I have a ‘7-11’ breakfast again in my room this morning. Today there’s rain in the air and it’s colder and overcast compared with the sunny blue skies of the past few days. I turn on the TV for the weather forecast and there’s actually a storm being forecast. I decide to risk it and walk to my first stop of the day, hoping it should take me about 30 minutes: Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock’n’roll. It starts to rain lightly and I’m not sure how far away I am. I keep going and luckily spy a giant guitar on a building just up the road – hopefully that’s it. It is, and the place is absolutely full of people. I manage to get a ticket for the 10.30 am tour but it’s a good job I got there a bit early because whilst I’m waiting in the shop for the tour I hear the staff say to another visitor it’s now sold out and it’s an hour until the next one. 🙁
Just before we start the tour a coach turns up outside with a load more tourists on it and the shop suddenly becomes overfull and folks can’t get through the entrance. If it’s still like this after my tour, I think to myself, I may have to come back at another time to browse the shop because I literally can’t walk around it now, never mind look at anything. So the tour starts and we all head up some stairs into a room set out with lots of memorabilia in glass cases. To be honest they’ve put too many people on the tour and it’s difficult to move around the room and see everything. The guide tells a good story and moves slowly around the room to explain the exhibits but because we can’t move about freely folks have to wait whilst everyone shuffles around. Whether the guide allows more time than usual I don’t know but eventually I do get to see everything and we then head down more stairs to the studio itself.
The guide explains that it’s still a working studio today and when the tours finish for the day musicians turn up for sessions through the night. When I walk in there are guitars all around the studio, plus other instruments left from last night, awaiting silently for tonight’s session. “Don’t touch!” we are politely but firmly told. The studio is exactly as it was when Elvis recorded there back in 1953 -55 – decor, lights, wall and ceiling tiles, the floor. Nothing has altered. It is an amazing piece of history and a small miracle that it’s still in it’s original condition. I can almost feel as if I’m transported back 60 years and it’s quite emotional being in the place. The tour guide tells the story of when Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black recorded Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s All Right on July 5, 1954 – and she gets it slightly wrong but I decide not to correct her. 🙂
[On that night, after playing some country orientated songs that didn’t quite work out, Sam Phillips told the threesome to take a break in the session. During this interlude, at some point Elvis began ‘messing about’ on his guitar with Crudup’s blues song. First Black and then Moore joined in with Elvis and they ‘hit a groove’ for want of a better description. Some people believe that Phillips had left the studio control room during the break to go outside, others that he was still in there but was not paying attention, being engrossed in something else. What is beyond doubt is that Phillips was not listening to or watching them when Elvis started ‘messing about’. They were halfway through the song when Phillips either returned or stopped what he was doing and heard it: whatever, he was blown away by the sound they were making and Moore has said he clearly remembers Phillips telling them to stop and then “start and do it again” – whereupon he began taping them. The rest is history. The tour guide said that Philips was listening in from the start when Elvis started playing in the break. That’s highly unlikely: Elvis probably only started ‘messing about’ because he thought Phillips wasn’t listening – they had after all had an unsuccessful session up to that point, and Phillips had expressed some frustration to Elvis about this – so without the producer ‘being there’ as it were, he felt free to try something different. Which was a very good idea of his.]
“I wanna play house with you” * at Graceland
There’s a free shuttle bus that does the round trip from Sun to the Rock’n’Soul Museum and then onto Graceland. That’s why I didn’t drive the car to Sun because after Graceland the bus will take me back into downtown. On arrival I suss out what to do: the actual mansion is on the other side of the road to the rest of the exhibits, and there’s a short minibus transfer to get there. So I decide to see the mansion first, buy my ticket and then hop on the minibus.
You can wander around the house and grounds at your own pace as you get an audio tour on headphones which turns out to be very good. It’s explained at the front door that only the downstairs is open and even then many areas are roped off. They state that upstairs was an area where Elvis and his family spent private time and this should still be respected when Graceland was opened to the public – it was downstairs where the Memphis Mafia hung out with Elvis.
