Feel the Beat of Rock’n’ Roll, Soul and Blues
By: Charlene & Richard Mixa
“I’m Going to Memphis!” is our chant as we begin our musical journey to Memphis. Sitting on the bluffs along the Mississippi River, Memphis is famous for its influential strains of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll that originated here. The home of music pioneers who produced new beats to American music and their impact is still heard today.
“All Shook Up!” The music of Memphis actually “shook up the entire world.” The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum tells the story of the birthplace of rock and soul music. A video begins our introduction on the music originating in the rural fields and with the sharecroppers of the 1930’s. Donning headsets, we wind through the six Galleries on a digital audio tour. The Rural Culture Gallery explains the impact of blues, country and gospel music that unexpectedly combined for a musical revolution. Each stop on the audio tour explains the intriguing story of the music and its impact on the musicians, the city, the culture, as well as, social and racial barriers. The focus in the Coming to Memphis Gallery is on musical components intermingling on streets and in juke joints, as displaced sharecroppers arrive in Memphis seeking work.
Continuing to the Sun Records & Youth Culture Gallery, we learn about Sam Phillips’ impact with opening Sun Records. He created an opportunity for musicians with little money to be able to record their songs. Ultimately, unknown musicians including Elvis Presley, became the legends of rock ‘n’ roll creating music that celebrated youth, good times, and sexuality. In the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll explodes, changing much of the world, then comes into its heyday in the 1970’s. Oops, we sing along with the songs on the headset and get a few odd stares from other visitors. African-American culture and its influence on Memphis is shown in the Soul Music Gallery. In the 1960’s soul music became a political expression for African-Americans. The Social Changes Gallery is the history of how in Memphis’ music erupted from the studios with a cultural, social and civil rights revolution of its own. The Bravo Gallery salutes and celebrates Memphis performers, recorders, and production pioneers who “shook the world” with music that inspired musicians and changed the complexion of the world forever. There is so much to see and hear in this impressive museum created by the Smithsonian Institution. Please, allow plenty of time and be ready to sing along to old favorites. A “must do!”
There’s “A Whole Lotta Shakin Going On” at Beale Street. A national historical landmark Beale Street reflects the “shakin” Memphis had on American blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and gospel. The strains of a variety of music drift from the nightclubs and restaurants on the famous three blocks of Beale Street. Music lovers will thrill at the jam sessions, neon signs boasting unique music, and the sounds of rock ‘n’ soul, as well as, horse drawn carriages decked out in twinkling lights. Definitely music to fit anyone’s desires. Be ready to singalong, hum, do some toe tapping and do “A Whole Lotta Shakin.”
“It’s got a back beat!” As the song says, Rock and Roll music has “got a back beat!” Our BackBeat Big MOJO Tour starts with lunch at B.B. King’s. It’s fun viewing memorabilia in the restaurant and tapping our feet to the music of a local band. On the bus, Dillon, our guide, entertains with historical facts, unique places, trivia, tidbits and songs as we wind through Memphis. Truly a great way to see the sights and hear the sounds of the city of music. So much to take in from the history of Beale Street to the tales of music icons. The bus stops by the apartment where Elvis lived but had to move because he started making too much money. We hear of Johnny Cash’s struggles as a door-to-door appliance salesman, and the story of where Carl Perkins got the idea of his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes.” Our tour covers Stax Studio’s impact with its many famous recording artists, Overton Park – now an upscale area with some great dining venues, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital – started by Danny Thomas, The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, the Peabody Hotel with its famous ducks and more. Dillon entertains with favorite songs as he shares Memphis’ astonishing history.
The Big MOJO Tour includes a fascinating tour of the Sun Studio, started by rock and roll pioneer, Sam Phillips in the 1950’s. Our enthusiastic guide educates on how recordings were done from the 1940’s onward. It is a captivating story of the many musicians who got their start at Sun Studio including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, Warren Smith, Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee Lewis. We hear how and why Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ contract for only $35,000. Our guide shares a story of an impromptu jam session in December 1956 and a photo that was nicknamed the “Million Dollar Quartet” of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The Big Mojo Tour is terrific!
When I was growing up in Big Stone Gap, VA, Elvis was on his rise to stardom. My girlfriend, Sandy, and I, quite the tomboys, made a hot rod using doll stroller wheels attached to a long board and a cross board, with a rope for steering. We proudly name it “Elvis!” So I was Elvis fan at an early age. Heading to Graceland, I am excited to learn more about how a kid from Tupelo, MS became the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“Taking Care of Business” was a motto that Elvis adopted in the last few years of his life. Since his death in August 1977, the Presley family has lived by that motto in “taking care of business.” Today Graceland the 13.8 acre estate of Elvis Presley has become one of the most-visited private homes in America with over 650,000 visitors a year. Officially a museum, Graceland warmly welcomes visitors with a personal touch and a peek into the unique life of Elvis Presley. Aboard the shuttle we each get a state-of-the-art iPad for a tour narrated by actor John Stamos, of the Mansion and grounds. Utilizing the latest technology the iPad has each room of the Mansion with features of zooming into to see more of a room, to see various aspects of the room visually or even to save favorite items to review later.
