TRAVELOGUE: Memphis, Elvis, BBQ and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll
About 10 days ago, I set out for a place I’d never been — Memphis, Tennessee — with a couple of women who are big fans of some guy named Elvis Presley, who is some sort of music or movie star, or a gas station attendant, depending on what magazine covers you like to peruse in the supermarket checkout aisle.
My Mom and my wife Shellie are both Elvis fans, so this trip was for them — especially my Mom who recently had a milestone birthday. My Mom is such a huge Elvis fan that my son hated to break the news to her about Elvis’ passing away, something he learned about somewhere around 2006 or so.
“Memommy,” he said awkwardly from the back seat of a car she was driving. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Elvis is dead.”
Fortunately, she seemed to take it better than she did in 1977, so Saylor figured she must not have been such a big Elvis fan after all to be able to take it in stride like that.
So, this was a trip for the ladies. I just tried to stay out of the way as much as possible and keep as many comments to myself as possible. Along the way, though, I had a great time — and I’ve saved the best spot for last in this little travelogue.
Below are a few thoughts from some of the key points of the road trip, followed by photo slideshows from each attraction. I won’t be offended if you skip all of the brilliant words I’ve composed and go straight to the photos. Americans don’t or can’t read anymore, so I became a writer at the worst possible time. It’s even worse timing than when my great-great-great-great-grandpa decided to become an airline pilot in 1847. It literally took him several months to find a job.
TUPELO: Elvis’ birthplace
The first sight that caught my attention in Tupelo, Mississippi, was at a gas station — and, no, Elvis wasn’t pumping gas there. It was the mangled front end of my wife’s Fiat. That happened on I-20 somewhere between Anniston and Birmingham while I was driving, of course. I was in the middle lane of the interstate when the car in front of me did a last-second jog to the right, leaving me with no way to avoid hitting a massive tire tread that had come off of a truck. It wasn’t a piece of tread — it was a whole loop of it.
Fortunately, the damage was all cosmetic — or as my wife would label the car: “Completely destroyed!” It was a painful science lesson as I learned that interstates in Alabama are made of 60 percent asphalt and 40 percent tire treads from semis.
So, after we gassed up the completely destroyed Fiat, we rode a few miles down the road to a little two-room shack Vernon Presley built to raise a family. This is definitely not Graceland. We decided not to pay the entry fee to look at the inside of the shack. I’m from rural Georgia, so this is not a remarkable sight. But it is remarkable that the King of Rock and Roll would emerge from this tiny white house.
It was a short stop, mainly to break up the ride to Memphis. A half-hour later we were back on the road and taking in the historic sights — namely the interstates in Mississippi that haven’t been paved since 1958. As Bill Maher says, I don’t know that for a fact; I just know it’s true.
GRACELAND: Intruding on Elvis
(Note: My Sept. 25, 2018 column in the Ledger-Enquirer is about what it would be like when my dozens of fans tour Margaritahill when I’m gone the way Elvis fans tour Graceland. Read it here.)
While I am often branded as “cheap” by people such as, for example, everyone who has ever met me, I did not skimp on the Graceland experience. I paid for the second-most-expensive VIP package — including an extra $5 each to go onto Elvis’ planes. The most expensive package included a meal and a personal tour guide, but I had my own plans for a decent meal and I kind of liked the idea of walking through the mansion at my own pace with headphones explaining each room instead of a real human as I have found real humans to be somewhat tiresome.
However, the computer tablet they provided was a little overboard with its high-tech features that included videos and photos from the rooms of the mansion. Why do I want to see a picture of the room I’m in? It’s like watching a concert through your cell phone. Besides, half the people had trouble getting their tablets to function properly. They switched mine to audio-only, which I was fine with. Meanwhile, I looked at Mom’s tablet and saw that she had chosen Español. I know she likes Mexican restaurants, but I didn’t think this would be helpful.
“That’s fine,” she said. “I’ll just listen to it in Spanish.” I didn’t fork out all that money on this birthday trip for my mother for her to tour El Graceland and learn more about El Vis. I handed it to a mansion attendant to fix. I get the impression pretty much all they do there is reset people’s electronic devices.
In fact, we had so much trouble at the start of the tour that we went through a second time because that’s the kind of special thing we VIP types get to do. We also got to go to the front of the line. The second time through was great because we had heard about all we wanted to and the crowds had thinned. We were actually able to linger and loiter in Elvis’ house the second time around.
It’s a rather cramped house with tacky furnishings, but you could definitely feel the King’s presence in some of the rooms. I just felt a little bit voyeuristic and uncomfortable thinking that Elvis probably isn’t OK with folks walking through his house all day long.
