Sunday August 9th-Tuesday August 11th- Walking in Memphis

grace 1It has been such an amazing 36 hours in Memphis that it is hard to know where to start. This is the most interesting city that I have visited in a long time. A place where even Dave and I, who hate sightseeing, have been prompted to visit museums and tourist attractions and enjoyed each and every one of them.

This is the furthest south we will come until we hit southern California in the autumn and there is a definite feel of the south. The weather is hot-about 35 degrees with humidity making it feel nearer 40. The hospitality and friendliness is ramped up even more from what we have come to expect of the south and accents are even harder to understand. We arrived at our stunning Airbnb pretty tired, after a late night out on Saturday, in Nashville, and a very hot 200-mile journey down the interstate highway. The area, east of the city, near Memphis Zoo and the historic Greenwood District, is full of large 1920s bungalows and houses and is surrounded by trees full of deafening crickets. Our home for the stay was beautiful and homely with original parquet floors and a screened porch to sit out on. The room was luxurious and the hospitality unprecedented.

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We are big Elvis fans and came to Memphis, originally, only for Graceland. This is a must do for us while in the USA. We did not know it was Elvis Week, it being the anniversary of the king’s death on Saturday. We had tickets for the mansion tour at 9.15 and were expecting hideous, hot queues and to be herded like cattle. We were pleasantly surprised. Helped, maybe by a heavy storm at 7am, which may have kept people in, we were only the second group to arrive at the site and collected tickets without queuing. We were put on the first shuttle bus of the day up to the house. Only a small group is allowed in at any one time. The tour is by iPad, which works well.

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Impressions of Graceland

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  1. It is a very moving experience. You can sense Elvis and his family about the place.
  2. It was a real home. It still feels like one.
  3. It is small compared to present day mansions and, while luxurious, is pretty reigned in compared to the homes of other wealthy people.
  4. It is a fantastic retro experience of the early/mid 1970s with everything being kept just as it was when Elvis passed away.
  5. It is a pretty sad experience on the whole- and you are reminded of what a tragedy it was that Elvis died so young.

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My favourite parts were

  1. The mid 70s kitchen. Carpet on the floor. A retro blender. It is the same size as the kitchen in a normal home.
  2. The media room. 3 TV sets, comfy sofas, 1970s Hi Fi with some records from Elvis’s collection. You could imagine Elvis sprawling there.
  3. The racquetball court where Elvis played just before he died and the adjoining lounge where he played piano to some friends following his last match. Very sobering and sad.
  4. The clothes on display that were worn by Elvis, especially a midnight blue suit worn in the film Speedway. It was as if he was still wearing it. The suit oozed sex appeal.
  5. In Vernon`s office, they played a video of an interview with Elvis, from that same office, after returning from the army posting in Germany. Man that guy was magnetic. You cannot take your eyes off him. I watched it through 3 times.

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Buoyed by our great experience at Graceland, we headed for Sun Studios in downtown. It is hard to take in the importance of this site in the history of rock and roll. The transition from blues to rock and roll took place here. The first rock and roll record was cut here (and featured Ike Turner of Ike and Tina fame). Elvis was discovered here as was Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

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The first great thing about the site is the retro diner they use as a waiting room.

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The tour itself is one of the best things I have ever done. The guide`s eyes shone as she talked you through the transition from blues to the first rock and roll hits and the start of Elvis’s career. She knew her stuff and clearly loved it all. In the museum, before entering the studio itself, she played us snippets of important blues tracks cut at the studios, at a time when black artists could not get recorded elsewhere. She described Elvis’s first visit to record a single in his lunch break, when he was 18, and how he waited a year before he was contacted, as the owner of the studio thought he was a ballad singer. There was some great memorabilia including the DJ booth used by Stu Phillips, the influential Memphis DJ, who helped break Elvis onto the scene and original telegrams sent to Elvis when he rose to fame so meteorically.

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On entering the studio itself, there was initially a hushed awe. This is real hallowed ground. We saw where Elvis sat behind the piano, on the famous Million Dollar Quartet picture, taken with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, in December 1956 . We saw the spot where he stood when he made his first real single, That’s Alright Mamma and we touched the microphone he sang into. It was all tiny and ordinary looking but it oozed atmosphere and history.

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The day was only just beginning as we headed to Beale Street, to see the street where blues artists flocked from the rural Mississippi delta, to play in clubs and bars, in the early 20th century. We found an amazingly authentic diner, serving southern soul food, where we sampled the famous iced, sweet tea. We happened upon an amazing photographic exhibition of stunning black and white images detailing the civil rights struggle and assassination of Martin Luther King. We visited the Gibson guitar factory and pottered around the retail shop and foyer.

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Our last museum of the day was the National Civil Right Museum, located in and behind the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot and killed on 4th April 1968. We were pretty tired by now and could not get the full benefit of this amazingly comprehensive museum but it was well worth the visit even so.

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Impressions of the museum were

  1. The location is brilliant. Being able to visit the room where Dr. King spent his last hours before his death is a real privilege.
  2. The museum does not leave any stone unturned. It is a true record of the civil rights movement and the injustices leading up to it.
  3. While very sobering and depressing at times, the optimism and determination of the campaigners shines through.
  4. It is a real testimony to what people power can achieve.
  5. Although there is a lot to read, you can listen to personal narratives and touch interactive maps as well as board a bus with Rosa Parks, experience a whites only café from the perspective of a black person and watch original footage in several small cinemas.
  6. Looking out from Dr. King’s motel room to the balcony where he was shot is very moving.
  7. There is so much here that you could return several times and see something different on each visit.
  8. Reflections on how segregation and injustice continues in modern day America is very dispiriting.

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Our final stop of the day was The Cupboard, another, more ordinary, traditional, soul food diner. This one served vegan side dishes and we were able to sample two different kinds of beans, turnip greens, squash, cabbage and fried green tomatoes all served with tiny, crispy corn breads (like Yorkshire pudding). The whole thing is like a Sunday dinner in the UK and for meat eaters the traditional main course would include fried chicken or steak. It was hearty, simple and tasty, srved with more iced, sweet tea and we ate every single morsel.

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