Blues & BBQs: Eight Must-Sees in Memphis

Food & Wine, Memphis — By on June 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Michele Herrmann
Section Editor

Memphis truly has soul. In fact, this Tennessean city not only gave birth to soul, but two other equally important forms of 20th-century American music: rock ‘n’ roll and blues. Elvis made his first recording here (as well as his famous digs) while W.C. Handy wrote down the first piece of blues music. This city also has a history page in the Civil Rights movement, with a monument that reflects its lessons today.

Best to visit in May and October, and before the summer heat fully kicks in, Memphis provides a number of attractions to see, hear, taste, and learn from. Check out these eight must-sees that best reflect this Southern city.

1. Graceland

Whether you’re a fan of the King or not, Elvis Presley’s estate still is a must-see, as fanatics and tourists from around the world flock here. Bought by Elvis in the late 1950s, Graceland Mansion is the second most visited home in the U.S. behind the White House. The regular admission tour of Graceland includes Elvis’ living room, music room, parents’ bedroom, dining room, kitchen, TV room, pool room, and the famous Jungle Room.

An audio guide includes commentary and stories by Elvis and his daughter Lisa Marie while providing directions through rooms and surrounding buildings on the 14-acre estate. The tour leads to buildings that showcase the singer’s personal hobbies and professional accomplishments. Elvis’ trophy building has a vast collection of his gold and platinum records as well as other assortments of memorabilia from Elvis’ early career, his movies, and his charitable endeavors. The final stop on the tour is the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother have been laid to rest, along with a plaque for Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth. Elvis passed away at Graceland in August 1977.

A shuttle takes visitors to and from Graceland’s grounds to a visitor’s center across the way on Elvis Presley Boulevard. At this center, the Elvis Presley Car Museum contains more than 33 of King’s favorite rides. Highlights include his famous Pink Cadillac, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a 1975 Dino Ferrari, a 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible, and the red MG from his film Blue Hawaii. The museum also has his motorized toys including a go-cart, dune buggy, motorized three-wheelers, and a pedal car.

See how Elvis flew in style, with his two customized jets parked near the center. Climb abroad the Lisa Marie, a 1958 Convair 880 named after his daughter, or peek inside the smaller Lockheed Jet Star, primarily used for taking Elvis’ manager and his staff from city to city on his concert tours.

2. Beale Street

Running from the Mississippi River to East Street, taking a stroll down Beale Street is like walking through the history of blues. From the 1920s through the 1940s, blues and jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and B.B. King played on Beale, making it a popular entertainment district.

In the 1960s, Beale lost its luster, becoming rundown with many stores closing up shop, despite being declared as both a National Historic Landmark and the “Home of Blues” by an act of Congress a decade later. It was not until the 1980s that Beale Street was redeveloped, leading to an economic revitalization.

Today, Beale Street is still an evening hot spot. It touts restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars/blues clubs, bringing in large crowds on weekends with festivals and outdoor concerts. Nightlife shuts down at 3 a.m. Stop into A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, which opened in 1876, or walk through W.C. Handy Performing Arts Park, which hosts performances. Also on Beale, pay a visit to the often overlooked W.C. Handy House Museum, the humble home of this mighty blues legend.

Held at the end of April and beginning of May, the Beale Street Music Festival brings A-list acts from a variety of musical genres to Tom Lee Park.

3. National Civil Rights Museum

In the historic art district, the National Civil Rights Museum is the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. It chronicles the Civil Rights movement from 1619 to 2000 with historical exhibits, including Room 306, the hotel room where King stayed.

When in Memphis, King frequently stayed at this motel. Following his death, the motel’s owner left Room 306 and its adjoining room unoccupied as a memorial to King, while overtime converting the building into public housing. The motel was bought by a foundation named after King in 1982 to save it from foreclosure.

Dedicated in September 1991, the museum focuses on educating the public on the Civil Rights movement and its impact and influence on human rights movements worldwide through collections, exhibitions, research, and educational programs.

4. Sun Studio

Pioneer/recording engineer Sam Phillips opened Sun Studio in January 1950, and began recording young musicians who experimented with a new sound fusion then called rockabilly (country music mixed with blues) and eventually to be known as rock ‘n’ roll.

In August 1953, a young Elvis Presley walked into its offices aimed to pay for a few minutes of studio time. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison also laid tracks here; the rest is musical history. The Sun is still an active recording studio (interested musicians pay a fee) and has been used by U2, Spin Doctors, and Bonnie Raitt.

After an informative studio tour, visitors get the treat of standing near, and carefully picture posing with, the microphone stand Elvis used for his first recordings.

5. Barbecue Joints

Memphis is touted as one of the nation’s best cities for barbecue. Here are recommendations for savoring it.

In the Downtown Alley section, the legendary BBQ joint Charles Vergos’ Rendezous resulted by chance when the late Charles Vergos, its founder, discovered a coal chute while cleaning out a basement below his diner. This find allowed him to expand his edible offerings to ribs and changed everything else. If ribs are not your thing, then consider other options such as pulled pork, brisket, or barbecued chicken and lamb. Check out the unique wall memorabilia as well.

Another BBQ restaurant to consider is Corky’s Ribs & BBQ, best noted for pulled pork and its practice of slow-cooking in pits with hickory chips and charcoal. Fans of the Food Network couple Pat and Gina Neely can jaunt to their joint Neely’s Bar-B-Que, with two Memphis locations.

6. Music Museums

Two noteworthy museums recognize the lineage, love, and sound of Memphis’ music. The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum tells the complete story of Memphis music history, as created by the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum offers a comprehensive Memphis music experience from the rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the 1930s, through the explosion of Sun, Stax and Hi Records, and Memphis’ musical heyday in the 1970s, to its global musical influence. The museum’s digital audio tour guide takes visitors through 7 galleries featuring 3 audio visual programs, more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes, and other musical treasures. It’s also packed with more 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs.

In a section known as Sousville USA, the Sousville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music stands on the original site of Stax Records, a record label that launched the careers of soul pioneers Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. The museum’s collection contains more than 2,000 interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, personal memorabilia such as Tina Turner’s gold sequined stage dress, and galleries.

7. The Peabody Hotel

The marble fountain in the lobby of this elegant four-star hotel gets crowded for a Memphis tradition that’s just plain ducky.

For 75 years, the Peabody ducks grace this fountain, carrying out a ritual of single file marching in and out from the lobby on a red carpet at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. A duckmaster commands 5 North American mallards–one drake (male) with white collar and green head, and 4 hens (females)–to perform this ceremony. While waiting, sip a drink from the lobby bar and find a good viewing spot.

The ritual began in 1932 as a prank by The Peabody’s general manager and his friend–after returning a bit tipsy from a weekend hunting trip–who thought it would be funny to put their live duck decoys in the hotel fountain. Thankfully, public reaction was quite enthusiastic. When off-duty, today’s ducks go home to their Royal Duck Palace on the hotel’s rooftop. Check out their crib and walk along the rooftop, accessible by elevator, to get a bird’s-eye view of Memphis.

8. Gibson Retail Shop & Factory

Guitarists will enjoy a 45-minute tour of Gibson’s guitar factory, which provides an intimate view of how this company’s guitars are constructed. Observe the intricate process that creates these musical instruments, from binding and neck-fitting, to painting and buffing, and finally tuning.

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