Gathering outside this stately colonial revival style mansion we enter the foyer to begin our visit into the private world of “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll!” We admire the elegant Living Room with its beautiful stained glass peacocks. Close by is the simple but warm bedroom of Vernon and Gladys Presley. As a young boy, Elvis promised his parents he would make a lot of money and buy them the finest house. Graceland was the fulfillment of that promise. Touring the mansion the décor is primarily the late 1960s to early 1970s. Our iPad/audio tour gives detailed information on each room, its uniqueness and how it was utilized by the Presley family. We stroll through the Dining Room to the Kitchen and the Entertainment Room with 3 TV’s. When Elvis learned that President Lyndon Johnson utilized 3 TV sets to keep up with major network news, Elvis decided he would have 3 TV’s too. Yards of fabric cover the Pool Room! The famous Jungle Room is reminiscent of Hawaii, a favorite vacation, film-making and performing site for Elvis.
Exiting the Mansion we find scenic fields with horses grazing. Elvis was an avid rider. The tour provides so many facts and trivia on Elvis, his career, and his family. His father, Vernon, handled all the personal business, and we visit his office. In the Trophy Building, along with the “Hall of Gold” are the MANY trophies Elvis received. We recognize all of the famous songs of this amazing collection. We learn of Elvis’ generosity always giving to organizations and people in need. The Racquetball Building continues with a collection of Elvis famous jumpsuits and more. Arriving at the Graceland Pool, we find a serene setting with the Meditation Garden, where Elvis and his parents are laid to rest.
Back on the shuttle, we next visit the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum. An ardent car lover, Elvis owned a variety of cars with many adapted to his specifications. Elvis had all the toys cars from his Pink Cadillac to motorcycles to other fun motorized toys. At the “I Shot Elvis Photography Exhibit” are numerous photos with fans and taken by fans of Elvis. In the Graceland Archives is an extensive collection of archives from Elvis’ life. A lot of time and energy goes into preserving the thousands of archives of Elvis Presley’s life. Here we sit and enjoy a wonderful video of many Elvis’ songs – of course, we quietly singalong. It’s just a short walk to the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II Jets. The logo on the plane is TCB – for “Taking Care of Business” Elvis’ motto. The Lisa Marie is a large aircraft designed to Elvis specifications. Following the sidewalk we visit Elvis’ Tupelo that tells the story of Elvis’s birthplace, Tupelo, MS and his early years. A fantastic video beautifully shares Elvis’ early life in Tupelo, MS. Fantastic! We are so glad we continued to tour and stopped at the Elvis’ Tupelo as it was great and gave even more insight into his life. Finally, we end with the Elvis’ Hawaii: Concerts, Movies & More with the jumpsuits, attire, and memorabilia of Elvis’s various Hawaii visits. Wow! It is a full day of visiting at gracious Graceland! We leave with a new appreciation of Elvis as a son, father, person and entertainer. A small town boy who represents the American Dream of becoming a super star, changing pop culture and the world forever. We definitely can see why going to Graceland is the ultimate pilgrimage for many Elvis fans.
Location, Location, Location! The Madison Hotel is just a few steps from Main Street and a few blocks to Beale Street or in the other direction a short walk to the greenway along the Mississippi River. The staff is warm, friendly and welcoming. Every aspect of our stay is first class. Our king suite, with a separate living room and bedroom, is decorated in a warm chic upscale décor. Being a corner room it had plenty of windows allowing for natural light. The large bathroom has separate shower and tub. Beautiful cityscape and scenic views of the Mississippi River are found at the Twilight Sky Terrace, a rooftop bar. The Fitness Center was a former bank vault and we see the intricate workings of the locks of the vault door. Funnier is that the vault ceiling had to be cut out to allow the tall NBA players to be able to “fit” into the Fitness Center. The Madison Hotel is great hotel with upscale accommodations, its location, and service.
If you go: We highly recommend Memphis Travel for planning any trip to Memphis. Plenty of information to help make the most of your time in this dynamic city.
BackBeat Tours, 140 Beale St, Memphis, TN 38103
Graceland, Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38116
Madison Hotel, 79 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103
Memphis Travel, 47 Union Avenue, Memphis TN 38103
Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, 191 Beale St, Memphis, TN 38103
Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave., Downtown Memphis