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Posts Tagged ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’


According to most online reviews, one of the biggest benefits of staying in our St. Louis accommodation was the size and quality of the breakfast. And our landlady, Magretta, advised us on our first evening, that, such was his talent, she referred to her mild-mannered Japanese husband, Chuck, the “Egg Master”.

But it was Magretta herself who was responsible for our important first meal of the day on our first morning. The elegant dining table was laid out immaculately with the best china as the first course of melon was delivered. This was followed by scrambled egg and bacon, presented in an unusual and attractive way, and topped off with unlimited supplies (if we could have eaten them) of aebleskivers (Danish pancake balls). We joked at the time that, for the first time on the trip, we would not be in need of lunch – and we were proved right!

Throughout the meal we were watched over by Spike the terrier, though he had been trained not to beg for food. Mind you, I am sure he would have pounced gleefully on anything accidentally dropped from the table.

Although there were two other rooms in the house, we were the only occupants for the first two of our three night stay. So we enjoyed the full attention of our hosts.

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We were already aware of the Gateway Arch, the reputation enjoyed by its world class zoo, and, of course, its key role in the history of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry was born there), but St Louis was probably, of all the cities we were visiting, the least familiar.

And it was a dull, drizzly morning when we climbed into our Uber car to head downtown. In view of the much improved forecast for later that afternoon, we decided to spend the morning exploring an indoor attraction, namely the City Museum, which had been recommended by Magretta.

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We didn’t know what to expect, so were astonished by this former International Shoe building, whose exhibits consisted principally of repurposed architectural and industrial objects.

Opened in 1997, the museum, described as “one of the great open spaces”, attracts three quarters of a million people per year, and it was not difficult to see why. Whilst we were unable to access the rooftop theme park due to the intermittent rain, there was plenty of interest and entertainment in the remaining four floors of this eclectic, quirky space.

We spent the first part of our tour underground in the “enchanted caves”, a maze of tunnels which was a child’s paradise, judging by the number that ran around squealing with delight and popping up unexpectedly from below or through walls as we walked around.

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Every corner turned, every staircase mounted, revealed something new and surprising.

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Amidst all the industrial exhibits, including bank vault doors and machinery used to make fuselages for small airplanes, there were many more frivolous pieces such as a circus school, the world’s largest pair of men’s underpants (seven feet high by seven feet wide) and the world’s largest pencil (76 feet).

I did say it was quirky, didn’t I?

Another was an approximately seven foot high statue of the mascot of the Big Boy hamburger chain – a chubby boy in red and white checkered overalls holding a double decker cheeseburger.

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True to the forecast, the day was taking a turn for the better as we left the museum and walked down Washington Street towards the waterfront. But it was time for a drink (not lunch – Magretta had seen to that), which we had in Tigin, a friendly Irish pub, before heading to the Gateway Arch for our ride to the top.

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, it is the world’s tallest arch and the world’s tallest man made monument in the Western Hemisphere. It was built as testimony to the westward expansion of the United States and officially dedicated to the “American people”. Unsurprisingly , it has become an internationally recognised symbol of St. Louis, as well as a popular tourist destination.

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The Arch was designed by Finish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and built between 12th February 1963 and 28th October 1965 for $13 million ($77.5 million in today’s currency). It opened to the public on 10th June 1967. 

The first part of the tour, as so often in the United States, was a movie, Monument to the Dream, detailing the history of the Arch’s construction. We were astounded  to learn that there had not been a single fatality, not least as the film showed men, cigarettes poking out of the corners of their mouths, casually strolling along girders hundreds of feet in the air without the hint of a safety harness.

The tram ride to the top lasts four minutes, a more manageable journey than the 1,076 emergency stairs. Alighting at the top, passengers climb a slight gradient to reach the observation area with its sixteen narrow windows either side.

The views are exhilarating, especially those of the Mississippi River, Busch Stadium, home to the St Louis Cardinals baseball team and the beautifully restored federal courthouse.

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By this time, we had resolved to devote our second day in town, which was forecast to boast a clear blue sky, though cool, to a visit to St Louis Zoo, but allow us enough time to return to the Arch to take some more photographs, from ground level on this occasion.

Once down on terra firma, we spent a fascinating hour or more roaming among the exhibits of the outstanding Museum of Westward Expansion at the foot of the Arch.

Aside from the excellent information videos and displays, the recreations of a covered wagon and a full size buffalo particularly impressed me.

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Magretta’s ample breakfast was, by now, finally wearing off, so we began the search for a dinner spot. We found a modern Mexican restaurant, Gringo’s, a couple of doors up from the National Blues Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day. Once again, the meal (mine was a satisfyingly chunky burrito) was excellent and the service hospitable without being effusive.

