Memphis is the home of Blues, Gospel and Rock and Roll music. Our boat travelled over to the city dock near Beale Street two nights ago. This gave us access to some of the city sights and being able to see and do things feels much better after all the time we spent filling in time a few days earlier.
Yesterday, we had the opportunity to go on a tour of the city that covered four main places that were historically important.
A first visit at the city information centre gave us an overview of the role that this city has played in the playing and recording of music. Two big statues were on display – one of Elvis (of course) and another of BB King, Wikipedia tells me that he was a singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer. He introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced many later electric blues guitarists. BB King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and is one of the most influential blues musicians of all time, earning the nickname “The King of the Blues”,
Another stop on the way was at the Sun Records recording studio. This was the place where singers such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded their music. It is known as the birthplace of Rock and Roll.
From there, we visited the Lorraine Motel where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. The motel had long been a centre of creativity with many writers and composers staying there as they wrote various pieces of music. It was one of only a few hotels in Memphis that provided African Americans with overnight accommodation. In 1968 it became the focal point of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to support the rights of local sanitation workers who were on strike. On April 3,1968 he delivered his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at the Mason Temple. The very next day he was assassinated by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of Room 306. The motel never opened again after that day, and in 1991 it was transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum.
Our last stop on the tour was a visit to the Peabody Hotel where there is a famous ‘Duck March’. Back in the 1930’s the General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend, returned from a weekend hunting trip. The men had a little too much to drink and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was then legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the Peabody fountain in the hotel lobby. In 1940, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now famous Peabody Duck March. Thus began a Peabody tradition which still conducted every day.
It amazes me that large crowds gather to see this event twice each day. All you really see is four ducks walk across the floor into the elevator which then takes them to / from the roof. They then walk across the roof, past the penthouse to the duck hut. I’m sure that people will laugh at me to find out that I travelled half way across the world to see this!
At least I learned something as the penthouse at the Peabody is actually a real house on the roof of this 17 story building. I don’t know whether this is typical of other penthouses but it looks like ti could be the start of a good story.
Jill and I also took a few hours to walk along Beale Street. This was once a street of bars and saloons where performers sang and played. Now it is just a tourist street. However it has a good number of restaurants and the names on the signs reflect its musical past.
At night, the riverboat has some form of entertainment (Well, we have to have something to keep us entertained with all our delays and diversions.) Last night Elvis entered the room and gave a really good performance of his songs. Apparently, he had a repertoire of 655 songs but he promised not to sing all of them. I remember my mother had a severe dislike for his music as did one of my uncles. I don’t think that they understood that he sang far more ballads and gospel music than his rock and roll songs. Anyway, my uncle believed that anything written later than the Strauss waltzes was ‘jungle music’!
I want on another tour today to both the Rock ad Soul Music Museum and to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Museum was above the Hard Rock Cafe and predictably showed various performers costumes, instruments and memorabilia
Jerry Lee Lewis’ car was there – cut in half. It was a custom made Cadillac and we joked that he must have missed some payments on it and had half the car repossessed.
I unexpectedly enjoyed the Rock and Soul Museum much more. Probably because it told of the cultural importance of music to the very poor people in this part of America and how it helped them cope with what must have been a very meagre existence. People here (both black and white) struggled as share farmers. They were dirt poor and their highlight of the day was to listen to the music hour on their radio. I think these photos summed up their lives.
Black musicians created Blues music which then developed into Soul music and also into Gospel. White singers contributed to this and eventually Rock and Roll emerged. The music studios in the town provided places for them to record their songs.
There are dozens of musicians whose work is celebrated in Memphis. There are long run of musical notes inserted into the footpath with their names on them,. I have never heard of many of them although I did think that a band named ‘Robert ‘Nighthawk Tooms and the Wampus Cats’ was one to remember.
Tonight’s entertainer gives us a very interesting session on the history of jazz – how it developed from the cakewalk music of the early river boats into ragtime and then forms of blues that turned into jazz and ultimately into swing and boogie woogie. Over this time the metre of the music changed as did various levels of syncopation and improvisation. He regarded Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong as the real geniuses of jazz.