Memphis: The Rise of a Famous Man, and the Murder of a Famous Man

The bridge which connects downtown Memphis to the state Arkansas. Photo by Thomas Hawk, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

The bridge which connects downtown Memphis to the state Arkansas. Photo by Thomas Hawk, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

On my first day in Memphis, I took the Backbeat Mojo bus tour, including the Sun Studios tour. This turned out to be a wiser decision than I originally realized since a) in a city where public transit is bad, a tour bus is certainly useful, and b) I was weary, and a bus tour certainly takes less energy than giving myself a tour of the city.

I do not know much about the history of the blues / rock-and-roll. On the one hand, that meant that some of the thing at the Sun Studio tour did not mean much to me, on the other hand, that meant it was all new information to me. They went over the history of how Sun Studios was founded, starting as the ‘Memphis Recording Service’ which allowed Blues artists who otherwise would not have access to recording equipment get their songs recorded. After a bunch of artists who got their songs recorded went on to contracts with record labels, Sam Phillips, the founder of the Memphis Recording Service, realized that he could make more money (and do more for artists) by founding his own recording label in Memphis. Thus Sun Studio was born.

Sun Studio as seen from the outside. Photo by Mr. Littlehand, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

Sun Studio as seen from the outside. Photo by Mr. Littlehand, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

Of course, the artist they discussed the most was Elvis Presley. The very first Elvis Presley song was recorded by the Memphis Recording Service, and though Sam Phillips spent over a year refusing to offer Elvis Presley a contract, eventually, he did, and that was the beginning of Elvis Presley’s career as a professional musician.

The famous photo taken of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash in the Sun Studio recording room.

The famous photo taken of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash in the Sun Studio recording room.

We got to visit the very recording studio where Elvis Presley’s first hit songs were recorded (where the photo above was taken), as well as critical hit songs from Johnny Cash and other notable musicians. We even got to speak/sing into a microphone which had been used by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Interesting, for a while, this room had stopped being a recording studio, and had one time (after the 1950s) served as a laundromat before it reopened as a recording room.

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston (right)

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston (right)

Throughout the tour of Sun Studio, they played various songs which were important in its history. My favorite son was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats. They were from Clarksdale, one of the delta towns I passed through on the bus. On the way to Memphis to get the song recorded, some of their equipment (an amplifier?) fell off the car, and they were too poor to replace it, so when they recorded the song in Memphis, they stuffed it with newspaper. It created a weird sound they liked, so they kept it in the song.

The tour then took us around Memphis. The tour guide was a young local musician, born and raised in Memphis, who would sing songs in between the narration. Some of the more interesting stops (to me) were:

– The point at the Mississippi River where the ‘Battle of Memphis’ took place. It was the only Civil War battle in Memphis, and since it all took place in the river, it did not damage the city itself. It only lasted 90 minutes, mainly because the local Confederate naval forces were clueless and lost quickly. The guide explained that, unlike many towns and cities in the Civil War (such as Vicksburg), Memphis had an economic boom during the Civil War, and did quite well.
– Lauderdale Courts. Built in the 1930s, they were one of the first public housing projects in the United States. By far their most famous resident was … Elvis Presley. As a teenager, when his family moved from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, they were so poor that they qualified for public housing. Elvis Presley lived in Lauderdale Courts as a teenager.
– The Levitt Shell in Overton Park. Overton Park is called ‘the Central Park of the South’. The Levitt Shell was where the first public Elvis Presley performance took place, just after the first time one of his songs had been played on a local radio station. He was slotted to be the opening act for a famous yodeller. The guide explained “the people who came to this yodelling concert were all rednecks, not that there is anything wrong with being a redneck, I’m a redneck myself, I’m just explaining who was in the audience. They see Elvis, a white boy dressed like a black man, and they don’t know who he is or what to make of him.”

Most tourists in Memphis visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former mansion, which is now apparently an Elvis Presley theme park. I did not go because a) my time in Memphis was limited b) the tickets are really expensive ($38 was the cheapest ticket I could buy, and it was for just a minimal tour) and c) I got enough Elvis from the Sun Studios / bus tour.