All I can say is “wow”. Graceland is preserved exactly as it was on the day Elvis died, with a wonderful ’70s vibe in all its splendour. After the downstairs tour I’m directed out into the grounds and outbuildings, again all faithfully preserved. One of the outbuildings – the Trophy Room, which was originally a sidewalk that Elvis had enclosed to store the many gifts he got – has now been turned into a shrine of Elvis’ gold discs, with a few costumes and other stuff thrown in. I hate to use the word “amazing” again but it is: it’s kind of overpowering just walking past dozens and dozens of gold records. From there I enter the old Raquetball Court that has been turned into another mind-boggling showcase of costumes, discs and other items.
From there, I walk past the swimming pool and I enter the Meditation Garden, Elvis’ final resting place. All the family graves are there as well: his mum, dad, grandmother and even his identical still-born twin brother, Jesse. It’s all been done very tastefully, and is very moving. Everyone is extremely reverential around the Garden: quiet, showing respect, which is great to witness.
Onto the minibus again and back across the road, it’s time for lunch. Jeez, why can’t this country sell stuff that is reasonably cheap and healthy? Hell, I know it’s Graceland and I should expect to see a peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich on sale but give folks some choice other than that or just burgers – and at a reasonable price. Without any choice I end up yet again paying nearly $10 for a burger and fries (note: I can’t buy a burger on its own, I have to have it with fries!). Rip-off.
More exhibits beckon: I bought the tour ticket that gets me into most things, so there’s some smallish exhibits about Elvis’ affiliation with Hawaii, another about the ’68 Comeback Special, his time in Las Vegas, and his roots in Tupelo. The big stuff are his two planes – one complete with sofa, beds and chairs – and a large room full of his cars – the pink Cadillac and all – plus other motorised vehicles. Including some golf buggies, which apparently got raced around the Graceland grounds on a regular basis. And so my visit – pilgrimage? – to Graceland comes to an end: for the most part, it’s all very tastefully presented, although every exhibit (apart from the house) has a gift shop attached selling all sorts of tat, which I suppose is to be expected. Nothing however, disappointingly, took my fancy (I constantly remind myself when in such shops: yeah, it might look OK in here but what will I look like back at home wearing this walking down the street? “A prat, probably, so don’t buy it.”)
It’s back onto the shuttle bus to downtown and I arrive at the hotel just in time for the bizarre exhibition that is duck time, to watch the birds as they march off to their beds. It’s a madhouse as usual but I manage to get a decent enough view from the first floor balcony that overlooks the lobby. It’s long been a part of Memphis’ history but even watching it today I can’t help but think it’s a strange spectacle. I then go out to get tomorrow’s breakfast, buying a couple of bottles of beer as well, but the store owner demands to see my ID! Let’s just say that the last time I was asked to prove my age was about three decades ago… it’s an absolute joke and we get close to having a raging argument – and I nearly walk out – but eventually give in and show it to him. Idiot.
Back to Beale Street
After chilling at the hotel for an hour or so downing my beers I head out onto Beale Street to see what’s occurring tonight. Mindful of my Bourbon Street experience I’d asked Tad where I might find music in my remaining nights and his advice was to stick around Beale Street. He was sure I’d find something good or reasonable (and, of course, last night was indeed mostly excellent). He also cautioned about heading out on my own at night into unknown areas: he re-stated that clubs open and close all the time, so trying to find a place might turn out to be a wild goose chase, plus taking one wrong turn in unfamiliar territory could mean I’m suddenly in the ‘wrong’ kind of area. Memphis does have its dodgy areas he again cautioned. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be on my own at night in some of the places Tad took me to last night.
