Memphis is a music town. There’s so much music, soul, and history in these parts.
I grew up playing jazz music, so I’ve long felt a kinship to New Orleans.
It wasn’t until visiting Memphis that my interest in the history of Rock and Soul was awakened more fully.
I boiled everything down to 7 things you should probably do.
1. National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
What a special and important site. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in on April 4, 1968.
The museum exhibits begin on the ground floor and starts with the history of the African people, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction. As you walk through the exhibits, you’re moving forward chronologically and upwards in terms of elevation to the second and third floor.
The tour ends in Dr. King’s room (#306) and the balcony where he had his final moments. This museum is built on Holy Ground, as it intersects with an important moment in American History.
While I also enjoy the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta (as well as others), the museum at the Lorraine Motel is a heavy experience because of the events that unfolded there.
- The wreath and plaque outside Dr. King’s balcony with a quote from Ralph David Abernathy
- The replica period cars outside Dr. King’s balcony to give the place a 1960s aesthetic.
- The history the Lorraine Motel: originally the Windsor Hotel, it eventually became one of the few hotels that welcomed blacks and hosted B.B. King, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, and more
- A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the lobby
- The many references and appearances of Ambassador Andrew Young and Congressman John Lewis.
- Exploration of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968
- Painting and sculptures by Tennessee-based artists
- The Last Request – Precious Lord, Take My Hand. This is the song that Dr. King requested that saxophonist Ben Branch perform moments before King was killed.
“I want you to play it real pretty,” said MLK.
“You know I will, Doc,” replied Branch.
2. Beale Street
The main tourist area of Memphis. It’s one road and maybe two or three blocks of restaurants, bars, music, street performers (like those who high jump over a group of people – for tips). It’s similar to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.
Here are a couple places to check out:
- B.B King’s Blues Club
Good place with an area to chill and a dance floor near the bandstand. There are portraits of Memphis greats like Elvis, Albert King, and more.Saw the band Memphis Jones perform, and they were great, serving as musical tour guides through Memphis music history. The lead singer would explain the song, its origin, and then perform it with verve with the band. So, the experience was both entertaining and enlightening.
Head’s up, there is an attendant in the bathroom.
- King Jerry Lawler Hall of Fame – Bar & Restaurant
A less formal, more casual place than B.B. King’s. It’s adorned with the wrestler Jerry Lawler’s memorabilia, pictures, nostalgia. Drinks, music, take it easy.
I was surprised to learn about the Chinese American chapter of Memphis history on Beale Street with a couple commemorative plaques. For one, there was the Chop Suey Cafe at 342 Beale Street which was in business for 47 years and closed in 1967.
You can also walk up to the Orpheum Theater to see what’s playing.
3. Sun Studio
This is the legendary studio is known as the “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It was opened by record producer Sam Phillips at 706 Union Avenue.
Many great artists recorded there: Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis.
I learned about Marion Keisker, a record producer who ran the day-to-day business of the studio. She was the first to record Elvis Presley, which happened in 1953. She eventually left Sun Records to serve as an officer in the United States Air Force. She was a portfolio careerist. In fact, Sun Records released Elvis’ first recording in 1954.
The main entrance leads to the gift shop where you can get souvenirs like branded socks, mugs, and guitar picks. I noticed some CDs by Elvis, too.
It’s a good idea to take the official tour.
4. The Peabody
Probably the best and most well known hotel in Memphis. You feel the luxury upon entering, and the hotel is known for its duck march. A hotel staffer or “Duck Master” unfurls a red carpet. Several ducks then emerge from the elevator and march on the carpet towards the fountain in the lobby bar area. Make sure to double check the times for the march if you really want to see it.
Check out Lansky’s Brothers, the shop at The Peabody. It was originally located on Beale Street and known as the “Clothier to the King.” The King being Elvis, of course. Yep, Elvis got some of his signature looks from Lansky’s.
The home (and resting place) of Elvis Pressley and family. It feels like a Mecca for Elvis-lovers and music fans. As in, it can be packed with tourists. So you may want to start your day there early. Upon arriving, select what ticket package you want. I was surprised to see a VIP option for $215 (which I didn’t take).
After you get your ticket, you’ll see an orientation video that feels like it’s meant to give young people a better perspective of Elvis’ story and impact in modern times (like telling you how many social media followers Elvis has).
The museum gives you the option of carrying an iPad and listening to Jon Stamos give the audio tour, or you can read the plaques instead. I chose the plaques because I didn’t want to lug around an iPad.
Then you take a shuttle across the street to see Graceland.
- The iconic four white columned-house with two large stone lions outside
- Living Room/Music Room with a Knabe Grand Piano and stained glass windows with peacocks
- Dining room with an Italian chandelier. It’s where the family put up the Christmas tree.
- Kitchen where meals were usually southern cooking: steaks, pork chops, banana pudding
- Green shag carpet everywhere in some sections of the house – like on the floors, walls, ceilings.
- TV room where Elvis watched football on 3 televisions.
- Pool Room with a table Elvis purchased in 1960
- Den/Jungle Room with Polynesian/Tiki furniture
- Small replica of Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.
- Trophy Building with personal effects like Elvis’ boyhood bicycle, portraits of his parents, the desk from his upstairs office, law enforcement badges that were presented to him
- Racquetball Building
- Meditation Garden with resting sites for Elvis, his parents, his daughter Lisa Marie, and Lisa Marie’s son.
You can’t go upstairs to the Elvis’ personal quarters. Then take the shuttle from Graceland back to the pavilion where there are several exhibits. It feels like Disney’s EPCOT but for Elvis.
- Elvis’ cars and motorcycles like a Rupp Centaur Trike, Solar Midget Race Car, 1975 Ferrari Dino, 1956 Continental Mark II, 1966 Harley-Davison Chopper
- Icons exhibit with many modern day stars paying homage to Elvis such as Justin Timberlake, Elton John, Carrie Underwood, and more.
- Elvis’ costumes, guitars
- A giant walls with Elvis’ hit records
- Posters of movies that starred Elvis
- Replica of movie sets
- Replica of recording studio where Elvis recorded, such as the Memphis Recording Service
- Exhibit on Elvis’ time serving in the US Army
- Gladys’ Diner where you can eat burgers, hot dogs, pizza
- An exhibit just about Lisa Marie
- Elvis’ planes which you can board and see how the King traveled
6. Stax Museum of American Soul Music
By all accounts, this is a great place to visit.
The story begins with Jim Stewart a banker by day and fiddler by night. He decided to become a record producer and started Satellite Records. He was a portfolio careerist. The company was eventually renamed Stax.
I’d like to spend more time here in the future.
- Cozy Corner – My favorite BBQ spot in town. It’s an assuming, hole-in-the wall place with good food and vibe. You stand in line and order when you get there. Go for the ribs, cornish hen, iced tea, BBQ spaghetti & BBQ beans, banana pudding. Apparently the rib ends and rip tips are also special but they run out so get there early.
- Central BBQ – There are a few locations. I went to the one near the Lorraine Motel. It reminds me of the Cafe Central in Vienna. While both places serve different kinds of food, both are centrally located in tourist areas, and have reliable foot traffic. While both places have good food, they aren’t my favorite joints. I prefer Cozy Corner. Let’s just say you’re not going to Cozy Corner unless you really like the food and experience. Central BBQ is known for the dry rub ribs. They also have tie dye posters and imagery to give the place a bit of a psychedelic ambience. Upon entering, you immediately get in line and order – then find your place to sit.
- Corky’s – Pretty good place where you sit and order (instead of standing in line). Got the ribs, pulled pork, unsweet iced tea. Yum.