Remember that the last time Elvis walked through Graceland doors, it was 1977. Times have changed, a Graceland guide points out. Fashions have changed. Graceland has not.
It is a blend of the '50s, '60s and '70s. It is a poor boy's idea of luxury, a gift he promised his parents they would have one day. It is not nearly as grand as many visitors think it would be.
Today’s rock stars and other entertainers have far more elaborate homes. It is a tribute that Elvis chose to live in his hometown – and he is still a powerful source of income for Memphis area residents.
Graceland is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Tennessee. Must admit I certainly head to Graceland whenever I visit marvelous Memphis. But there is so much more to see and do, much of it involving, of course, music and food and wonderful southern hospitality.
Named for its Egyptian sister overlooking the Nile, Memphis was founded May 22, 1819. A rough and rowdy river town with the mighty Mississippi as its lifeblood, Memphis was a favorite haunt of such legends as Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson.
W.C. Handy arrived in Memphis in 1905 and wrote an anthem to the city’s busy street, “Beale Street Blues.” Beale Street itself is a music and food lovers’ paradise, reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans — without the strip bars. It might be best to walk around the four blocks of Beale Street for a while to see what all is offered before you decide where to eat and listen to music.
As Handy once wrote, “The Seven Wonders of the World I have seen, and many are the places I have been. Take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first." Look for the statues of Handy and Presley on Beale.
In late 1940, a young Mississippian joined in the amateur contests on Beale and soon developed a large following. Instead of using his first name of Riley, he became known as B.B. - The Beale Street Blues Boy. Today, B.B. King is acclaimed as one of the masters of the genre and his nightspot on Beale Street is a popular music stop.
One of the newest kids on the block, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on Beale features seven galleries highlighting the history and legacy of musicians working in Memphis and the Delta – what some would call “the holy ground of American blues” – from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Less than three miles from Beale Street, Soulsville USA has risen from the ashes and honors its music with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The Stax music was gritty, closer to where the blues began. It was down-home soul music, born out of blues and gospel. Stax was home for American music legends including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs, Rufus Thomas and more.
I was spellbound watching Isaac Hayes’ 1972 peacock blue, gold trimmed Eldorado Cadillac on a rotating turntable. And saddened to hear Otis Redding singing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and to realize that he was only 26 when he died in a plane crash.
A few streets over at Sun Studio, musical history also was being made. When Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio for the first time, he was asked who he sounded like. His reply, "I don't sound like nobody."
When he sang "That's All Right, Momma," listeners agreed. Elvis fused country, blues and gospel music into a new sound. Sun Studio became known as the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.
Tour guides now welcome visitors and point out that Sun has the same acoustic ceiling, the original lights and the old floor that so many legends once trod — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, among others. Our tour guide told us that legend Bob Dylan walked in, knelt down and kissed the X marking the spot where Elvis stood to make those early recordings.
Even if you aren’t staying here, be sure to stop by The Peabody Memphis near Beale Street to watch the March of the Ducks. Every day at 11 a.m. the ducks take an elevator ride down to the hotel lobby where they step along a red carpet to John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March,” arriving at the hotel’s beautiful fountain in the grand lobby. There they splash and preen until 5 p.m. when the procession reverses and the ducks retire for the evening to their rooftop abode at the Duck Palace.
“The whole thing started as a practical joke,” said Duckmaster Anthony Petrina. Back in the 1930s, Frank Schutt, general manager of The Peabody, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned empty-handed from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas.
“They had had a little too much Jack Daniel’s sipping whiskey and thought it would be funny to sneak some of their live duck decoys into the lobby fountain. That’s back when you were allowed to have live duck decoys,” Anthony said. “That’s what they did. Then they went up to their room to sleep it off.”
When they came down the next morning, the two men were shocked to see the ducks still there and a huge crowd enjoying the ducky spectacle. Thus began a Peabody tradition. Visitors are invited to watch the free parade and to visit the rooftop for one of the best views of Memphis.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, Memphis has a wealth of delicious dining spots. Chez Philippe in The Peabody is renowned for impeccable service in an elegant and refined setting.
The Restaurant Iris showcases chef Kelly English’s delish French-Creole cuisine. I’m yearning for their seared gulf snapper Pontchartrain with Arkansas butternut, Louisiana crab and crawfish.
Since Memphis is known for its barbecue, don’t leave town without eating downtown at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, famed for its ribs and long-term staff retention. When people want to work there and hungry folks are willing to wait in long lines at busy times, you know the food is good.
A Memphis breakfast is the perfect way to start the day and the Arcade Restaurant – the city’s oldest – is a landmark. Biscuits, country gravy, grits, eggs sunny side up and crispy bacon. Be sure and notice a booth by the back door. This is where Elvis sat when he would slip in for a quiet breakfast.
The King knew a great place when he saw it, the Arcade as well as mighty Memphis.
For more information: Contact www.memphistravel.com