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Monday, February 1, 2016

Tennessee Touring: Memphis - Martin and Elvis

Previously on our Tennesse tour...Part 1 and Part 2

It's another trolley ride south on Main Street in Memphis Tennessee. After a run at the breakfast bar at the Springhill Suites, we're off to see the National Civil Rights Museum.

Watch the Video!

Built around the Lorraine Motel, a Black-friendly lodging back in the Jim Crow days, the complex includes the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing in front of his room, and the building across the street where James Earl Ray stuck his rifle through the bathroom window to get a clear shot.

It's another sad, depressing...but important...stop travelers need to make. After years of oppression, bigotry, and prejudice, Dr. King's efforts at equality led to some remarkable remaking of southern and American society. His death here in Memphis only made the movement stronger.

Entering through a underground tunnel, you are ushered into a theater for a 10 minute introduction to Dr. King and his legacy that runs on a loop. Once you're done with that, you head upstairs for exhibits and a timeline of the events of that April 4th. At the end of the timeline, you find yourself standing at a reproduction of Ray's bedroom and bathroom.

Only it isn't a reproduction. 

Once you read the signs and get your bearings, you realize that tunnel led you into the old boarding house and you are looking at the actual bedroom and bathroom, sealed in glass, as they were left that day.

After some more exhibits about the investigation, the trial, and other assassinations, you wander back outside and visit the motel itself where you can walk up to room 306, look in, and stand in the spot where Dr. King fell, marked by a wreath.

It's sad but whenever we visit somber monuments like this, we have to focus on the good things that resulted from it.

Another trolley takes us to a happier historic site, the birthplace of rock 'n roll.

It's on the corner of Union and Myrtle, on the western edge of downtown Memphis. This small, brick building holds Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, also the home of his record label, Sun Studios.

A DJ in the early fifties, Phillips would hire himself out to record things...birthday parties, weddings, funerals...much like videographers do today.  You could also come to his studio and rent time or even cut a quick demo record.

Many Black groups in the day would come in because they new Phillips loved the sound of African American blues. Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston came up from Mississippi to record. One of their amps fell off the car, damaging it a bit, on the way. Recording with the amp gave the guitar a slightly fuzzy sound and guitar distortion was discovered that day.

The song they recorded, "Rocket 88," is considered the first rock 'n roll song.

It wouldn't be long before a local teenage truck driver named Elvis Presley would come in to record and hang around which, eventually, led Sam Phillips to invite him in. Not moved by Presley's slow, melodic gospels songs, a frustrated Phillips called for a break during which Elvis, playing around with his band mates, knocked out a killer version of "That's Alright," which Sam came back in to immediately put to vinyl. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the studio is still in business. Mostly for tourists during the day and for musicians at night.  The tour itself is half accessible. The first half goes upstairs. Wheelchair users will have to wait in the lounge for that part but are not charged admission.

Upstairs, you get to see that broken guitar amp that Ike Turner used, numerous Elvis memorabilia, and some ancient recording gear.

Downstairs, the second half of the tour is exclusively a one-room shot, but what a room it is. In the studio, outtakes are played from 50's recording sessions, the tour guide points out where Elvis stood when he was recording, the "dollar in the guitar string" trick Johnny Cash used to get his unique sound, how the Million Dollar Quartet came to be, and much more.

A pickup band made up of tourists are put together to re-enact Elvis recording "That's Alright"...Tim got to be the King for that one (see it in the video, above).

At the end, the microphone used by Elvis is brought out and everybody gets their chance to pose with it.

You do really feel the history here, both at Sun Studios and the Lorraine Motel. One is a celebration of uninhibitedness, while the other is more somber but it led to some great and hopeful changes to our nation.

It's been a long day and we've been on our feet for all of it. To get a rest and relax a bit, we head to the Peabody Hotel to sit, have a cup of coffee in the lobby, and check out a real duck dynasty.

In the 1930's, the hotel's manager...after a little imbibing...thought it'd be funny to leave some live ducks in the lobby fountain.  The next morning, probably with a bit of a headache, he thought better of it and went to the lobby to retrieve the ducks.  A crowd had formed and he knew he had a hit on his hands.

A bellman who used to be a circus trainer volunteered to train the birds and, ever since, they have lived on the roof of the hotel. Each morning, they take a private elevator and are marched to the fountain.  At 5:00pm, the duckmaster...with an honored hotel guest...retrieves the fowl, marches them back to the elevator to the tunes of a Souza march, and back to the roof.

This is known as the Peabody March of the Ducks and we're here just in time for it.

If you get a table in the lobby like we did, the staff make sure to keep your view clear. Other, less fortunate visitors have to squeeze in by the elevator behind velvet ropes. Children are allowed to sit in front on the floor. People in wheelchairs, like Tim, are ushered to their own privileged front row viewing area.

It doesn't last long but it's still a hoot to see.

As the ducks go, so do we. Next time, we'll have some great barbecue and continue our journey along the Elvis Trail.

Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved 

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