Both Mom and Shellie had been to Graceland before — Mom in the 1980s and Shellie in the 1990s. The mansion was about the same, but a Six Flags Over Elvis complex across the street called “Elvis Presley’s Memphis” was new to everybody. And, quite frankly, it was far more enjoyable than the mansion itself.
Elvis Presley’s Memphis is a $45 million, 200,000-square-foot complex of buildings and museums that opened just last year. It reminded me of the Smithsonian in that you could spend all day here and not quite see everything. They have amassed an incredible amount of items through several different exhibits and museums. Throughout the complex, you’ll find his outfits, guitars, letters, gold and platinum records, movie memorabilia, items from his Army stint, a huge collection of his cars, boats, motorcycles, toys, and the list goes on and on. There’s even the TV he shot, narrowly missing Robert Goulet’s head. You simply cannot take it all in, but that’s a good thing. I’d rather be overwhelmed than underwhelmed.
Of course, it’s so massive that you have to keep an eye on your crowd. Every time we went in an exhibit, Mom went one way and Shellie went the other. I wasn’t sure which way to go. Was I to get in trouble for abandoning my wife, or was I to risk going up to every counter and saying, “Excuse me, I’ve lost my Mommy.”? Decisions, decisions.
Elvis’ planes were interesting, especially the Lisa Maria with its meeting areas and the double bed in the back of the plane, complete with an FAA-required seatbelt. I’d have done anything to have had that bed when I took an overnight flight to Africa. I could have slept instead of watching “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” three times with no sound.
Between the mansion and Elvis Presley’s Memphis, we spent about seven hours at Graceland, half of it in gift shops. We now own more Elvis stuff than Elvis did. In fact, if he had known how much money we’d spend, he probably would have kept living so that he could see what it’s like to strike it rich.
BEALE STREET: Well, I’ve seen it
Most large cities have some area of town that was once the cool, hip place to be before tourists came in by the tens of thousands, turning the area into a caricature of itself. From Duval Street in Key West to the Riverfront in Savannah to Times Square and the Vegas Strip, there are many such examples. And Memphis has Beale Street.
It’s all about beer, the blues and barbecue — three Bs of which I’m a pretty big fan. But mix those with price gouging tourist traps and way too many people and it becomes just another once-cool area that lost its innocence. It didn’t help my impression of Beale Street when I walked into Wet Willie’s to get a frozen drink to calm my nerves and was immediately told to remove my Macon Bacon baseball cap. I got mildly irate and went into some spiel about stupid rules and how I was the customer, but in the meantime my wife was ordering drinks, so they got my money anyway. Dang it.
We did catch a fun band at B.B. King’s place, although it was more funk and rock than blues, but I’ve yet to catch a better blues show than Taj Mahal at the War Eagle Supper Club, that hole-in-the-wall joint in Auburn, Alabama. As for Beale Street, I’ve seen it. Been there, took the photo. I feel no need to return. The place gives me the blues.
BASS PRO: Roughing it in a pyramid?
Bass Pro Shops is one of those shops I like to look around but never buy anything because, as mentioned before, I’m a wee bit frugal. They don’t cater to frugality.
I remember when The Pyramid came to Memphis like three decades ago as a basketball arena for the University of Memphis and then the NBA’s Grizzlies. It’s an interesting building, but an unlikely place for a store.
But this Bass Pro is unlike any other. It has the aquariums, gators and water inside like a lot of Bass Pros and everything an outdoorsman could want. But it also has a bowling alley, archery range, shooting range, two restaurants and a lodge where you can rent costly rooms or cabins and pretend you are in the woods and not inside some strange store that looks like Cleopatra and James Audubon had a baby with capitalism as the surrogate mother. They actually had a deal going on where I could rent a cabin for just $199 a night. I’m not sure exactly what I’d pay to sleep inside a store, but it’s somewhere south of $20.
The pyramid also boasts America’s tallest freestanding elevator for which you can buy tickets to an observation deck. The elevator doesn’t look all that tall from the bottom, but I’m scared of heights and began to fear the elevator might never stop. By the time we neared the top, I was huddled in a corner the way I used to stand when I got sent to the corner in second grade. Whether it was second grade or that elevator, the corner was a nice safe place to be.
The observation deck provides an incredible view of the Mississippi river and downtown Memphis. As far as skylines go, Memphis seems a lot more like Columbus or Macon than Atlanta. It’s a nice, quaint downtown with little traffic. You can see it all from the deck, which is mostly very thick glass. I was OK with that, but my wife who is not scared of heights did not like the idea of walking on glass, especially after she saw a section that was roped off with some cracks in it. But I figured the worst-case scenario was that I’d fall through and roll down the side of the pyramid from 32 stories up. Granted, rolling down 321 feet might hurt, but it’s gotta be better than plummeting 321 feet and going splat.