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We called an Uber to return to the house, where we found Magretta and Chuck diligently packaging items for their online crystal sales business. Spike and Haley were dutifully sat at their feet.

One of the many other nice touches about this accommodation was the communal room on the floor below us which contained reading material, snacks and decanters with port and sherry in them! It had already become Janet’s habit to take a glass of port back to our room to watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which had itself become part of our daily routine (when we not still out on the town of course).

We had throughly enjoyed our first day in St Louis.

And we were going to the zoo tomorrow –  how about you?

 

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Back on the road today.

Jazz, blues, zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk – we had experienced them all in the first ten days of the trip, And we had travelled in a south-north direction, driving or, on occasions, skirting Highway 61.

But now, we were not only switching the musical focus to country, but taking a two hundred and ten mile detour eastward to Nashville.

We left our East Memphis house on a warm, partly cloudy morning with the temperature gauge in the car already touching ninety. Once we had settled onto Interstate 40, our companion for the journey, the traffic lightened and the straight roads with forested trees either side that we had become accustomed to in recent days, resumed their natural position.

We filled the car with gas for the second time on the trip, taking the cost so far to $56 (we had picked it up in New Orleans with a full tank, and we’re required to return it in the same state i..e. full, not in Louisiana).

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As we approached Jackson, the first town of any real significance, and were looking for an attraction to break the journey (we were nearly half way), we came across Casey Jones Village which marketed itself as the “best whistle stop between Memphis and Nashville” and officially one of Tennessee’s top 10 travel attractions.

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The extensive complex contained an Old Country Store, a restaurant, nostalgic gift shoppe, an 1890’s Ice Cream Parlor & Fudge Shoppe, the Dixie Cafe Takeout or Dine-In, a village baker’s, a village chapel and many other features.

In addition, it was home to the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, which commemorated the legendary railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, and who was killed on 30th April 1900, when his train collided with a stalled freight train near Vaughan Mississippi. His spectacular death while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers made him a national hero.

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He was subsequently immortalised in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper for the railroad. It had first come to my attention when, as a small boy in the late fifties several thousand miles away, I sat spellbound by the television programme starring Alan Hale Jnr.

Around fifteen years later I learned a different account of the incident from rock band, the Grateful Dead, with the drug-riddled refrain “driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you’d better watch your speed”.

I still prefer that version!

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John Luther Jones was particularly famous for the manner in which he tooted his train whistle on “Old 382” Engine. Visitors can climb aboard the replica inn the museum and perform that act themselves.

At the time of his death, Jones was living in the house pictured below, which we were also able to explore.

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We spent a pleasant hour walking around the village, but, even though it was lunchtime by now, the food on offer in the restaurant was not to our liking.

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We returned to the road in pursuit of coffee and eats. But we were not hungry enough to be tempted by the regular sight of roadkill.

Our salvation, not for the first or last time on the trip, proved to be………yes, you guessed it, McDonald’s (we were to eat here more often in a fortnight than we had in thirty years),

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We encountered more traffic, especially trucks, on this stretch than we had done before, though the fact that the road had only two lanes, and it was Friday afternoon, might have contributed to that.

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Another phenomenon that occurred to us for the first time today were the strong “southern” accents of everyone we came into contact with.

At the risk of offending (I don’t mean to) Tennesseans, the intonation was reminiscent of the British comedian, Benny Hill’s, character on his television show in the seventies and eighties, when he performed a sketch about ‘teddy bear’s chair”. I can never hear a southern accent without recollecting that performance.

But then if any American is upset by this, I will just mention three words………….Dick Van Dyke.

You know what I mean, y’all.

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As Nashville got closer, the traffic, especially, got much heavier. But we safely negotiated it and located our artist’s bungalow in East Nashville, booked through Airbnb,  without difficulty.

We were staying in a variety of different properties on the trip. Starting off in a classy hotel in New Orleans, we had spent the subsequent nights on the road in modest motels before residing in a suburban house in Memphis. We were living for the next four nights in a bungalow in the back garden, next to the garage, of our hosts’ family home.

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It was clear on our arrival that some of the home comforts we had enjoyed in New Orleans and Memphis in particular would not be available to us in our temporary Nashville home.

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Our only cooking facilities, for example, were a kettle and basic microwave, as well as a refrigerator. We drove to the local supermarket to buy some basic provisions, including potatoes, salad, cheese, ham and avocado that made up a presentable jacket potato.

And, our spirits were not going to be quashed. Tomorrow, we would begin to investigate the home of country music.

And it would be my birthday!

 

 

 

 

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After a restful night in our lovely suburban cottage, it was time to explore downtown Memphis (our other full day would be dedicated largely to Graceland).

