The Habers are on the move again. We are spending a few days in Memphis; not as exotic as SouthEast Asia, but a place we’ve never been to & a fun new place to explore. Memphis is a town that revolves around 2 totally different aspects: music and civil rights; (read into that what you will).
Day #1 was a short one as we didn’t get to the hotel till 3 PM. We went first to the Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum. It’s housed in a modest white clapboard house which was owned by Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant & owner of the Memphis stockyard. He built the house so he could help slaves escape to freedom. The tour of the house included a tiny tunnel through which the escaping slaves entered the house and the tiny root cellar where they stayed until it was safe to journey to the next stop on the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside the house. What was of most interest to me was learning how slaves used both quilting patterns & spirituals to send messages to each other.
Memphis was named after the Egyptian city of the same name. As such, the Memphis Pyramid is the most dominant feature of the city’s skyline. The huge pyramid was built in 1991 when the city government agreed to fund it. A developer named Sidney Shlenker promoted the plan and promised restaurants, tourist attractions & lots of revenue for the city. The 321 foot pyramid was built, but none of the money making items that Shlenker promised happened. I was not particularly impressed with the Pyramid.
From there we went to Beale Street which is the place for live music in Memphis. There’s one music club/bar after another with music wafting through the air. Most of the places play blues, but one of them plays jazz on Sunday nights. Stay tuned (pun intended) to see where we went!
Besides the clubs on Beale Street, we found the remains of a magnificent old building called the Gallina Building; how funny is this?! (For any of you who don’t know: my maiden name is Galliner but pronounced Gallina.) The building facade is held up by 6 steel girders. From the 1860’s till 1914 the building held the empire of Charles Gallina who operated a saloon, restaurant & 20 room hotel as well as a gambling room. If you look at the photo very carefully, you can see the Gallina name on the top.
We ended our first day at a restaurant that serves Southern food. I thought that was appropriate. I had sweet potato crusted catfish; it was quite good.
Day #2 continued in the same vein, I.e., museums devoted to civil rights & music. Our first stop was at the National Civil Rights Museum. It is built on the Lorraine Motel site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I remember the day very clearly; I’m sure many of you do as well. What I didn’t know was that while the assassination sparked riots in many cities, Memphis remained calm.
The museum makes a thorough examination of the American civil rights movement from slavery to the present day. Exhibits display original letters, audio recordings, photos & newspaper clippings from events including the Montgomery bus boycott, Brown vs. the Board of Education, Freedom Summer (something else I clearly remember) & the March from Selma to Montgomery.
When Dr. King visited Memphis in 1968, the Lorraine Hotel was one of a handful of downtown hotels that welcomed African Americans. The room and balcony & parking lot where he spent his final hours have been carefully re-created. We spent hours at the Civil Rights Museum. It is definitely worth a visit.
From there we went to the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum. This museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. It tells the story of Memphis music from the Delta blues to Shaft. It’s more of a history museum (with lots of music) than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame that we went to last year in Cleveland. One of the things I knew nothing about was an all female radio station called WHER; love the call letters! Here’s something else I learned: there was a record store on Poplar St in Memphis called Poplar Tunes. Eventually it was shortened to Pop Tunes (& that’s where that term originated). This museum brought back memories of the Broadway musicals “Memphis” and “The Million Dollar Quartet”. This was another worthwhile stop.
At this point we needed to take a break, so we headed back to Beale Street & had some lunch. Would you believe I had nachos with melted cheese & pulled pork as well as a beer! When in Rome, er, Memphis….
Once refreshed (BTW, it was in the high 80’s), we went to the W.C. Handy home & museum. He is considered the Father of the Blues. His most famous compositions are St. Louis Blues, Joe Turner Blues, Memphis Blues & Beale Street Blues. While the 2 museums we went to in the morning were quite large with lots of visitors, this is a tiny one room house where we were given a private “tour” because we were the only ones there.
The docent there touted us on another exhibition — the Withers Collection. Ernest Withers was a photographer. He took some incredible photos that covered everything we had seen earlier in the day, I.e., both the civil rights movement (including photos of Emmitt Till) & the music scene.
As we were walking back to our car, a group of young people stopped Marty because they loved his t-shirt & wanted to take their picture with him!!! If you can’t read it, it says: I drink wine because I don’t like to keep things bottled up.
We then tried to get into Sun Studio where they give tours every half hour. Unfortunately, there was a 90 minute wait. We put it off till the next day and went instead to the Cotton Museum. The Cotton Exchange was established in 1873 & it was here that buyers & sellers of the South’s most important cash crop met & where fortunes were made & lost.
Here’s the chalkboard where the prices of cotton around the world were written by hand.
Dinner was at what was supposed to be one of Memphis’ finest restaurants. It was quite pretentious & while the food looked lovely (check it out on FaceBook), it just didn’t make the cut (so to speak). It was a disappointing end to an otherwise great day.
On Day #3 it rained on & off all day, but that didn’t stop your intrepid reporter & her sidekick 😃. We started the day at Graceland, Elvis’ mansion. Let me say here that I was never a big fan of his, so I didn’t care all that much. The house is as crudely decorated as were his costumes. The mansion tour is conducted by iPad. It includes the ground floor of the house, his various cars & one of his planes. The exhibits gloss over some of the challenges he faced – his addiction to prescription drugs, his womanizing, his failed marriage & his affinity for firearms.
Here’s his living room .
This is his pink Caddy.
And this is his gold plated sink in the bathroom on his plane:
Next stop was the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. This museum covered a lot of the same ground as yesterday’s Museum of Rock ‘n Soul. The major difference is that Stax is on the actual grounds of Stax Studio which was started by Jim STewart and his sister Estelle AXton. They used the first 2 letters of their names to come up with Stax. The building was originally a movie theatre which they bought because they felt it would have good acoustics. Isaac Hayes and Otis Reddng were among the most famous artists who recorded there. And I learned yesterday that my friend Ed who grew up in Memphis recorded there too with his high school band!!
From there we went to Sun Studio. Today we had no problem getting in. Elvis recorded his first hit here. The Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins & Johnny Cash) was recorded here. And guess what? My friend Ed recorded here as well. (And if you’re wondered what happened with Ed’s career: he wound up in market research 😃)
And here’s Marty on the actual mike that many famous singers used:
At this point we had pretty much covered everything on my list, so we decided to eat “lupper” (figure it out!). We went to Memphis’ most famous BBQ joint (recommended by Ed) – Corky’s. The ribs were great.
Since we had a little time left after filling our bellies, we went to the Dixon Gallery (which we had run out of time for on Friday). This is a small art museum that has a nice collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. As luck would have it, they were having a special exhibit on perfume bottles! Could that have been any more perfect. Well yes, if they had been for sale!
At this point we went back to Beale Street hoping to catch a performance by a 17 piece jazz orchestra. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason the promised performance did not occur & we weren’t really interested in any of the rock or blues being performed at the other clubs. Ah well.
Thus ends another Haber adventure. I recommend Memphis for a short getaway. Do any of you have any recommendations for us? We are currently considering Atlanta or Nashville for our next weekend sightseeing getaway. So, until we meet again, I remain your fun loving, roving reporter.