale.
A state-of-the-art riverboat station, Beale Street Landing, will open on the banks of the Mississippi this spring. It will comprise footpaths and landscaped resting areas. You can pause and watch the river flow by, or embark on a riverboat excursion (memphisriverfront.com).
Marking the 60th anniversary of the recording of "That's All Right", an exhibition will open at Elvis Presley's Memphis mansion, Graceland, on 3 March. It will illustrate how The King continues to influence music and pop culture even today (001 901 332 3322; elvis.com/graceland; $33/£20).
Connections to Memphis via US hubs are offered from Heathrow and Manchester by American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk), Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) and United (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk). United also flies from Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh airports.
The Peabody Hotel, 149 Union Avenue, Memphis (001 901 529 4000; peabodymemphis.com). Doubles start at $301 (£188), room only.
Heartbreak Hotel, 3677 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis (001 901 332 1000; elvis.com). Doubles start at $133 (£83), room only.
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