And where else to start than legendary Sun Studio, the “birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll”?

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This was one of the moments on the trip that I had most been looking forward to. And it proved more moving than even I had expected.

Record producer, Sam Phillips, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue on 3rd January 1950. But it was not until 18th July 1953 that an eighteen year old boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Aaron Presley, dropped in to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday, that the studio earned its place in rock ‘n roll history.

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Phillips was not immediately impressed until, in a ‘break” in auditioning, Elvis grabbed the microphone and launched into Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right that he realised this was a unique talent.

When our tour guide, Graham, played us those pieces, I confess that I was in tears. These were pivotal and emotional moments, not only in music history, but also in the chronicles of modern times.

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Janet, who alone among a group of about twenty guests, contrived to position herself on the exact spot where Elvis stood on that fateful day, took the opportunity to stand at the microphone – though, thankfully, she remained mute.

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The other heart-rending moment was listening to an original recording from the equally fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session performed by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis on 4th December 1956 – pure gold!

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Aside from the musical gems (there were many others), we were permitted to explore some of the priceless artefacts that adorned the walls, including recording equipment, posters  and original discs.

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The tour may only have lasted around 45 minutes but it was a breathtaking experience.

Leaving Sun Studio we walked down Monroe Avenue, stopping at regular intervals to enjoy the “Rock Walk” signs. In addition to the two shown below, others included Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

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As we entered downtown we were able to investigate the compact and attractive Memphis Redbirds ballpark. It is a shame that such a major city as Memphis only has a Minor League team, but American sports are largely closed doors. I dare say, however,  that the team’s supporters will be no less fanatical than they are in New York, Boston or San Francisco.

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Another of the essential tourist experiences in Memphis is a visit to the Peabody Hotel, where twice a day at 11am and 5pm, a group of ducks are marched to and from their rooftop palace to the lobby fountain on the ground floor, where they spend the intervening hours.

It was after midday when we wandered through the lobby, so they were already blithely floating round their daytime home. We did not plan to return at the moment they returned to the “Royal Duck Palace”.

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After a tasty lunch of grilled cheese, chunky fries and wine at Automatic Slims, we began to explore the Beale Street area. Although we could hear live music emanating from some of the bars, it was much quieter in early afternoon than we would discover later in the evening.

Beale Street has been the beating heart of Memphis for over a century. The promise of musical stardom has lured musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis and the wonderful Memphis Minnie from nearby Mississippi. Since the end of the Second World War, many – Elvis, BB King and Rufus Tomas included – became blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll recording stars.

But more of Beale Street later.

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Time for yet another music museum. This time, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on 3rd Street (B.B. King Boulevard), described by the Performing Songwriter Magazine as arguably the “single best exhibition of American musical history in the country”.

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And a superb exhibition it is as it tells the important story of those “musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic obstacles to create the music that changed the cultural complexion of the world”.

It begins with rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the thirties, through the explosion of Sun, Stax, and Hi Records, inside Memphis’ musical heyday in the seventies, to its global musical influence. A digital audio tour guide highlights a series of tableaux and includes over five hours of information, is packed with over 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs.

You can wander around the museum at your own pace through seven galleries featuring three audio visual programmes, more than thirty instruments, forty costumes, and other musical treasures.

I was especially enamoured of the collection of juke boxes dotted around the museum, enabling you to select favourite songs from comprehensive lists for each era and style.

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Returning from the air conditioning of the museum into the heat of the street, an experience we endured with varying degrees of comfort over the whole trip, at least until now (and later Nashville), we strolled down to the riverfront alongside the Hernando Desoto Bridge that spanned the Mississippi.

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Unlike New Orleans, where we rode three lines of streetcars, we did not really have time to experience the Memphis version, though they are clearly an attractive and valuable addition to the city transportation system.

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There was some imaginative, locally themed street artwork around downtown too.

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As dusk fell, we went in search on Beale Street for live music and dinner. Our first port of call was the Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk where Jason James, with an excellent band, gave an energetic and authentic performance to a packed out crowd.

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After a couple of beers there, we wandered around, checking each bar in turn and visiting the gift shops. It was still relatively early in the evening but the street was filling up. The atmosphere was noisy and high-spirited, but we found it less threatening than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The clear police presence at either end may have contributed to that of course.

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We selected the Rum Boogie Cafe, one of the most celebrated nightclubs in the city. Sybil Thomas, youngest daughter of Rufus and sister of Carla, delivered a high energy of soul and funk classics with her equally dynamic band while we had dinner.

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With the much anticipated trip to Graceland in the morning, we called an Uber at the bottom of Beale Street to take us back to the cottage in East Memphis.

 

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