At the age of 14 I was listening to a Pirate radio station broadcasting from the North Sea when I heard a track from George Thorogood and the Destroyers. It was probably a song from from their self-titled album of 1977. George was playing furious electric slide guitar and I had never heard anything like it. The power of that sound, along with that of punk, especially the Sex Pistols, inspired me to get an electric guitar and play it hard. Guitar driven music, especially the blues, has been part of my life ever since.
Nearly forty years later I found myself in Nashville, which is only a 3 hour drive from Memphis, which in turn is close to Mississippi and the Delta, so I took the opportunity do something I had wanted to do for many years: get on the blues trail.
I started at Sun Studio, Memphis, one of the most revered landmarks in blues, country, rockabilly and rock and roll. Originally the Memphis Recording Service, Sun was founded by by the equally legendary Sam Phillips in 1950. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others started their recording careers there. Once our tour guide arrived, the few of us that had gathered in the adjacent cafe which is the rendez-vous point for the tour, went upstairs to the museum where he told us the story of Sun – an extraordinary tale of one man’s vision and persistence. Then he took us down to the studio to finish the story. He told the tale well – with knowledge, humour and great timing. The studio itself is tiny, but it is at is was in the 1950s, right down to the original acoustic tiling. One wall is lined with guitars (including Scotty Moore’s) and there is a stack of vintage Fender amps against another. When the tour finished, I got talking to the guide (or preacher as he refers to himself) and he was kind enough to show me the interior of the minuscule control room. As I had a recording on my phone of a track dedicated to Scotty Moore I asked him if I could play it in that hallowed space and he agreed. It was a magic moment.
There is a shuttle that runs from Sun Studio to Beale Street, which stops close to the Gibson Factory. The factory offers a tour of Gibson’s Memphis facility, and being a guitarist who plays a Gibson ES-Les Paul made in the same factory, I was keen to see how it was created. The tour guide walked us through the factory, pausing at the various stations dedicated to the shaping, assembling and finishing the instruments and providing us insights into the process. It takes about three weeks to make one of their hollow body guitars . Sadly, the facility is moving from Beale Street at some point, though Gibson say they are committed to retaining a presence in the Memphis area. From Gibson I walked to Beale Street proper. The area was created by an entrepreneur in 1841, and by the 1860s black traveling musicians had begun to perform there. By the 1900s, Beale Street was largely African-American owned, lined with clubs, restaurants and shops and the home of W. C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues and the creator of the “Blues on Beale Street”. It continued to be home to the blues, and between the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, and other blues and jazz musicians played there, contributing to what became known as Memphis Blues. B. B. King got his famous initials from his billing as there as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”
Today Beale Street is a very much a tourist destination, but it has a unique look and feel and if you get into a bar with live music it is really special. Of the shops, easily the most interesting is the old fashioned general store A. Schwab Trading Company, established in 1876. It is housed in the oldest remaining building on Beale Street and contains the Beale Street Museum and two floors of quirky merchandise, including some hoodoo (folk magic) items. Seeking give music, I found Vince Johnson and The Plantation All Stars at the atmospheric Blues Hall Juke Joint. The picture of them was taken with a Leica Q, (f2.8, 1/100, ISO 3200). I also saw Eric Hughes (solo) at the rather oddly-located wrestling themed King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame. Both were excellent.
Also on Beale Street is the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum – an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors in 2000. The museum provides a journey from the rural origins of blues and soul in the 1930s, through the explosive growth driven by Sun and Stax labels up to the 1970s. It’s worth a look, not least because it provides some insights into the lives of the black and white sharecroppers whose music so influenced blues and soul music.
Still on Beale Street, I had lunch at the Blues City Cafe, a pint of Guinness at Silky O’Sullivan’s (you have to go to see the goats), and dinner at BB Kings Blues Club. Much of the food on Beale street is Memphis-style barbecue, which is distinct from the other US regional BBQ styles of Kansas City, Texas and Carolina. Memphis-style barbecue is usually pork ribs slow cooked in a pit prepared either “dry” or “wet”. I had no idea what this meant before coming to Southern US. The difference was explained to me at a visit to the One & Only BBQ. “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub and eaten without sauce, whilst “wet” ribs are covered with sauce throughout cooking. Half wet, half dry is usually an option, and is what I tried. Portions are huge and the sides include devilled eggs, black-eyed peas and slaw mac-n-cheese. There are many starter options, but I particularly enjoyed the Polish Kielbasa sausage – which was smoked, dusted in dry rub and grilled and served as part of a sausage and cheese platter – a Memphis tradition. Being a tourist location, you’ll inevitably eat better off Beale Street than on it, but the location and live music more than make up for it.
Room 306 of The Lorraine Motel
The story of the blues, and of the South, is closely entwined with the story of black Americans and their struggle for equal rights, so it no is surprise that the National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis. In fact, the location is that of the assassination of Martin Luther King at The Lorraine Motel. Dr King was staying at the motel in April 1968 when he came to Memphis to support a strike. He was standing on the balcony of room 306 when he was fatally shot. The room has been preserved exactly as it was during his stay, a wreath hangs from the balcony and two white cars from that era – a 1959 Dodge and a 1968 Cadillac are parked in front of the motel. The picture of them and room 306 was again taken with a Leica Q (f8, 1/200, ISO 200). The air of regret and respect from visitors is tangible as you stand in front of room. The Motel is now the home of the Museum which guides visitors through five hundred years of history, from early slave resistance to the protests of the civil-rights movement. It is a very worthwhile visit. Reading about the motel afterwards, I learned that it has a strong connection to the blues as black musicians would stay at there while they were recording in Memphis, due to its long standing status as a safe haven for black visitors to Memphis.
The Blues Hall of Fame
Only two minutes walk from the National Civil Rights Museum is the Blues Hall of Fame. Initially this was not a physical building, but a listing, started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation. Many of my favourite blues artists were inducted in that first year, including Lightnin’ Hopkin, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker. The Memphis museum opened in 2015, and pays tribute to the 400 or so inductees. There are several galleries with interactive touchscreen displays for visitors to listen to music, watch videos, and read stories of the members of the Hall of Fame, and each gallery houses some memorabilia.
No visit to Memphis is complete without a trip to Graceland. From the perspective of any musical journey, Elvis’s fusion of blues and country into rockabilly was a unique achievement. It also laid the foundations for rock and roll. The visit completed the circle from my start point on the blues trail at Sun Studio. That was where owner, Sam Phillips, who in 1954 was looking for a white singer with a black blues feel, put Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black together. This resulted in their first single, a cover of blues singer Arthur Crudup’s 1949 blues standard “That’s All Right Mama”. The song was recorded with just the trio playing, without drums. The single sold around 20,000 copies, which was not enough to chart nationally, but it reached number 4 in the local Memphis charts and Elvis, Scotty and Bill were on their way. Graceland is about 9 miles from Downtown Memphis, close to the Mississippi border. It is preserved as it was appointed and decorated last, in the mid 1970s. That was when Elvis transformed the Southern Colonial mansion into a Rock n Roll palace. Accordingly, it is fabulously over the top. The Jungle Room has green shag pile carpet not only underfoot…but on the ceiling. The TV Room, with its mirrored ceiling and multiple TV screens, was apparently inspired by a comment from the President at the time who watched multiple televisions at once. The Pool Room has some 350 yards of fabric covering the walls and ceiling. It is hugely opulent, which is in strong contrast to the next part of the blues trail which took me deep into Mississippi and across the river into Arkansas.