The Peabody Hotel Rip-Off
Time to check out of the Peabody Hotel – but a postscript. It’s a 5 star hotel and very expensive but I booked the room on a cheap deal via Priceline. The hotel information on the Priceline site states the following: “The 464 rooms on 12 floors are large and restful. All include … free Wi-Fi and a free newspaper each morning.” Upon arrival – and you may recall it was 11.30 at night – I found out this was not true. I was told by the check-in receptionist that there was in-room Wi-Fi and a choice of newspaper but this was provided to guests via a daily Hotel Service Fee of $11.95! This is in addition to whatever the room rate is, however it was booked, direct or via a booking agency. I said that as there was a charge I did not want either Wi-Fi or a newspaper but was told that the Service Fee was not optional. I then complained quite vociferously that such an underhand charge was probably not legal but the hotel staff made it very clear to me that unless I agreed to pay it my booking would be forfeit on the spot with no refund! So I had no choice – and whatever you agree to pay via Priceline (or Hotwire) is not what you’ll actually end up paying. Talk about deceitful.
I’ve since learned that these are called Resort Fees, are always additional, payable directly to the hotel, and not included in the room rate. They are becoming more and more pervasive in the hotel industry apparently. What a rip-off. What I objected to was that there was no mention of this Service Fee anywhere on Priceline, or that the Fee was mandatory – the Priceline website was not stating the facts and it was never made clear even after making the booking that additional fees were payable. I guess they figure that with people paying typical room rates of $250 and upwards, the usual filthy rich clientele that stay there won’t complain because of the snob factor.
And just FYI, before my trip (I booked all my rooms before arriving in the US) I got some good deals from Hotwire as well, but also made much use of the Better Bidding website that gives great help and advice via its forums on how to get the best out of using Priceline and Hotwire.
It’s on the way to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music so I drive to Sun Studio hoping for a quieter shopping experience than yesterday. No chance. It’s even worse than yesterday – there are eight tour buses booked in today plus the usual ad hoc visitors. Ah well, I decide I’ll just have to battle through. I manage to find some quiet spots between the hordes embarking on their tours of the building, and actually get to buy some stuff: a mug, a polo shirt and a genuine 45 of Sun’s first million selling single, Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins. They’ve loads of old Sun singles for sale, nothing by Elvis unfortunately (not when I was there anyway), but I figured the first million seller was a good memento, and I happen to like the song a lot!
So with that out of the way I’m off to Stax – Soulsville USA. It’s overcast and I can sense rain in the air as I drive through the Memphis suburbs seeking my destination. I know it’s a well known place I’m looking for but I’m constantly scanning my surroundings, checking out if I’m going somewhere I should not be. But everywhere is deserted, there’s hardly anyone on the streets, it’s almost like a ghost town. As I cruise the streets I keep seeing groups of young African American guys sitting outside their houses on their porches, checking me out as I drive by, just like in Greenwood the other night, but this time it doesn’t make me feel nervous for some reason.
I think I’m getting near and as I drive up East McLemore Avenue I see in the middle distance the iconic entrance of the old movie theatre that was the Capitol Theater – the location of Stax and Soulsville USA. Getting closer I see that just before it however is the imposing – if somewhat bland – building of the Stax Music Academy: follow the link, what they’re doing in the community is great. In contrast to Sun, the original Stax building was demolished in 1989 but thankfully some people got together and bought the land where the original site of Stax Records was located. The Stax Museum is a complete replica of the Stax recording studio and former Capitol Theater, including the legendary sloping floor of Studio A (the studio was built in the movie auditorium where the seats were banked to give all the audience a view, and they retained the slope when Stax was founded in the theatre). The museum opened in 2003.
It’s pretty quiet inside the Museum as well, which is good as I can take my time going around and backtrack if I want (which I do, frequently). It is of course fascinating and awesome because of the stars who recorded for the label and, whilst it’s a replica, Studio A does give you an idea of what it was like. It’s a real contrast to Sun, which is a small room, whereas Studio A is large and cavernous with a high roof. It’s a good museum overall but a big problem is that most exhibits had a soundtrack playing, often with a video as well, and the noise from one exhibit to the next overlapped and interfered almost everywhere. This means I often couldn’t hear everything clearly whilst at one exhibit because of the sound from the previous and next exhibits. It’s not a very good design and layout. Another major issue is that in many display cases they’ve placed stage clothes and costumes of a performer in front, with written display boards at the back that tell their story, but the placement is really bad because the first third of each sentence is covered up by the costume meaning I can’t read the boards properly. Very poor curating. At the end of the exhibits I’m directed into the inevitable shop and, looking for some kind of Stax memento, whilst I wasn’t sure about any of the designs, I ended up buying a t-shirt.
I emerge from Stax around 2.30 pm: my next stop is back in the centre of downtown so on the way I find a sandwich in a petrol station shop, which – at last – is reasonably priced plus the staff are really friendly: a good lunch!
They Make The Les Paul
The Gibson Guitar Corporation have a manufacturing facility opposite the Rock’n’Soul Museum in the heart of downtown Memphis – and they do factory tours. So I get back into town and park in a public garage and walk over.