At least, I thought that was the worst-case scenario. Nope, that would be the restaurant at the top, which I’ll cover in the next section.
FOOD: Barbecue and bullet holes
Our first meal in Memphis was at perhaps its most famous food destination — The Rendezvous, famous for its dry-rubbed ribs since 1948. The place is ginormous and full of character. It seats about three million people on about three different levels. The look inside is like an early 1900s speakeasy. I feared that the place might not live up to its great reputation.
However, the food was delicious. The ribs were as good as advertised, although they trailed my own ribs slightly. But, really, who can measure up to my own high standards but myself? Even the sides had a unique flavor. I didn’t know you could make barbecue beans unique, but they did. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t overpriced, either. As I’ve said, I don’t mind paying for a meal if I get my money’s worth. I got my money’s worth.
The Rendezvous did not provide my best meal in Memphis, though. That came on the final night of the stay when I got to pick out my kind of place — with the kind of ambiance I grew up on in Macon County, Georgia, at places like Troy’s Snack Shack, Josie’s soul food and Oglethorpe BBQ. I looked for where the locals eat, not the tourists. That place was the Cozy Corner, a short drive east of downtown near St. Jude’s.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the furnishings aren’t fancy. But it got outstanding reviews from local folks, so I convinced the two women with me to “trust me” and ignore the bullet hole in the window as we walked toward the front door. I promised that if this was to be our last meal, it would be worth it. It was … worth it, that is, not the last meal ever.
I had mouthwatering barbecue chicken and even better barbecue beans than we had at The Rendezvous. I made a point of meeting sweet, Jesus-loving proprietor Desiree Robinson on the way out and telling her, “That’s the best meal we’ve had in Memphis.” The ladies may or may not have agreed because they didn’t stop to chat with Mrs. Robinson, who really seemed to appreciate the compliment and chatted for a bit. Mom and Shellie were too busy trying to get back to the destroyed Fiat before the sun disappeared.
The only problem was that the Cozy Corner gave us way too much food, especially since the guy taking my order and I had a miscommunication on the subject of sausage. I wanted a little bit on the side just for a taste. Somehow I wound up paying for a pound of smoked sausage instead of a little bit, and they took the miscommunication a step further by bringing me two pounds of smoked sausage instead of the one I accidentally paid for.
Naturally, I had to get a to-go box for all that sausage. And, of course, I had to slam on brakes at a red light — something my Mom did not see coming and therefore did not adequately protect all of the sausage from flying out of the to-go box. (Side note: The Flying Sausages was my college band’s name.) A couple of the bigger pieces hit the back of the seat and landed on the carpet.
“Completely destroyed!” Again.
We also had a delicious meal from a downtown bar and grill called The Kooky Canuck, a Canadian restaurant. In case you’re wondering what Canadian food is, it’s American food in a place with a moose head on the wall. But it was delicious.
The only meal I didn’t enjoy was atop the pyramid. They had no barbecue — just a few offerings like burgers, salads and sandwiches, none of which were reasonably priced by my standards. But my wife insisted we not worry about the price and eat there anyway to enjoy the view. I then got in trouble for ordering soup and water and embarrassing her. If it makes her feel better, the soup also was overpriced and there was barely enough in the bowl to feed a Keebler Elf.
PEABODY HOTEL: What the duck?
The Peabody Hotel completely lived up to my expectations, which were extremely low. I was never sure why the women wanted to go here to see its huge main event — four ducks walking a red carpet from a lobby fountain to an elevator that took them to the floor where they live at the hotel. Hundreds crammed the lobby, and the “duckmaster” gave a big speech.
I had no idea that many people cared about seeing ducks walk — anywhere, whether it’s on red carpet, green grass or gray concrete. I mean, they’re ducks. We’d already been to Bass Pro Shops, where there were ducks all over the place. They weren’t celebrity ducks, but unless the Peabody was home to Daffy or Donald, what’s the point?
Well, many people apparently care about ducks because this place was jam-packed with duck lovers. We finally found a spot where Mom and Shellie could peek under the arms of some large male duck lovers while I stood back out of the way. Sure enough, after some pomp and circumstance, the ducks walked the red carpet and got onto the elevator. It was about as thrilling as I expected. Roughly 95 percent of the other folks there, though, looked rather unimpressed.
As for the Peabody itself, it’s indeed a beautiful hotel. But in my opinion it pales in comparison to the Windsor Hotel in Americus, Georgia.
LORRAINE MOTEL: A necessary stop
We weren’t about to go to Memphis without seeing the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just over 50 years ago. It is now a Civil Rights Museum, and you can apparently go into the very motel room where Dr. King slept on his final night. I had no interest in that. That seemed even more voyeuristic than the Graceland mansion, only horrifically so.
