“Now the world’s in a revolt because Dr. King is gone.”
Otis Spann – “Blues for Martin Luther King”
Saturday morning dawned gray and drizzly – the perfect opportunity to visit some of the sights of Memphis that are indoors. First on the list: the legendary Sun Studios. We headed a few blocks down Union Avenue, where the studio and attached museum sit diagonally, facing Marshall Avenue. With as much music history as this building has seen, I was a little surprised by how small the building was. The original studio where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas and so many more famous musicians recorded consisted of only one small building with an office in the front and the studio in the rear. Years later, when the world came to see the importance of the building to the history of music, the space next door (which used to be a soda shoppe) was also purchased. That two-story building now houses the gift shop (in the space formerly occupied by the soda shoppe – and with real fountain sodas!) on the ground floor and the museum on the second floor.
Before we went inside, we snapped some pics of the exterior of the building:
As we learned during our tour of the museum, the picture on the left was referred to as the “million dollar quartet.” As the story goes, Carl Perkins was in town holding a recording session, and Sam Phillips, Sun Studios’ founder and owner, called up a new acquisition of his record label to come sit in on the session. That new acquisition just happened to be Jerry Lee Lewis. As the session stretched on, Elvis Presley, who was in town for the holidays, popped in. Johnny Cash had also wandered into the studio, wanting to hear Carl Perkins’ work. The famous photograph above was snapped, and the sound engineer started rolling tape, capturing forever the legendary jam session of these four amazing musicians.
In the museum, we got to see the priceless memorabilia collected by Mr. Phillips over the years, including a guitar used by Elvis in the studio, vintage ads and recording equipment.
We also got to hear the true story of the rise of Elvis Presley, which was mostly thanks to the persistence of Sam’s business partner, Marion, who was also his receptionist. Apparently, when Elvis first came into Sun Studios to record, Marion made a copy of his recording and left it on Sam’s desk. Sam, unfortunately, was not impressed, but Marion was persistent in her support of Elvis, and eventually Sam asked him back to record with some local musicians. During that session, Elvis and the musicians began to jam on Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” an old blues song. When Elvis and the other musicians started to jump and dance around the room, Sam knew he’d hit on something special. He recorded an acetate, dropped it off to his DJ friend Dewey Phillips, who played it the next night on his radio show, and the rest was history.
Once our tour of the museum was complete, we headed back downstairs and next door to the studio itself, where our tour guide showed us exactly where, according to tape marks still on the floor tiles, each of the musicians in that famous recording session had stood, including the gouge in the tile where the upright bass player had propped his bass. She also pointed out the “x” on the floor where Elvis’ microphone stand had been, then she pulled the stand itself out for everyone to gawk over. I was amazed that everything in the room is still original to that day back in 1954 – even down to the acoustic tiles on the walls and ceilings that Sam Phillips himself installed.
After Sun Studios, we headed across town to the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum. In April of 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to support striking black sanitation workers. As he stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel the evening of April 4, a shot rang out. Dr. King was struck by the bullet and later died at a local hospital. The museum takes visitors through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, from the earliest days of indentured servitude and the slave trade, to the present day. The timeline of historical events combined with more in-depth information on major accomplishments of the Movement was moving and profound, and really opened my eyes even more to the ways things once were for black Americans in this country. When I try to explain to my son, for example, that hundreds of years ago people were enslaved only because of the color of their skin, or that black Americans could not use the same restrooms or water fountains as whites, I am at a loss for words. My son’s school is very diverse, and he has friends from every ethnic and religious group you could imagine, so I think it is hard for him to understand how different American society used to be. I, too, have trouble wrapping my head around the treatment black Americans received at the hands of racist whites. To see how hard-fought a struggle the Civil Rights Movement has been – how difficult it must have been to remain peaceful and focused when so much hatred and bigotry was against you – gives me so much appreciation for the work of Dr. King and so many others.
The capstone to our visit was the “balcony experience” – the ability to mount the steps of the Lorraine Motel and see the room Dr. King stayed in and the balcony where he was killed. There is nothing that can prepare you for such an experience. It was very emotional, and I could feel the weight of the importance of the site as I climbed the steps. The gray skies made the few moments I spent on the balcony even more somber. The balcony is a place for reflection on Dr. King’s life, and on how far we have come as a nation towards his vision of equality, and yet how far we still have to go.
After our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, my husband and I were starving, so it was quite convenient that Central BBQ was located directly behind the Lorraine Motel. We headed inside and made our way to the order window, where we picked the full slab of ribs for two – wet – which came with two sides apiece, as well as two rolls each. We both picked macaroni and cheese and barbecue baked beans for our sides. The ribs were delicious – rich, smoky flavor and just the right amount of sweet, spicy sauce. And the sides were hot, fresh and had that home-cooked flavor. We also tried a local beer that was on special.
After lunch, we headed back to the hotel to chill out in the pool for a bit, then drove over to the Beale Street Landing to board a Memphis Riverboat cruise down the Mississippi River. The cruise was about two hours long, and had commentary on the history of Memphis and a few funny stories from the city’s past, such as the story of Hopefield, Arkansas. According to our guide, in the early 1900’s, Hopefield had become a den of vice. Gambling and prostitution were common there, and since it was right across the river from Memphis, many men from the city would cross the river on boats to take part in these illicit activities. Some of the women of Memphis, tired of their husbands staying across the river at all hours of the day and night, contacted the Memphis police department, who organized a “rescue” party to cross the river and encourage these men to return home to their wives. When they arrived on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi, they found the men waiting for them, guns drawn. The men ordered the Memphis police to strip naked, then put them back into their boats and sent them back across the way they’d come. When the boats returned to the Memphis side of the river, the staid ladies on the shore were in for a surprise, as the naked police officers stepped out of their boats, embarrassed, and explained that there wasn’t anything more to be done. At that point, the women of Memphis turned to prayer, which apparently worked out better for them in the end, as the town of Hopefield was swallowed up by the Mississippi River in 1912 after massive flooding. We also learned about the time in 1812 when the river flowed backwards following a massive earthquake that made a crevice in the riverbed so large that the water had to flow backwards up the river to fill it in.
That evening, my husband and I were kind of “barbecued out” (I know that sounds impossible), so we decided to have dinner at a sushi and Thai restaurant near our hotel, Bangkok Alley. Our dinner was light and delicious, and we walked back to our hotel, where I spent the rest of the evening reading about the history of Memphis, especially relating to music. That information would come in handy for Sunday’s activities!