Memphis banks on musical heritage



MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis figured out that its Heart-and Soul-of-America city is not only a musically diverse cultural phenomenon, but by sharing its heritage with the world, economic benefits could be reaped.

In a recent trip to this mid-South metropolis, visits to the various museums, theaters, recording studios and other music-related sites were highly attended while most had an international attraction. Fortunately, the city provides a plethora of reasonably-priced hotels fit for families, while more pricey lodging venues such as the historic Peabody Hotel and the downtown Westin were also available.

Memphis by night means hanging out at the ever-thriving Beale Street – home of several live-music venues and saucy restaurants – most of which offer spicy barbecue ribs, chicken wings, baked beans and cole slaw.

A soulful trio of young cool cats called Memphis Jones provided the music at BB King Rib Rack in the heart of downtown, just minutes away from FedEx Center where the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies play and the Memphis Redbirds play minor-league baseball for their major team, the St. Louis Cardinals.

According to Jonathan Lyons, public relations manager of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, city fathers and civic officials realized early on that the city’s many attractive qualities successfully captured the essence of its history.

“It’s our legacy that we hope visitors not only appreciate, but ultimately spread the word to others. And hopefully, they’ll return,” Lyons said.

A quick road trip landed us on East McLemore Avenue, home of the STAX Museum of American Soul Music/Soulsville – the site of STAX Records and the birthplace of the Memphis soul stew. Though the original studio was razed years ago, its newly constructed replica makes up for decisions to destroy the original site.

The 1,200-square-foot museum contains artifacts, photos and memorabilia, including Isaac Hayes’ classic 1972 baby-blue gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado; the organ used by Booker T. Jones when he helped write the classic Green Onions and a bass guitar owned by Donald “Duck” Dunn and guitars from Steve Cropper. A maroon Rogers drum kit owned by the late Al Jackson Jr. was also displayed.

Other notable items inside STAX museum included original recording and performance contracts, and a 1967 restaurant receipt reflecting lunch for five musicians – burgers, fries and salads – all for less than $10.

About 10 minutes away from STAX, riding north onto Elvis Presley Boulevard, America’s king of musically-significant museums is widely known as Graceland.

Upon entering the gates, guards instruct you to pull into a massive parking lot. Shuttle buses drive you across the street to Graceland, the 13-acre, sprawling site where Elvis spent his days with family and close friends.

It was obvious that Elvis was probably the wealthiest entertainer of his era, and he spared no expense to purchase the many items that are displayed throughout his property, including two customized jets and a multi-million-dollar collection of vehicles.

The Memorial Gardens provide a tranquil and spiritual end of the Graceland tour.

Featured mausoleums included one for Elvis, his mother, “Mama Gladys;” his father, Vernon Presley; and Elvis’ twin brother, Jaren Aaron Presley, who died at childbirth. It’s also worth taking the one-hour-trip from Memphis to Tupelo, Miss. – Elvis’ birth home. A small outdoor statue honors the music legend that lived in Tupelo until he was 13.

Other Memphis sites to see are the National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Sun Studios, where Carl Perkins and Elvis first recorded with pioneering producer Sam Phillips; Royal Studios, owned by producer Willlie Mitchell, site of Hi Records, where Al Green recorded hits like Let’s Stay Together and I’m So Glad You’re Mine. In fact, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, Willie’s son, now runs the shop and still holds recording sessions inside the Royal, just minutes from STAX.

Overall, one must give Memphis credit for exploiting its good points. Go soon, in time for the monthlong Memphis in May International Festival, which starts on May 4.

When you go, also check-out the riverboat cruises, the downtown horse-drawn carriages and trolley rides, too.