It’s hard to believe that it was only 50 years ago that Dr. King was shot and less than 60 years ago that the Civil Rights Act was passed. At times I think we’ve come a long way since then. In many ways we have. But the past couple of years, we’ve been taking steps backward. I think Dr. King would be saddened at the lack of progress, particularly in the war on poverty that some have reversed into a war on the poor — of all ethnicities.
On the corner sat an elderly black woman named Jacqueline Smith. According to her sign, she had been coming there every day for more than 30 years to protest that so much money was used to transform the motel into a museum. She was the last resident of the motel, working as a maid and living in the Lorraine from 1973 to 1988, when the motel closed and she was evicted. She thinks Dr. King would be disgusted that $27 million was spent to turn the place into a museum, and she criticizes the gentrification that has taken place in the vicinity.
She may have a point, but the Lorraine Motel must be preserved as a reminder that America has had some dark, evil episodes and that some Americans still have evil tendencies that those without decency may tap if they find it useful. There’s also a fine line between over-gentrification and continued neglect of an area. Cities rarely find a lot of in-between ground.
SUN STUDIO: Best part of the trip
This was a surprise. A wonderful surprise.
Sun Studio is where Elvis was discovered — by Sam Phillips’ secretary, Marion Keisker, when Elvis went there to record the song “My Happiness” for his mother. Keisker made an extra cut of the record to play for Phillips, who thought it was just a godawful horrible ballad. It would be another year before Elvis came in to audition for a singing job, again boring Phillips until he began nervously playing “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” a little too fast. At last, Phillips recognized what he had.
It’s also where Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (including Ike Turner) recorded “Rocket 88,” which many people consider the first rock ‘n’ roll song. It’s where Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King recorded hits.
I knew Sun Studio’s place in music history. I respected that. But it is tiny. The building where you first enter is so packed with people that you are shoulder-to-shoulder with other folks trying to figure out how you even get on a tour of the studio. So, it’s overcrowded at the entrance, and they want me to pay $14 a ticket to see a couple of rooms. Wow. I told my wife to get tickets if she wanted them, and I’d be waiting outside away from the other humans.
(Note: She still liked me at this point because even though this is a couple days after destroying her car, it was an hour before I angered her with my soup-and-water order.)
So, she emerged with three tickets, but we couldn’t go on a tour until later. So, we went to Bass Pro Shops, I had soup and water, got in trouble, and we came back to Sun Studio a few hours later for the tour. Which. Was. Awesome!
The tour is a combination of rare memorabilia and equipment, great tales from knowledgeable tour guides (ours was great), music related to the stories and then a downstairs trip into the actual studio where these famous artists got rock ‘n’ roll, well, rolling. In fact, just two days before we were there, Jerry Lee Lewis called Sun and said, “This is The Killer! Clear the studio! I’m coming over there with Mick Jagger!” Sure enough, Jagger is producing a movie about Sam Phillips and was soaking up the history.
The best part is simply standing there amid the history of the studio. It looks pretty much like it did in the 1950s. They still use it as a recording studio at nights. Fortunately, Sam Phillips donated a lot of equipment, including the original mics that Elvis and others sang into, back to the studio he started. But he did it on one condition: They couldn’t be put behind glass or kept in a museum type of environment. He wanted the public to be able to touch them. He wanted them to feel the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Fortunately, we are members of the public, whether the public likes it or not. We stood on the very “X” tape on the floor where Elvis belted out “That’s All Right” for the first time. Shellie and Mom sat on the stool at the same piano where the “Million Dollar Quartet” of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash spent a day making music history. There was just something so authentic about being in that studio that you just can’t get with an iPad hanging around your neck, watching a video or peering through glass. It was real rock history that you could touch and feel. Our tour guide must have been in that room a thousand times before, yet he was almost breathless as if it were the first trip. I left feeling the same way.
It was absolutely the best hour of our trip.
Memphis exceeded my expectations. Beale Street was blah. Graceland was good. The food was great. And Sun Studio was amazing. In all, I got my money’s worth. My mom had one of her best birthday presents ever. And my wife enjoyed it so much that she has almost forgiven me over the car and soup incidents. Besides, she has a new foe. We got home safe and sound only to see this below, a message from an armadillo that I believe means: “Welcome home. Hope you enjoyed your trip. By the way, I re-landscaped the backyard while y’all were gone.”
We’re heading to Memphis next week. Was there in the mid 90’s so I appreciate your opinions and help! Our 13 year old daughter is going to see Graceland for the 1st time! I last saw it when I was 17 so that should be an interesting perspective!