Walking in Memphis

There are many things that turn a good song into a great song.  Top of the list is an amazing “backstory” – that experience that influences the music or lyrics, making it  deeply personal from the composer’s perspective.

I can’t remember when I first heard Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”.  I’ve always thought it was a good song, but it was not until I traced his footsteps in Memphis and surrounds that I truly understood what he was going on about.  This understanding has not only catapulted the song to my “favourites of all time” list, but made my whirlwind trip of the famous musical city that much more meaningful.

Put on my blue suede shoes / And I boarded the plane / Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues / In the middle of the pouring rain

W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me / Yeah, I got a first class ticket / But I’m as blue as a boy can be

I had a crash course in modern music at the exceptional Rock ‘n Soul Museum.  Everything is set out in chronological order, tracking the timeline from Blues music (along with famous artists like W.C. Handy) all the way to present day.  If music history presses your “oh wow, that’s so interesting” buttons, it’s definitely worth a couple of hours to peruse the displays.  If not, I’ve condensed everything into two handy sentences for you below:

Delta Blues is named for the Mississippi Delta from where it emerged (essentially becoming the root of all modern music) and was first recorded in the late 1920’s.  It spawned an offshoot called “Skiffle” which eventually lead to the “British Invasion” bands (think, The Beatles) and “British Blues” (think Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin) which in turn led to the formation of pop, hard rock and heavy metal as we know it today.  

Rock n Soul Museum

Then I’m walking in Memphis / Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale / Walking in Memphis / But do I really feel the way I feel?

Beale Street is to Memphis what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans.  An historic stretch of road along which resides a smorgasbord of restaurants, bars, shops and live music venues.  Musical legends such as B.B. King (Beale Street Blues Boy = “B.B”), Albert King, Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters used to play here and a couple of sites linked to the Memphis Civil Rights movement are located along it too.

Unfortunately, much like its New Orleans counterpart, Beale Street has in recent times become somewhat of a tourist trap, offering loads of neon lighting and public drinking from similarly neon plastic containers.  This, for me at least, detracted from its historical significance.  Not all was lost though as dinner at BB King’s Blues Club consisted of the incredibly delicious Memphis BBQ and provided live entertainment which showcased the famous “Memphis Blues” sound. I found a vinyl shop nearby which offered some decent after dinner browsing.

Beale Street
Beale Street

Beale Street BB Kings

Saw the ghost of Elvis / On Union Avenue / Followed him up to the gates of Graceland / Then I watched him walk right through

Now security they did not see him / They just hovered ’round his tomb / But there’s a pretty little thing / Waiting for the King / Down in the Jungle Room

Union Avenue is the location of the famous Sun Studio.  Often billed as the “the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll”, it’s recorded artists from Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to U2 and Def Leppard.  Perhaps it’s most famous “find” was Elvis Presley whose career, I discovered, was launched here pretty much by accident. He’d already had several attempts at recording – all of them unsuccessful.  At the end of one such disappointing session, as everyone was packing up, he grabbed his guitar and jokingly started singing a cover of “That’s All Right”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sun Studios 1


Sun Studios U2 recording desk
Bits of U2’s multi-platinum selling “Rattle & Hum” (including the single “Desire”) were recorded at Sun Studio on this thing
Sun Studio Million Dollar Quartet
The “Million Dollar Quartet” – Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash
Sun Studios Jerry Lee Lewis cigar burn
The piano Jerry Lee Lewis decided to use as an ash tray for his cigar

Speaking of “The King”, of course I could not miss the opportunity to head out to Graceland.  The site contains not only Elvis’ home but several museums, each dedicated to an aspect of his career and personal life.  Stage costumes, cars, movies, planes – there is a LOT of it and it’s all here.

Graceland Mansion

One of the most memorable rooms in his house is, indeed, the Jungle Room.  It features a green shag floor and ceiling, a waterfall wall and enough kitsch knick-knacks to make my inner minimalist scream in terror.

Graceland Jungle Room 2
The Jungle Room
Graceland Jungle Room 3
More Jungle Room

The site is huge and although I was there for a good half-day, it was a bit of a rush to absorb everything fully.  If you’re a massive Elvis fan or simply just the type to try and find out whether he’s still around and lurking somewhere on the property, you might need a full day to appreciate the site properly.

Graceland Tomb
Elvis’ tomb

They’ve got catfish on the table / They’ve got gospel in the air / And Reverend Green be glad to see you / When you haven’t got a prayer

But, boy, you’ve got a prayer in Memphis

If you’re interested in Soul (of which Al “Reverend” Green is one of its stars), then Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a must as it delves deeply into the music as a standalone genre.  Another wonderfully conceived museum, it traces the origins of Soul (spoiler alert – it was the Blues) and it’s most famous stars such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Ike & Tina Turner. Hayes’ super-kitsch cadillac with it’s gold and fur trim – perched fittingly on a super-kitsch spinning platform – is a must see. I really enjoyed Stax, however if you have limited time and Soul music doesn’t necessarily float your boat, then I’d suggest just sticking to the Rock ‘n Soul Museum as it covers… well…  Rock and Soul.

Stax Records

Now Muriel plays piano / Every Friday at the Hollywood / And they brought me down to see her / And they asked me if I would

Do a little number / And I sang with all my might / She said “Tell me are you a Christian child?” / And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight”

Muriel was the 70-year old African American piano player who could be found tickling the ivories in a bar called “Hollywood”, a short drive outside of Memphis.  Famous for her “spiritual music”, she really did coerce Mr Cohen into playing the piano when he visited the bar.  

While I’m sure that there has been work done on the inside of the Hollywood, I was pleased to see that it had not yet reached the tacky tourist-trap feel of Beale Street (well, at least it hadn’t when I was there).  It’s a great place to grab some deep-fried catfish as you listen to Marc Cohn’s most famous song and contemplate how awesome it was to let a song be your tour guide.

Hollywood outside

Hollywood inside

Hollywod piano
Muriel’s piano – long since silent
Hollywood Marc Cohn
And in case you didn’t believe a word, this proves it all!

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