It’s all top secret, absolutely no cameras allowed. It’s a fascinating tour – the guitars are all still handmade, being hand-crafted with proper tools and there’s very little computer-controlled machinery anywhere. All the pieces are glued together, it’s real old style individual construction and manufacture. Each guitar is unique in its own little way despite having ‘standard’ models because of slight variations brought about by making them by hand. Prices are astronomical however – in the shop later I pick up a few guitars and some sell for round $3,700!!
Another Night, Another Hotel
Time to go and check in at the Sheraton Hotel. When I booked my rooms I originally planned to stay in Memphis for four nights but I ended up changing my itinerary. I’d already booked the Peabody and could not add on an extra night at my cheap rate: I certainly wasn’t going to pay full price and they were full anyway when I tried to extend my stay. The reason for my change was that I was hoping to go and see Chuck Berry play live in my next stop, St Louis. Whilst he’s over 80 years of age these days he still plays once a month at the Blueberry Hill club and apparently he’s still quite good even if the band do most of the work. Now if I’d have thought a few years ago – even 20 years ago – that one day I might get to see Chuck Berry play live I wouldn’t have believed it, so I wanted to take the opportunity if I could. The problem is they don’t announce the actual date Chuck is playing on until a few weeks before, but it’s always the 2nd or 3rd Wednesday in the month. I’m guessing this is because of his age just so they can be sure he’ll play. Well the October date, as usual, wasn’t announced until mid-September by which time I’d booked my Memphis hotel. And as it turned out, he was playing the week before I was going to be in St Louis… 🙁
So I had two itineraries worked out, one with Chuck, one without – and I had to action the latter when the dates didn’t work out and that meant another day & night (& hotel) in Memphis. In retrospect however Memphis would have been a real rush if I hadn’t spent four full days there, so despite missing out on Chuck Berry it turned out for the best.
[March 2017 update: Chuck died on the 18th of the month, apparently of natural causes, aged 90 at his home in Missouri. Whilst many people said Elvis invented rock’n’roll, without Chuck Berry I don’t believe the music would have taken off as it did and eventually conquer the world. Chuck to my mind was rock’n’roll’s poet laureate, his words and verses are true classics, and his music has inspired generations, both in his heyday and still today. A true original and music pioneer. Let’s just not remember him for My Ding-a-Ling but rather Johnny B. Goode.
“A pioneer of rock and roll, Berry was a significant influence on the development of both the music and the attitude associated with the rock music lifestyle.” – Berry’s Wikipedia page.]
The Sheraton seems nice and clean and I have somewhere to put all my stuff unlike the Peabody. That was another gripe about the Peabody – the room itself was quite big but they filled it with tables and chairs but practically no storage space. I ended up with most of my clothes on the second bed because there was so little storage space. And the bathroom was a daft design with no shelf by the basin so my toothbrush, razor etc. had to be placed at the other end of the bathroom where the only shelf was. Stupid. As you can tell, I wasn’t a massive fan of the place despite its historical importance to Memphis.
“I met a gin soaked bar-room queen in Memphis” *
The Sheraton is at the other end of downtown, away from Beale Street, so I take a trolley – which stops right outside the hotel – back down to Beale for dinner. I wander around to see whose playing and – resisting the temptation to go into the Blues Hall – I force myself to try somewhere different and end up in Silky O’Sullivan’s Pub, “where every day is like St Patrick’s Day”. There’s a lady – but she’s not a gin soaked bar-room queen I hasten to add – with a good voice on stage, playing with two groups for some reason, and musically it’s a mix of genres but good. I didn’t catch her name but I think she’s Barbara Blue as she plays Silky’s most nights according to their website. I have some very strange ribs to eat that are covered in some shake ‘n salt crap – they are not very nice at all and I leave most of them. The ‘Irish’ beer on draft is awful as well so I switch to Sam Adams.
As often happens in the US when sitting at a bar the guy next to me starts chatting away. He’s in town from Pittsburg on business and boy has he got a chip on his shoulder: as far as he’s concerned the world is crap and it’s all coming to an end because of technology screwing up kids. Turns out his kids – they’re late teenagers now – never call friends in person, hardly ever go out, everything they do is online via PC and smartphone. He’s given up on them, and he thinks humanity as a whole has gone down the plug hole. What a cheery conversation. Anyway, thankfully, he buggers off to bed just as the Duelling Pianos (another Silky’s regular spot) take over the live music. They, unfortunately, turn out to be decidedly average but then the atmosphere in the bar isn’t brilliant either, it’s emptied out quite a lot from earlier and it’s now only a third full, and very quiet with it. There’s hardly any buzz and the piano men are so poor they’re making it worse, and not helping to make it better. So, as it’s getting late, after a while I head back to the trolley – they stop running at a certain point and I don’t want to have to walk back or get a cab, so I reluctantly bypass the Blues Hall – and say goodbye to Beale Street. And, in the morning, to Memphis.
* Honky Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones