PrologueMarc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" could be the soundtrack to this trip. We saw many of the sights and people that he mentions in the song.
We had been trying to think of a long weekend destination for Labor Day weekend. Craig suggested Memphis as a fun, music-themed possibility. I did some research online, looking to see what might be going on in the area on that weekend.
I saw that Jerry Lee Lewis was playing at a casino within driving distance from Memphis. Although I was born in the '70's, I was raised on "oldies" music, and Jerry Lee's rocking piano was definitely a part of that. I didn't even know that he was still playing. I checked for tickets online to see what was available. When I found myself with the option of purchasing two front row tickets, we made the decision to spend Labor Day weekend in Memphis.
9/1/2000 - Jerry Lee Lewis
We flew to Memphis and rented a car at the airport. We drove downtown, passing landmarks like Sun Studios on the drive. It was 102 degrees. We stayed at the Best Western Benchmark Hotel on Union Avenue. It was a great location...walking distance to Beale St.. It was also very affordable ($75 per night). There was valet parking for a nominal daily fee, so we never had to worry about the rental car. The room was clean, but there weren't many amenities. It was fine for us, but if you want more luxurious accommodations in the same area, try the Radisson or the Peabody.
We drove to Tunica, Mississippi (about an hour ride) to Sam's Town casino. We passed cotton fields on the drive. There is a strip of casinos in Tunica, and lots of big name stars perform there. We were lucky enough to be in the front row for a Jerry Lee Lewis concert at Sam's Town's River Palace Arena. Jerry Lee was on the verge of turning 65, but he could still rock and roll! He and his band delivered a wonderful set:
After the show, we headed over to Beale St. Being the Friday of a holiday weekend, it was packed. Two entire blocks were closed to traffic. There were bands inside the clubs as well as outside. There were also bars set up on the sidewalks. It was a huge party that didn't stop until 5 am.
9/2/2000 - Memphis Music HistoryWhen we left the hotel in the morning, it was almost 11:00. We had heard about the "parade of the world-famous Peabody ducks" at the Peabody Hotel (right across the street from our Best Western) daily at 11:00. Not knowing quite what to expect, we walked into the lobby, which was mobbed. At 11:00, march music came on and an announcer welcomed everyone. The elevator doors opened, and the Peabody ducks paraded down a red carpet, arriving at a fountain for a swim. They spend the majority of their time on the hotel roof, but they are brought to the lobby fountain twice daily.
After that, we walked to Sun Studios. It was about a mile walk from our hotel. They give tours every hour on the half hour. It was very informative and entertaining. Although the studio is very small, they tell you a lot about its history, even playing some of the original recordings. Allow about 45 minutes for the tour.
After that, we walked back to our hotel. We ate lunch at Huey's on the corner of Union and South Second. Their menu boasts the best burgers in Memphis 16 years running. The ambiance is rather unique. Patrons put graffiti on just about every available surface, and use straws to shoot the toothpicks that hold their burgers together into the ceiling tiles.
We walked past Beale St. to the Memphis Rock 'N' Soul Museum. It had a great CD audio tour, and they had short films, antiques, and memorabilia relating to the history of rock, soul, and the blues in Memphis. There were exhibits depicting rural life in the fields of the Mississippi delta, and how American blues made its way from the rural communities to the cities. Memorabilia and artifacts from artists on Memphis labels Sun, Stax, HI, and Satellit were on display (including some very flashy stage capes worn by Isaac Hayes). And there were exhibits depicting the African American community of Memphis, once centered on Beale Street (prior to its commercialization) and the Civil Rights struggle.
We took our time and managed to see just about everything, and it took us about 3 1/2 hours.
After that, we walked down Beale St. and went into some of the shops. The most interesting was A. Schwab's Dry Goods Store, founded in 1876. It is the only original business still in operation on Beale Street. They carry just about everything, including clothing, food items, housewares, souvenirs and voodoo supplies. Their selection of overalls goes up to size 70. It was very fun to browse around, and we bought a couple of small items.
We ate dinner at B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale, to the sound of the Killer Beez. The food was very good (meat loaf, biscuits and gravy, etc), and it was a fun atmosphere. People were dancing and trying to get others involved as well. They also don't rush you out when you are finished eating, so we stayed for several hours. We got there early enough to avoid a cover charge, and when we left they marked our hands so that we could return without a cover charge.
