“Long distance information give me Memphis, Tennessee. Help me find the party that tried to get in touch with me. She’s the only one who’d call me here from Memphis, Tennessee. Her home is on the south side, high up on the ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge.” -Chuck Berry, 1959
Hundreds of songs have been written about the city known as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. Home to the King of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley and the Queen of soul Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash found his rhythm in Memphis, and B.B. King and Issac Hayes coined the blues here. The father of the blues, W.C. Handy still presides (in statue form) over the Performing Arts Park that is his namesake. Sun Studio, Stax Records or Hi Records gave way to musical icons including Carl Perkins, Booker T. and the MGs, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Rufus and Carla Thomas, among so many others.
Music can be heard out of every room in every building in the city; in the parks; on street corners; and on the banks of the Mississippi River. With several music-related museums, each has its own soundtrack. Get lost in sound instead of time listening to the playlists of these historically significant tunes.
If brilliant chandeliers, marble floors and subtle distinction put you in your element, you’ll want to stay at The Peabody Hotel. Famous for its charm, elegance, gracious hospitality and rich history, the hotel opened its doors in 1869 and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Grab a beverage and a chair on the hotel’s opulent mezzanine floor. From there get a peek at the famous Peabody ducks while absorbing the ambience of classic elegance in the hotel lobby. The gem of a story behind the Peabody ducks involves a former manager in the 1930’s and his hunting buddy, some Jack Daniel’s sippin’ whiskey and the placement of live decoy ducks in the hotel’s fountain. This event led to the classic, quirky march the Peabody is known for where a red carpet duck march takes place as the ducks travel from their home on the rooftop of the hotel to the hotel lobby floor daily at 11 a.m. and stay in the fountain until 5 p.m.
Not many museums come equipped with a dance floor and a disco ball. Step on out in the middle of the floor and “shake what your mama gave you” at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. As soon as you step out on the floor music plays, the lights dim and everyone is encouraged to ‘get funky with it.’
Among the most popular soul record labels of all time, Stax played a pivotal role in creating the soul music sound and helped launch the careers of Otis Redding, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and many more. The history of soul music comes to life through video footage, memorabilia and interactive exhibits here.
Spend a few hours in the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum listening to the story of the birth of rock and soul music. Start from the rural hollers of the 1930s to the 70s with Stax, Sun Studio and Hi-Records to the overall music influence rock and soul has had on the world. With video, songs, a jukebox with options to listen to thousands of hits and artifacts, you’ll be immersed in Memphis’ music story.
Sam Phillips founded Sun Studio, which is a world famous recording studio. Music legends like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded tracks here. Of course Elvis got his start here, which titled Memphis as the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. The studio offers tours during the day, sharing stories of how your favorite songs were aired into life in this very building. At night, it still functions as a recording studio serving musicians locally and worldwide. Rumored to possess an elusive muse for incredible creation, many famous musicians still record here for the notoriety.
Get personal with Elvis Presley and see the luxurious life he lived with an opportunity to stay in the most recent addition to the Presley Entertainment Complex, The Guest House. Only steps away from Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion ®, The Guest House at Graceland welcomes travelers, music fans and groups ready to “take care of business” — with Southern hospitality, star style and luxurious amenities that would make the King proud.
The Guest House has an exclusive top floor of the resort, known as “The Upstairs,” which is reminiscent of the upstairs at the Graceland mansion — the private living quarters for Elvis and his family that is not part of the mansion tour. According to sources the upstairs area of Graceland hasn’t been touched except for preservation since the day of his death.
Tour packages at the mansion include self-guided tours of the home, Elvis’ custom jets, full access to Presley’s Entertainment Complex including the automobile museum, the entertainer career museum and other exhibits. As generous as he was wealthy, the trophy room inside the tour holds hand-typed thank you letters from several charities Presley donated funds, cars or other items throughout his life to.
First-time foodies to Memphis should begin their trip by having breakfast at the Arcade, a 1950s-style diner where Elvis and his Memphis Mafia used to hang out in an over-sized booth. Presley loved good southern home cooking that can still be found here at his old haunt.
