Ed Leahy goes walking in Memphis.
The city of Memphis tells a tale of three kings, two by name, one by nature.
King number one is undisputed rock and roll royalty and the River City’s most famous resident. And no trip to Memphis is complete without a visit to the home of the king, Elvis Presley’s Graceland.
A short spin out of the Tennessee city, along Elvis Presley Boulevard, past the Heartbreak Hotel and you arrive at Graceland.
‘Thank you very much’, in my best Elvis impression as the attendant passed my car park pass through the car window. She was not amused.
The Graceland entrance lobby offers the impression that you are entering a fun fair, however, the queue for the bus shuttle immediately loses the fun aspect as the production line feeling kicks in and continues throughout the visit.
The shuttle bus leg of the tour could easily be replaced by a hard-working lollypop man as the journey lasts barely a minute as you are transported across the road to the Graceland grounds.
From here, the opening exchanges are akin to visiting an open house as you are led through the front door, around the living quarters, past the piano room and down along the hallway.
Underwhelming so far, things certainly improve as you venture downstairs through what can only be described as the party area, or perhaps Elvis might have said the ‘taking care of business’ rooms. (TCB was Elvis’ motto)
Wraparound couches with record players, televisions and drinks cabinets, a pool room decked out in the finest coloured velvets and, further along, walls of golden discs, memorabilia and a wide range of wardrobe changes from Vegas to Hollywood.
The audio guide is your friend on this trip as your hear tales from the remarkable life of Elvis, music samples and house histories along the way before moving outside where Elvis kept his horses and his on-site shooting gallery.
The final stage of the mansion tour takes you to the final resting place of Elvis, flanked either side by his parents.
The Graceland tour is obviously a must-see attraction when visiting Memphis but perhaps only the true Elvis fanatics will really appreciate the visit.
The graveside, in particular, is just another photo opportunity for the majority of tourists and lacks the sombre setting that would allow true pilgrims to rest and reflect after their, sometimes epic, voyages to bid farewell to their hero.
The tour finishes with a tour of Elvis’ impressive car and aeroplane collection before the obligatory visit to the many gift shops of Graceland.
The diner was offering great deals on burger meals and while I felt it might be a nice tribute to the king to indulge in some of his favourite foods, it also served as a reminder and I passed.
Back downtown and with the car parked, it was time to go walking in Memphis.
I failed to encounter the ‘ghost of Elvis down on Union Avenue’ as in Marc Cohn’s tribute to the city, but I did pay a visit to the famous Peabody Hotel, one of Memphis’ main landmarks and famous for its ducks.
The town is far from a sprawling metropolis and is easily navigated by foot, but a novel way to take a city tour is by hopping on the delightful Memphis Main Street Trolley, which takes you on a loop of the city and offers great views of the majestic Mississippi River.
Ironically, the famous ‘Walking in Memphis’ ditty fails to give a clear representation of the city’s inhabitants as it appears that walking is not the most popular of pastimes in these parts.
The march from the Peabody to my next destination was less than a mile but once past the AutoZone Park baseball ground, the city ceased and the last half mile along Union Avenue was a solitary one.
But well worth the stroll in the summer sunshine as I arrived at Sun Studio just in time for the hourly tour of this most famous of Memphis institutions.
Sun Studio is widely accepted as the birthplace of rock and roll and the tour takes you on an anecdotal history of the Memphis music scene with musical interludes throughout
Sam Philips was recording Blues music from the early 1950s long before a young Elvis Presley arrived with $4 to record a demo at the famous studio.
Elvis left an impression on the Sun Studio folk and was called back in a year later to record a session with the resident band. Philips had almost given up on the future king but heard something he liked as the band were taking a break from recording.
Elvis was doing his own version of the old Blues number, ‘That’s All Right’ and Philips had found what he was looking for as it had ‘all the power and honesty of the Blues mixed with the wildness and exuberance of an all-night party’. Rock and Roll was born.
Philips sold Elvis to RCA and while the fee was paltry in comparison to Presley’s future worth, it saved the studio as bills were paid and investment in new artists was possible.
And future artists included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis throughout Philip’s ten-year tenure at the Memphis landmark.
The tour takes less than an hour and, for me, a much more enjoyable experience than the Graceland circus as you really felt the atmosphere and history between the walls of this humble building on the outskirts of Memphis’ city centre.
The tour finishes with a chance to recreate your own rock ‘n roll Kodak moment as one of the original microphones is placed in the middle of the recording area for you to pose for posterity. A gimmick no doubt, but yes, of course, I indulged.
While your days in Memphis are used to learn about the history of this most musical city, the nights are for living your own Memphis stories down on Beale Street.
King number two, American Blues legend BB King was recording with Philips long before Elvis entered the building and his music is still celebrated with gusto down on Beale.
BB King’s Blues Club is one of the most popular spots on Beale as you will enjoy dancing to the music of the BB King All Stars and other guest bands.
The Rum Boogie Bar boasts an impressive collection of guitars hanging from the ceiling, while both sides of the strip will cater for the many music fans pounding the Beale every night, as Father of the Blues, WC Handy, keeps an eye on proceedings from his lofty perch into the early hours of this music mad city.
The third King of Memphis did not hail from the city but rather came here looking for change.
It was far from music styles that Martin Luther King Junior was contemplating but other matters of conscience and Civil Rights change, delivering his ‘I've Been to the Mountaintop’ speech at Mason Temple.
The following day King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Former US Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson was with King on the balcony as they were speaking with musician Ben Branch.
King’s last words according to Jackson were a request to Branch to play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’. “Play it real pretty,” said King.
Music was the common factor throughout the good and bad days of Memphis, and so it will remain.
Where to Stay in Memphis
I stayed at the superb The River Inn of Harbor Town hotel on Mud Island, adjacent to the city centre. This excellent hotel welcomes you with genuine southern hospitality and combines the traditional charm of the Old South with European influences and the rich history of Mud Island. The River Inn overlooks the majestic Mississippi River within walking distance or a relaxing trolley ride from downtown Memphis.
The hotel boasts 28 luxury boutique rooms and suites, while Paulette's Restaurant offers excellent fine dining with an award-winning continental menu, which is one of the most popular restaurants in Memphis.
The Rooftop Terrace at the hotel is the perfect place to enjoy a summer evening cocktail as the sun sets over the wide expanse of the Mississippi, while panoramic views of the Downtown Memphis skyline will also impress. www.riverinnmemphis.com
Getting to Memphis
I drove to Memphis from New Orleans en route to Chicago. The drive from New Orleans to Memphis takes just over five hours, while Memphis can be reached from Chicago by car in about eight hours.
For more information about car hire in the USA, visit www.hertz.ie or call Hertz on (01) 676 7476. Hertz Gold Plus Rewards members enjoy the fastest pick up and drop off car rental experience with exclusive member benefits.
For more information on Memphis, visit www.memphistravel.com or www.discoveramerica.com.