Thursday, February 02, 2006

Musical destination: Memphis

Yes, the King of Rock 'n' Roll made his home there, but Memphis has a greater musical legacy than just Elvis.

Although Cleveland boasts the impressive Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Memphis has a stunning list of music attractions that put the Ohio city to shame as a music mecca.

While the rock hall drew 413,000 visitors last year, Graceland alone attracted 600,000 people. Now, add Beale Street, the Sun Studio, Stax Records Museum, Gibson Guitar Building, as well as B. B. King's Blues Club and you have a formidable music tradition. Besides Elvis and B. B., musicians with ties to Memphis include Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Redding and Issac Hayes.

So, if you love music, Memphis makes a great travel destination. In fact, the extensive musical legacy of Memphis drew my wife Sue and me there on vacation in late May, 2001.

We visited Beale Street in downtown Memphis several times. Regretfully, much of the original Beale Street was torn down during urban renewal projects in the sixties and seventies. Now, it's only a few blocks long, but what an amazing stretch of real estate it is!

Located in downtown Memphis, Beale Street was instrumental in the development of the blues as a premier American music genre. Blues founder W. C. Handy in memorialized on the street with a statue and park, where there are often free concerts.

B. B. King's Blues Club is nearby. Although B. B. only appears in concert at his venue a few times a year, other performers are featured at the club which also serves as a bar and restaurant. Beale Street offers trendy spots, such as the Hard Rock Cafe, and taverns which barely qualify as dives, yet offer impressive entertainment. Tourists seem to flock to Beale on weekends, but locals return on weekdays.

While in town, be sure to stop at 706 Union Ave., home of legendary Sun Records. Sam Phillips operated his Memphis Recording Service from this location. You can tour the tiny recording studio and get your picture taken in front of the same microphone Elvis used to make his early recordings.

To realize that Presley, Ike Turner, Charlie Rich and so many other music greats recorded in such unpretentious surroundings is amazing. Rock 'n' roll's humble beginnings are little noticed or recognized in today's mega-million dollar music industry.

The building next to Sun Studio includes a soda fountain where you can enjoy a vanilla Coke and buy memorabilia including souvenir matchbooks, compact discs and posters.

Also worth a visit is the Stax Museum at 926 East McLemore. Stax, which recorded hundreds of remarkable soul tracks during the sixties and seventies, was to Memphis what the Motown label was to Detroit.

The Gibson Guitar Building, meanwhile, houses the city's Rock 'n' Soul Museum. There you can see and hear how music is intertwined with the history of Memphis. Visitors can see the well-worn white piano on which Ike Turner composed "Rocket 88," which many music historians consider the first rock song.

While you're in the neighborhood, it's just a hop, skip and a jump to northern Mississippi. During our trip there we stumbled upon a small town festival which featured the area's best bluegrass musicians. Listening to those local musicians playing their fiddles, mandolins and banjos in the town square demonstrated how integral musical traditions are both to Memphis and the surrounding area.

If you want a music vacation, Tennessee also offers Nashville, the home of country music. Other great road trips might include Austin, San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle or Cleveland.

But, today let's sing the praises of Memphis.

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