Memphis TN, February 2015

Date: May 16, 2015 Author: stevehunter Categories: Latest

I was asked to play the Key 1 book of the U.S. "Gazelle" tour of The Lion King for the month of February 2105, in Memphis TN. So the first thing I did was look at the weather app on my phone, and discovered that Memphis was getting some pretty cold weather. (Good thing I packed full winter gear; parka, scarf, warm gloves and my wool hat; besides the first week, it was pretty cold. The state even had an ice storm on Feb 16 that coated Memphis in two inches of ice!) The venue was the venerable Orpheum Theater at the corner of Beale St and Main. 

There is an amazing amount of music history that happened in Memphis, and I was able to read 4 different books about it while I was there, and also traveled around to the different famous locales. I had previously been in Memphis in 1987, but was only there for a few days. The most famous place there, is of course "Graceland" home of Elvis Presley, which I had seen before. But while the first time I saw it I thought it unbelievably crass, this time it seemed very cool and "retro.!" Nothing like the passage of time to change perspective on something. The Graceland tour has gone high tech now. Instead of a tour guide, everyone gets an iPad and headphones. The iPad goes around your neck on a long strap, and you navigate the screen to get pictures and a voice reciting the details of whatever room you're in. At the end of each segment, the voice instructs you to move down the hall to the next room. The room that features the hundreds of singles, records and movies Elvis made is most impressive. You realize what a massive star he was. And the "Jungle room" a den done in "tiki" style, is my personal favorite! Afterwards, it's a lot of fun visiting the official souvenir stores on the grounds, and then afterwards the unoffical ones across the highway. You can literally buy anything with Elvis's image on it, and I bought lots of fridge magnets and key chains for friends back in Toronto. The kitsch and tackiness factor is on warp drive at these places...Thanks to Robert and Kay for a great day there! (Not to mention the burgers and deep fried twinkies at Dyer's afterwards!)

Sun Studio, The Stax Soul Museum, W.C. Handy's house/museum are all "must sees" for the student of music in the south. Howlin' Wolf was a Sam Phillips discovery at Sun Records, as was Jackie Brentson and Ike Turner's recording of "Rocket 88." The Stax museum is rebuilt on the original site of Stax Records, which was created inside of an old movie house, hence the floors were slanted. Booker T and the MG's, The Barkays, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes, were all Stax artists. W.C. Handy's old house is about the size of a large living room in a modern house; small doesn't begin to describe it. And he brought six kids up there! Of course after he made his money in music publishing, he moved to NYC and had larger accomodations. But the first published blues was written and published in Memphis, called "Memphis Blues" by Handy. I read his auobiography while I was in Memphis, and it was an incredible story. I highly recommend it to any student of the blues and evolution of music in America. ("Father of the Blues", 1941)

The Civil Rights Museum, on Main Street, is one of the top museums I've ever been to. Located at the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated, it is a compelling look at the extreme racism in the U.S. and the battle to achieve civil rights. A high point for me was getting on a mock up of the bus that Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to give up her seat for a white person. They had a full size statue of Rosa and the bus driver, and a motion activated recording that assumed the part of the bus driver asking her to move, and threatening to call the police if she didn't. No one else was there when I sat down on one of the empty seats, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up - you can read about this event all you want, but sitting in the bus that day, I really "got it."

Beale St is the spirtual musical center of Memphis, but it approximates Bourban St in New Orleans now. Strictly for tourists, it features about 8 bars with live music on a 3 block stretch south of the Orpheum Theater. But none of the bands I heard just walking down the street (everything is piped out on speakers to the street) were anything special. Toronto has musicians and bands that could play rings around these guys. And getting "the touch" from the inevitable huckster standing outside every single bar, inviting you to come in for some "real blues and cold beer" got really old when I was there for a month. Walking around Memphis to some of the out of the way places is not for the faint hearted. Walk three blocks away from Beale St, and it quickly gets deserted. Empty lots littered with empty liquor bottles and trash, no houses. Just keep your eyes open. 

Some good restaurants and BBQ - "The Flying Fish" on 2nd St, "Central BBQ" (Main & Patterson) and "The Rendevous" at the Peabody Hotel. Also "Pearl's Oyster House" on Main St is excellent. Thanks to our spiritual leader Bob Flores (contractor and bass trombone) for some great hangs and meals in between shows.

By far the best book I've ever read about the evolution of blues, rock and soul is "The Chitlin' Circuit" by Preston Lauterbach, which I read while in Memphis. It was especially compelling as a great deal of the music and musicians it describes happened right there in Memphis. Beale Street, as it is desribed in the book, doesn't exist anymore. It was all torn down in the name of "urban renewal" in the late 60's and early 70's. Basically, Memphis and every single city and backwater town in the south had their own "stroll" - the black section of town that had it's own grocery & hardware stores, restaurants, barbers and of course bars. Bars where the music happened,  not for white patrons, but for the black residents. A guy named Sunbeam Mitchell had two places in Memphis, where he ran a bar, numbers (gambling), prostitution and a booking agency for touring musicians. One of the locations is still there, incredibly; "Ernestine's and Hazel's" at Main and GE Patterson - I dropped in there at night after a show, and the place was dripping with vibes and history. Upstairs is where the girls were, and you could still go up there (lit by red lights) with old furniture gathering dust. The locals told of a murder there only a year ago....   BB King got his start in Memphis as a disc jockey at WDIA.  Jimmy Lunceford is from Memphis, and he and Memphis Minnie are buried at the Elmwood cemetery in Memphis. The "Memphis Sound" evolved from the fact that most of the musicians that played blues for a living, really were into jazz, and Sunbeam (Ernestine Mitchell) recognized that and let his musicinas have free rein to incorporate jazz into the blues. One of the reasons BB King always had a horn section. Preston Lauterbach maintains that so called "urban renewal" is one of the reasons why every single U.S. downtown has a poor black rundown neighborhood. Those neighborhoods used to be thriving areas with their own business' and local black economies; the Federal program to rebuild those nieghborhoods after they tore down the existing structures ran out of gas and never fulufilled it's promise of "renewal", leaving abandoned neighborhoods and vacant lots like I saw in Memphis. And the "Chitlin' Circuit," places for musicians and bands to  play in every black neighborhood throughout the south, disappeared along with it. The music evolved in those places, and is why we have the music we have today. Fascinating stories....I highly recommend anyone interested in music to read it.