A young musician wearing a backward baseball cap took the small stage, guitar in hand. After introducing himself to the crowded Memphis Beale Street bar, he asked for requests. A man in the back of the room shouted, “Walking in Memphis!” The musician smiled.
“I’ve never been asked to play this before,” he joked of the 1991 song by Marc Cohn. After a pause, he began to strum and sing those familiar words, “Put on my blue suede shoes, and I boarded the plane. Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues, in the middle of the pouring rain …”
I couldn’t help but sing along, and I could see my fellow group members swaying with the music, too. As the song continued, I glanced out the bar’s windows, appreciating the neon lights illuminating Beale Street, feeling humbled by my first night in Memphis, the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Where in the world can you visit the home of the king of rock ‘n’ roll, stand in the recording studio that birthed the million dollar quartet, tour the studio that pioneered the way for musicians of all backgrounds and color to record together, and visit the working studio of the GRAMMY-winning producer behind a Bruno Mars hit song? Only in Memphis.”— Colleen Palmertree, national sales manager, Memphis Tourism
A musical landmark
My first visit to Memphis, Tennessee, offered a crash course in blues and rock ‘n’ roll history — a lesson I desperately needed. I was born in the ’90s, more than a decade after Elvis died, and was raised on country music and boy bands. Needless to say, Memphis broadened my musical horizons.
The first stop was Beale Street Entertainment District, which includes three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants and shops. As Memphis’ most famous street, Beale is a melting pot of delta blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and gospel.
My group had dinner at Blues City Cafe in the restaurant’s Cadillac Room. The cafe boasts the “Best Meal on Beale,” and after devouring the Combination Plater of pork ribs and catfish, I was a believer.
After dinner, my group stepped out onto Beale Street, drawn in by the neon lights of nearly two dozen nightclubs the likes of B.B. King’s Blues Club, Rum Boogie Cafe and King’s Palace. We didn’t even have to enter a club to hear the music; it drifted onto the street, creating a smorgasbord of sound.
While music filled our ears in real time, a walk along Beale Street provided a reminder of the past. More than 80 brass music notes are embedded in the sidewalks, honoring those who constitute Memphis’ rich musical heritage, like Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, Justin Timberlake and W.C. Handy.
‘The King’s’ quarters
My group stayed at The Guest House at Graceland, a 450-room resort designed and decorated to celebrate Elvis’ personal style.Aside from the upscale accommodations and amenities, one of my favorite details was the “Choose your Elvis” option on the TV, which allows visitors to listen to their favorite decade of Elvis music. Since I was new to the Elvis fan club, I listened to all of them.
A stay at The Guest House is the perfect prologue for visiting Graceland, known as the most famous home in the United States after the White House. My group and I were given headsets and iPads to help guide us through the mansion. The interactive audio tour is hosted by John Stamos and includes the living room, Elvis’ parents’ bedroom, the kitchen, the famous Jungle Room, his father’s office and the Trophy Building. The last stop was the Meditation Garden, where Elvis and members of his family have been laid to rest.
Next, we explored Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a 200,000-square-foot exhibit and entertainment complex, which includes in-depth exhibits on his life and career, including his gold and platinum records, and his iconic jumpsuits.
After visiting Elvis’ home, it was only fitting to visit the studio where he and other musical legends were discovered — Sun Studio. Known as the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the studio put Memphis on the map.
Our Sun Studios tour guide was an extremely knowledgeable local musician. She shared outtakes from recording sessions and the story of the studio that launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and many others.
Sam Phillips opened Sun Studio in 1950 with the goal of capturing the music of Beale Street. Sun Studio produced the first rock ‘n’ roll single in 1951: Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ version of “Rocket 88.” In 1954, an unknown Elvis Presley walked into the studio, and the rest is history.
My favorite part of the tour was being able to touch Elvis’ first microphone. Some group members showcased their own musical talents by singing into it.
More musical must-sees
- Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
- Memphis Music Hall of Fame
- Stax Museum of American Soul Music
- The Blues Hall of Fame