Up the fire escape above BB King’s Blues Club lies one of Memphis’ hidden gems, Itta Bena. Fine southern dining and a cool libation for those hot days in the South can be found in this spot. Southern cuisine with a Delta twist in a relaxed atmosphere is what you’ll love here.
Formerly a silent film theater transformed into a high-end eatery in the heart of Memphis is The Majestic Grille. With a mesmerizing ambiance, authentic 1940s décor silent films still play in the dining room. But the most impressive aspect is the food. Dry aged steaks, fresh seafood and an extensive wine selection round out a fine dining experience.
Famous for its catch phrase, “Put the South in your Mouth,” at Blues City Cafe you’ll find the flavor Memphis is known for in it’s famous barbeque. Nightly live entertainment in the Band Box is right there. Dance the night away right next door with the Memphis music scene. When you finish your meal at Blues City Cafe, roll on through the night at a Beale Street music club and hear that Memphis sound pouring into the streets in the city’s historic Beale Street district. With more than 32 music clubs, restaurants and shops, the Beale Street Flippers are one of the most popular entertainers on Beale – without strumming a guitar or belting out the blues. Crowds line the cobblestone street to cheer on this group of athletes who flip their way for tips. They have taken a simple handspring and made it into an art form. With strength and grace, they begin at one end of the street and flip for what seems forever. Watch them land on both hands then flip over and over in the air without using their hands.
If rock ‘n’ roll and blues aren’t enough music, the city also has a full symphony orchestra. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO). From early years and through several wars, there were iterations of a local symphony. However, MSO was officially established in 1953 under the baton of the esteemed Vincent de Frank as the Memphis Sinfonietta. The MSO has grown into a full scale nonprofit organization, complete with staff, volunteers and 36 core musicians.
Craft beer is the easter egg highlight here with several local breweries, including Ghost River Brewing Co., High Cotton Brewing Co. and Wiseacre Brewing Co. Memphis serves beer produced from artesian wells that pair perfectly with its famous barbecue fare. Springtime brings Memphis Brewfest where craft beer enthusiasts gather for beer tasting and samples of beers in various colors and tastes.
An absolute must in Memphis is the Civil Rights Museum. With 260 artifacts, more than 40 new films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts, the Civil Rights Museum guides visitors through five centuries of history. You’ll walk away from this museum educated and empowered by how much change has taken place. From the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the events of the late 20th century that inspired people around the world to stand up for equality, the museum is built around the former Lorraine Motel, which was the site of the tragic assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.in 1968. You’ll walk aboard a bus where a statue of Rosa Parks greets you and a recording plays a reenactment of the life changing moment between Parks and the bus driver. Two other buildings and their adjacent property, also connected with the King assassination are part of the museum complex.
There are two things you can find on every corner in Memphis, a church and barbecue. When you leave the museum you’ll smell a wave of the famous barbeque that resonates downtown no matter what time of day it is. Just like their music, Memphians love barbeque and you can find another bite right next door to the museum at Central BBQ.
If you’re looking for the outdoors, there are more than 60 miles of bike trails, including Shelby Farms Greenline, as well as an adventure park at Shelby Farms. Mud Island River Park has a riverwalk, a monorail, and pedal boats, as well as a hydraulic replica of the lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans.
On your final day, take the nation’s tallest free-standing elevator 28 stories to the top of the Memphis Pyramid where you’ll enjoy a menu of delicious food and unique specialty drinks and take in views of the city below. With a steampunk style of décor, the food is complemented by an aquarium in the middle of the restaurant with multiple glass observation decks. Take a dinner cruise or a sightseeing cruise along the Mississippi River with RiverBoat Tours where you’ll kickback and enjoy live music and great food all while being educated on the river history. While you’re here, find a local and ask him where he eats barbeque, that’s where you want to go.
For more information contact the visitor’s center in Memphis at MemphisTravel.com.
By Michelle Keller