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Posts Tagged ‘Street art’


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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Today we were destined to spend the whole day in a single state – Mississippi. It began with a passable breakfast of sausage patties, scrambled eggs, bagels, cream cheese and coffee in the hotel.

Which brings me straight away to one of my favourite rants of life on the road in this country. I would love somebody to explain to me why every breakfast room in every hotel appears to have  the  TV tuned into to Fox News.

I suppose in the south it is more likely to have a captive audience among the truck drivers and Hanks and Mildreds expelled from their tour buses. But, with few exceptions, the  staff working in the kitchens and dining rooms are black. I am sure that going to work every day with the bile and make believe spewed out from Fox must have a debilitating impact on them.

Or perhaps they tune it out. I wish I could! I did once turn it over to CNN on our south west road trip and nobody batted an eyelid. I doubt I would receive such a gentle response in Mississippi.

Which brings me rather neatly to the American Civil War.

The reason I chose Vicksburg for one of our overnight stops was to give us the opportunity to visit one of the most important battlefields when “brother fought against brother”.

With a 144 mile drive to our next overnight stop in Clarksdale, we made an early start.

Following fast on Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the Siege of Vicksburg, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, in 1863 proved the major turning point in the war.

The Vicksburg National Military Park contains over 1,340 monuments and the adjacent National Cemetery holds the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers, a number unmatched by any other national cemetery. Given the expansive rolling land and extensive foliage, it was not difficult to imagine the epic nature of the battle.

As we walked among the statues, pillars, buildings, gun emplacements and other memorials, it was evident that victory for Major Ulysses S. Grant, was gained at a mighty heavy price. Ohio and Illinois in particular were heavily represented around the park.

It had been an affecting experience, but we needed to return to the road, leaving Vicksburg at midday under a hazy sun and 88 degrees of heat.

The “big sky” and flat, deserted road were reminiscent of those we had encountered during the south west road trip six years earlier. We could have been in Utah (thankfully we weren’t as Mississippi is not a dry state).


Mile upon mile of pretty cotton fields, ready for harvesting it appeared, adorned either side of road. Picking is, of course, now mechanised but, again, I could not help a passing thought about the thousands of lives that were debased in the process in the past.

 

Farm machinery, silos and abandoned buildings – along with the customary plethora of religious establishments – were also regular features by the roadside.

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I had been looking forward to visiting Clarksdale, Mississippi, as much as anywhere on this trip. Whilst there is considerable debate about its precise location, the legend persists that it was at a crossroads in the Clarksdale vicinity where the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the devil.

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The town was the birthplace of many Blues luminaries,  John Lee Hooker, Son House and Ike Turner were born here, amongst many others. including Sam Cooke (I had not been aware of this before now). Muddy Waters moved to the town as a child.

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You could sense the history and mood the moment we stepped out of the car on 2nd Street in a dry, ninety degree heat. This place was drippin’ with the blues. The ghosts of those great bluesman walked the empty streets where many buildings remained either empty or derelict, and others boasted colourful, celebratory murals.

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With just an eighty mile drive to Memphis planned for the next day, we had plenty of time to explore the town, notably the two fine museums dedicated to blues and rock. We decided to visit the Rock & Blues Museum this afternoon and return in the morning to frequent the Delta Blues Museum.

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It was understandable, though still a pity, that we we were not permitted to take photographs once inside the museum, though I had not realised this until I had already snapped this fine specimen.

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One surprising piece of street art was this tribute to the early Beatles.

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In both the museum and the Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Artstore, we were advised that there was a special live concert in the Blues Berry Cafe that evening (Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club was closed on Monday evening).

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We duly honoured the recommendation and had dinner (fried shrimp and spaghetti with garlic) there prior to the live performance.

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Sean “Bad” Apple, a Clarksdale boy who plays five nights a week at 152, Beale Street in Memphis, was making a rare return to his home town to play to an audience that, with probably the only exception of ourselves and a young Danish couple sat at the next table, he knew extremely well.

Supported by another local boy, “Iceman” Billy Williams on drums, Sean treated us to a mix of tasty Delta blues and anecdotes about legendary Clarksdale characters. He is an outstanding musician, but rather like the evening in the Blue Moon in Lafayette, we felt a little like outsiders, almost intruding on a private party, as he engaged in extended banter with friends, and even shared the stage with some.

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But we did get a slice of birthday cake!

 

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