Before we set off for Memphis, we fortified ourselves with a ‘f*#ked up’ stack of French toast from the Lipstick Lounge in Five Points, E. Nashville. Wearing Easter bunny ears, our filled plates were laid before us by our waiter with a wonderful camp flourish that matched the jaunts’ hot pink decor.
It’s not just regulars attracted to Memphis for BBQ, I’m reliably informed by almost every native, that Will & Kate recently graced the subterranean Rendezvous to sample their special dry rub ribs. If it’s good enough for the Royals… Charlie Vergos, the joints’ over-seeing master and a Memphis legend, has also had a role developing the downtown area.
Nashville enjoys the fruits of Music Row with studios and the additional tourism pumping money into the local economy, but I’m not sure what The King would think of today’s Memphis. Even in downtown, across the road from the famous Peabody Hotel, the shopping mall stands mostly vacant. It’s the same story as as you move throughout Memphis, shotgun shacks – like Elvis’ old house in a Tupelo stand next to crumbling mansions. Factories, workshops and manufacturing units stand vacant and in 2010 almost 1 in 5 of residents lived below the poverty line (Forbes, 2010).
Memphis is of course home to the blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Sam Philips’ Sun Studios catapulted the rock sound across the airwaves. Illana, our guide at Sun, an amazing pixie statuesque rock fan, described how Philips became fed up airing straight up easy listening. Leaving his cushy radio job, he took to recording ‘anything, anywhere, anytime’ from his neighbours Christmas party to fabled day when teenage Elvis walked through the doors. When Elvis recorded ‘That’s alright, Mama’, it was at the end of a long, almost fruitless session. Rushed to Dewey Philips, radio DJ, it went out on ‘Red, Hot & Blue’, played over 14 times, Dewey receive over 40 phone calls and Elvis was marched into the radio station for an on air interview.
On Dec 4 1956, in Sun’s one room recording studio, Elvis dropped in on a recording session of Johnny Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins sparking an impromptu jam session, Johnny Cash swiftly hot footed it over to make the legendary ‘million dollar quartet’. Standing in the recording studio, on the taped X spot marked on the floor, Elvis Mic in hand, has reduced many pilgrims to tears.
Of course no trip to Memphis would be complete with paying homage to the King at Graceland. Once the Elvis estate, which is still lived in by his daughter Lisa Marie, would have been smack bang in the country, now urban sprawl reaches the famous musical wrought iron gates. Elvis bought Graceland at 22, partly to fulfill a promise to his nan and parents and ensure their comfortable golden years. As Liberace would say, in many respects Elvis adopted a ‘palatial kitsch’ style, with opulent themed rooms – many would not look out of place on the set of Dynasty. Famously, the Jungle Room has flock green carpet floor and ceiling with an indoor waterfall.
Yet the Elvis house was a busy family home, constantly entertaining, the kitchen remained central to the house and Lisa Marie was proud that her Dad was an early adopter of technology, bringing in a microwave in early 50s. And when Elvis heard that President Lyndon Johnson watched three TVs simultaneously, the King modified his TV room in one-up-manship. Of course, the King now peacefully rests at Graceland as hoards still come to honour his legacy.
Our day was rounded off at Huey’s, voted the best burger in Memphis since 1984 and taking in Beale Street, the blues heartland that inspired Elvis. At Rum Boogie Cafe, a seasoned funk artist in white flairs kicked off a benefit in aid of fellow drummer who’d recently been suffering with heart problems. I think it’s true that the spirit of Elvis still lives, his generous spirit – Lisa Marie recalls on the Graceland iPad tour that she can’t remember a time her father was not helping someone. This ultimately summed up Memphis, music was still the life blood of the community and anyone is welcome to join the cause.