We then went out onto the street, and there were young men and boys doing gymnastics in the street. With no mats, they did flips for half the length of a block. The oldest one did one-handed flips. His grand finale was to line up ten kids side by side (squatting down). He did a backflip over all ten of them. It was amazing, and the crowd went wild.
9/3/2000 - Rev. Al Green, The Memphis Zoo, and a Riverboat RideWe drove down Elvis Presley Blvd. in search of breakfast. We went to a place called the Country Skillet (which we think was actually just over the Mississippi border). It was a very nice little diner, with great food, Southern hospitality, and great prices.
Then, we headed over to Hale St. in Memphis to see the Reverend Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle church. The service was scheduled to start at 11 a.m. We walked in at about 10:45. Visitors received a friendly welcome at the door, and we were urged to sign the guest book. We were then told to enter the church and sit wherever we wanted. We caught the last fifteen minutes of the adult Sunday school. One of the deacons came over and introduced himself to us. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming.
Then the band and choir began to play and sing. The band consisted of electric guitar, drums, and keyboard. A parishioner had brought along her tambourine, and played along as the choir belted out some beautiful gospel music. Everyone was on their feet singing and dancing. We had a wonderful time. Rev. Green sang so effortlessly, and he preached a wonderful sermon. He even refused to take offering money that Sunday, asking the congregation, "In what other church is the Word more important than the dollar?" At one point, all the visitors (about 20 of us...one was even from Australia) were asked to stand, and the congregation applauded for us. At another point, Rev. Green asked for the guest book, and read the names of visitors and where they were from. "Where are Craig and Stephanie from Massachusetts?" He waved at us, we waved back, and then we got a round of applause.
The service lasted for about 3 hours, but it absolutely flew by. It was wonderful.
After church, we went to the Memphis Zoo. It is really gorgeous. The zoo has an Egyptian theme. Throughout the trip, I was wondering why so many things in Memphis have the Egypt theme (the zoo, the Pyramid Arena). I never made the connection between Memphis, Tennessee and the city of the same name in Egypt.
The habitats they have for the animals are unreal. The special attraction while we were there were a pair of young white tigers. They had great wildcat and primate exhibits. The gorillas are intimidating as that distance. Other highlights were meerkats and kimodo dragons.
After freshening up at the hotel (it was a hot day to be walking around the zoo) we drove the short distance down Union Ave. to the Mississippi River, to catch our Memphis Queen Riverboats barbecue dinner cruise. There were two enclosed, air-conditioned decks for eating. Each party was at a separate small table. The lower deck had a dixieland band playing, and the music was piped into the second deck as well. We ate a dinner of pulled pork, barbecue baked beans, and cole slaw, along with Frisbee-sized oatmeal raisin cookies. After dinner, we went to the open-air top deck, and enjoyed the night cruise down the Mississippi.The cruise lasted for two hours.
After that it was back to Beale St. to enjoy our last night in Memphis.
9/4/2000 - DepartureCraig checked out while I walked down one block on Union Ave. to get a picture of WDIA which (as we learned at the Rock N Soul Museum) was the first black radio station. Interesting anecdote from the audio tour at the museum: all of the radio personalities were black, but they were not allowed to touch the controls. Rufus Thomas said that once in a while, when the sound engineer's girlfriend would show up, he would disappear for a while. Rufus Thomas took that opportunity to "turn the knobs" because he knew that someday African Americans would need to know how to do that as well.
Then we went in search of some authentic Tennessee barbecue for lunch. We found Noel's Bar B Que at 3024 S. 3rd St. Their menu consisted of "rib slab", "rib order", "rib tips", and "rib sandwich" (which turned out to be a rib order and two slices of Wonder Bread. There is a Wonder Bread factory on Union Ave., and it smelled like fried dough every time we passed it.) This barbecue was as authentic as it gets.
After that, it was off to the airport.
Jerry Lee Lewis at Sam's Town River Palace Arena
Steph posing with Elvis' microphone at Sun Studios (see Elvis pictured with same mic in the background)
Scan of bulletin from Full Gospel Tabernacle
Entrance to the Memphis Zoo
Craig and Steph on a Mississippi River cruise
WDIA- first radio station with black on-air personalities