Here is a question: did Elvis Presley, by taking black music, black fashion, etc., and becoming far richer from it than any black musician of his era, help black people and black culture, or hurt black people and black culture? This is not a rhetorical question – I don’t feel I know enough about rock and roll history or cultural appropriation to offer a meaningful answer. I know a lot has been written about this topic, and this is the first essay I found (though it is about racism in rock and roll in general rather than Elvis Presley and cultural appropriation specifically).

Beale Street. Even though this photo was taken in 2006, it looks pretty much the same as Beale Street in 2016. Photo by Danube66, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Beale Street. Even though this photo was taken in 2006, it looks pretty much the same as Beale Street in 2016. Photo by Danube66, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Of course, I had to spend at least a little time on Beale Street, which is possibly the most famous street in Memphis. Back in the Jim Crow days, it was the main commercial street for ‘Black’ Memphis. It’s where the most famous African-American music clubs were, as well as the African-American businesses. It thrived from the 1890s to the 1960s, but since then it has … lost something. It’s still one of the busier streets in downtown Memphis, but as the tour guide put it, it’s about remembering the past, rather than creating the future of music or anything else. One evening, I ordered a drink at one of the establishments on Beale Street and listened to their live band. I liked the drink, but the music was pretty ‘meh’ for me.

The Lorraine Motel. Photo by matt northam, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

The Lorraine Motel. Photo by matt northam, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

And then there is the Lorraine Motel. Back in the Jim Crow days, many hotels would not accept black guests, so black people set up their own hotels which catered to black guests. There were travel books just for black people, telling them where to find the black hotels in the South – I saw some of those travel books on display in the National Civil Rights Museum (I’ll introduce that soon). The Lorraine Motel was the best known black motel in downtown Memphis, and had many noted musicians among its guest (including Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin). Famous songs such as “Knock on Wood” were composed at the Lorraine Motel.

The Lorraine Motel’s most famous guest ever, of course, was Martin Luther King. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel multiple times. The last time he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, an assassin shot him, he collapsed on the balcony, and he died an hour later in a hospital.

Today, both the the Lorraine Motel and the building from which the assassin fired his shot are part of the National Civil Rights Museum. I spent four and a half hours there because it takes that much time to take in all of the exhibits. If I tried to describe everything I learned at the National Civil Rights Museum, I could easily triple the length of this blog post. Instead, I’ll just throw out a few things:

– I had heard of the Freedom Rides, but I had not really understood them until I saw the exhibit at the museum. I had taken it for granted that I could take buses from New Orleans to Memphis and receive decent treatment – African-Americans under Jim Crow could not, and when they tried to change that, their buses were bombed, and worse.
– In the mid-1960s, the Oakland police killed more African-Americans than all lynchings in the American South. This is why the Black Panther party armed themselves with guns – in order to prevent the Oakland police from killing black people – and the main reason the California government passed gun control laws was to stop the Black Panther party from doing that. I did not know that that was why California started have stricter gun control laws than other states.
– Martin Luther King had come to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers. I had been aware of this before, but I learned a lot more about the sanitation strike. For example, on rainy days, black sanitation workers only got two hours of pay, whereas white workers got a full day’s worth of pay. And that was not the least of it. No wonder the black sanitation workers of Memphis went on strike. And Martin Luther King was not even the first person to die during the strike – a child had already been killed.
– There was a map of several U.S. cities today showing how racially segregated we still are. Ironically, featured city which I knew best was Memphis. It showed a very sharp divide between black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, which was consistent with my observations. Cooper-Young is definitely a white neighborhood, and I also passed through some obviously black neighborhoods. The black neighborhoods generally had housing that was in worse shape, as far as I could see.

The National Civil Rights Museum also goes into great detail about the Martin Luther King assassination. Just going through all of it takes at least an hour. They let visitors view both Martin Luther King’s room, and the window from which the shot was fired.

So that sums up my touristy experiences in Memphis. Tourists in Memphis tend to be drawn most to Elvis Presley and/or Martin Luther King. For Elvis Presley, Memphis was the beginning, and for Martin Luther King, Memphis was the end.

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2 thoughts on “Memphis: The Rise of a Famous Man, and the Murder of a Famous Man

  1. Good post. You covered a lot of ground here. But to focus in on one part, if you ever wanted to know more about Memphis in the ’50’s in general and Sun Records specifically, I highly recommend Peter Guralnick’s book about Sam Phillips.

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