So what is occurring on Beale this fine evening? Not much to be honest: Club 152 is, like last night, thumping out some raucous noise that is not in the least bit enticing or welcoming (and not many people like the place on TripAdvisor I discover when I get back home); BB King’s Blues Club is unfortunately closed temporarily due to a recent fire that caused smoke damage, which is a real shame; and so, wanting to try somewhere different I see through the windows of the King’s Palace Cafe that there’s an old rotund African American guy with a guitar playing in a large room surrounded by dining tables, so I go in and sit at the bar, order a beer and ask for a menu. Within seconds I realise I may have made a mistake as my musician friend starts playing an extremely bad version of The Twist and suddenly he’s exhorting all the old (and exclusively white) fogeys in the room to get up and “do the twist”. Oh dear. Not exactly Delta Blues, is it? And get up and ‘boogie on down’ they do, twisting the early evening away before, when the guitarist takes a break, they all thankfully toddle off and leave to go back to their hot water bottles and Horlicks in their hotels. Maybe it’ll get better?
The barman is a tall, chilled-out black guy with a cowboy hat and we get chatting, so I ask if there might be some proper blues at some point and he’s says he thinks so, so I stay put and order some food. The entertainment returns – but it’s not good. One man, one guitar and now loads of electronic ‘backup’ for backbeats, enhanced vocals and so on. He’s a lounge lizard on a guitar! He then proceeds to murder The Thrill Is Gone, which was a big hit for BB King, turning it into some easy listening mush that no half-decent MOR radio station would ever play. I notice the man plays the same guitar solo in every song, totally at odds with whatever the song is or what the backing track requires. It’s so sad to watch and listen. He can clearly play the guitar and he’s old enough I guess to know some true blues but he’s reduced to playing MOR crap in this joint. He then asks for requests and someone shouts out “Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland” to which he replies he doesn’t know any of his songs! Good God, maybe he doesn’t know any blues after all. I’m tempted to shout for Smokestack Lightnin’ or some other blues standard but I decide he either won’t know it or just murder it with syncopated muzak as a backing track. Jeez, he’s awful and after the next nondescript song I leave. I suspect the barman reeled me in hook, line and sinker. Back to the Blues Hall I decide.
It’s a different band tonight, Chris McDaniels and Friends, and they sound promising. There’s a lady vocalist who does a spot and she’s very good. The club is absolutely packed out, you can hardly move. Then, just as they’ve got the joint rockin’ and people dancing, the band takes a break – and within a few minutes, most of the audience, save for half a dozen souls (including me) who stay put, leave the place. Incredible! By the time band comes back the Blues Hall is practically empty. Why did they stop? Idiots. I know they need a break but you’d have thought they’d have kept it going for a while when the atmosphere was so good. And the place never fills up again for the rest of the night: a few more folks drift in off the street now and then, but not many. The band do a few reasonable numbers, the lady vocalist comes back and she’s good again but then as soon as the boss man McDaniels takes over lead vocals, it all starts to go rapidly downhill.
There’s no more R’n’B standards or blues that anyone knows, just run-of-the-mill turgid songs which they must have written because every now and again a guy walks up and down the room trying to flog their CDs. Needless to say, no-one buys anything. They even play Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd which is quite a controversial song in these parts and one open to some misinterpretation (as the writer Ronnie Van Zant subsequently admitted) – and half the band playing the tune are African American. Compare and contrast that to Dr Feelgood Potts the night before (whose band were all black) who started to play the song’s intro, but stopped after about 10 seconds and said to the audience, “You won’t be hearing that from us” – obviously a very barbed comment that I didn’t see any significance in at the time, but now it’s clear it was a very pointed dig at McDaniels, who is obviously known to play it, something that clearly doesn’t go down well with some of their contemporaries on the Memphis music scene.
So after a good start in the first half of their set, instead of increasing the tempo and trying to get the buzz back from earlier, the mood has gone flat, and drifted away into the night – as do I, out of the door, to bed. Possibly a band with potential but someone needs to give them some managerial guidance and direction I think. Stopping to play alleged redneck songs would be a start.
* Baby, Let’s Play House by Elvis Presley