There’s an excitement in the air in the American South.
We’ve arrived in Memphis with a list of must-sees but an open mind around that. We’ve got a scant three days to get it done, so we launch in as soon as our plane lands.
Day one and we hit the ground grooving with an absolute must-do which is a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Situated on the former studio site, this awesome collection of memorabilia also tracks the world-changing soul record label from the earliest indie days to their influential height at the cusp of the 1970s. Original equipment and a reconstruction of the actual studio itself – complete with sloping floor – bring great atmosphere and the sheer number of hitmakers involved is mighty impressive. Or you could just check out Isaac Hayes’ gold-trimmed 1970s car which quite frankly is one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen. These days, the Stax complex is also home to a great music academy which produces fab talented kids from the Soulsville area. Indeed, days after our visit some of these youngsters played at the White House.
Just down the road from Stax is the Four Way Restaurant, which has serving up classic soul food for decades. You’re talking fried catfish, black eyed peas, turnip greens, chitlins, yams – this is stick-to-the-ribs, flavourful, proper food at a great price and with no pretension at all. Top notch.
Refuelled, we drive the 15 minute journey over to 3,734 Elvis Presley Boulevard – also known as Graceland. Our worry was that this would be a mawkish mess of commerce and hard-sold trinkets. But the house itself is kept immaculate, as Elvis left it, and his personality shines through. Excessive, yes, over the top, sometimes – but ultimately sweet and generous with a huge sense of fun. The grave site is relatively unassuming and the sense of loss of such an awesome talent is sobering.
After a quiet reflection, we head to The Rendezvous on South 2nd Street for their famous dry-rub ribs with a side order of sausage and cheese. Needless to say, like off-duty Elvis, we’re not going to be worrying too much about the calorie count here. Hey, we’re in the South – we gonna eat well.
We’re staying in the Peabody Memphis, a gorgeous, wonderfully-located legendary hotel right in the centre of the city. The views are excellent of the city and although we do have a rental car, pretty much all the major central sites are walkable. And there’s a rather special added reason to splash out, too: the parade of the ducks.
At 11am, a resplendently-clad Duckmaster leads a march of several resident ducks (yes, real ones) from their 12th floor penthouse accommodation to the central fountain in the bar. There the ducks stay, play and chill out until they return to their evening accommodation at 5pm sharp. The Duckmaster’s patter is warm and funny, and he is assisted by a youngster picked from the crowd on his feat. Surely there’s nothing else like this anywhere in the world. The ducks seem not to be bothered, either, by the literally hundreds of spectators watching them. Obviously well-seasoned, which is always a bonus when it comes to duck.
Day Two starts with the ten minute walk to Mulberry Street and the profound experience of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum itself is situated at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr, was assassinated on 4 April, 1968. Exhibits chronicle the civil rights movement then and now plus the events leading up to that tragic moment in human history. Yes, we’re on vacation, but some things quite frankly need to be experienced and the museum is a vital educational tool for all, regardless of background.
After a period of quiet reflection, we head to South Riverside Drive for a Memphis Riverboats Sightseeing Cruise. The nearly two-hour cruise up and down the Mississippi is informative and relaxing, in the company of a tour guide with a fine line in Southern charm and the odd innuendo, too. Though the weather’s a tad cloudy when we go, it’s great to hear about the development of the city, key moments, pioneers and the context of where we are.
And with that, it’s time for more dinner – this time at Itta Bena, a restaurant on the top floor of BB King’s club at the top of Beale Street. Now BB’s not in residence when we head there but there is a very fine Scallops and Grits to be had as a starter and then, sorry lads, Duck and Waffles which is a witty take on the chicken classic. Enough to send anyone’s blues away. We take a stroll down the lively Beale Street and find ourselves enveloped in music, laughter, bars, street performance and a buzz of excitement everywhere. Though the place is inevitably a little on the gaudy side, the sheer power of the area is immense. These are the clubs that inspired Elvis as a youngster; here’s where the blues was born. And it’s a wonderful night out, just bar hopping and catching different live performances.
We struggle out of bed on Day Three and walk up to Sun Studios – world-famous for launching the careers of the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, oh yes, a truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley. The tour is around an hour (it’s a pretty small place) but major thrills are in the air when we actually stand in the original studio where Elvis and the gang recorded. The icing on the cake is getting to pose with one of The King’s actual microphones. Sun is still a working studio at night when the tour buses have left the building.
The Rock n Soul Museum just off Beale Street goes even deeper into the source of all this magic and our day ends in the company of the creations of chef Kelly Earnest at his restaurant, Iris. One signature dish is a version of Surf n Turf which turns out to be an enormous steak stuffed with oysters and slathered in what turns out to be a rather overpunchy blue cheese sauce. Others in the party have the hand-dived scallops and the shrimp and grits. It’s Southern food, but with a classy twist and this place is feted not just in Memphis but increasingly on a national level.
As a city break, Memphis has a great deal to recommend it; three days is hardly enough to scratch the surface of course, but nonetheless can give a serious flavour of exactly what makes this vibrant city tick.