History sings in Memphis

For a mix of history, culture and music, Memphis hits the right note, writes Helen Hayes.

I am on a porch swing of a tiny wooden house, creaking to and fro and contemplating where I am. Inside this two-room ‘shotgun’ house is where it all began for one of the world’s biggest stars. Standing in the bedroom, I have goosebumps as the guide tells us that this was where Elvis Aaron Presley came into the world, along with his twin brother Jessie, who sadly was stillborn. Sitting in a tranquil part of leafy Tupelo, Mississippi, the house is part of a bigger precinct – the Elvis Presley Birthplace – that also includes the church where Elvis had his first taste of gospel and performing. The man who would be king lived in Tupelo until he was 13, when his family moved to Memphis, 90 minutes away.

Things to do in Memphis

Memphis is a big, beautiful, cacophony of sights, sounds and stories that bounce between darkness and light, sorrow and joy. It’s located on the fabled Mississippi River, where you can kayak alongside ships that still navigate the waters with their cargo of people or goods, flanked by outdoor spaces like Tom Lee Park where locals and visitors come out to play. While the river has its own rhythm, there are many major sites to discover the thrumming beat of this city.

Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum

Start your musical journey at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, curated by The Smithsonian. It gives a comprehensive look at music in Memphis from the sharecroppers of the 1930s, to Memphis’ musical heyday in the ‘70s and its global influence. It tells the story of musical pioneers who, for the love of music, overcame racial and socio-economic barriers to create the music that shook the entire world.

Visitor in front of Rock N Soul Museum
The Rock N’ Soul Museum © Marissa Strang

Sun Studio

Do a tour of Sun Studio, established and run by Sam Phillips, that gave legends like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, BB King and Elvis Presley their starts. It also has Dewey Phillips’ studio – Dewey was the first to play Elvis on the radio. In fact, he played That’s All Right Mama 14 times that night. You can actually touch the microphone they used and if you are a musician yourself, you can book a session in this sacred space, as it reverts to being a studio every night.

Sun Studio on Union Ave
Sun Studio on Union Ave © Justin Fox Burks

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is another great tour to do. Sitting on the site of the old Stax Records, it tells the story of American soul music in the Civil Rights Movement. It highlights artists such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin, Ike & Tina Turner, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and hundreds of others. There are some permanent exhibits such as Isaac Hayes’ 1972 gold-trimmed Cadillac Eldorado.

People walking through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Stax Museum of American Soul Music © Alex Shansky

Beale Street

For a taste of the Memphis sound, the place to go is Beale Street – the home of the Blues. There is history in every brick of this place, with lively clubs and venues like BB King’s Blues Club, Mr Handy’s Blues Hall, The Handy Bar, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café and Honky Tonk and Blues City Café.

Looking West on Beale Street
Beale Street © Dan Ball

National Civil Rights Museum

It is not all about music in Memphis. A sobering reminder of its significance during the civil rights movement is the National Civil Rights Museum, on the site of the Lorraine Hotel. Here, history smacks me in the face. It is hard to fathom that this is the spot – the balcony outside room 306 – where Martin Luther King Jnr was shot dead on April 4, 1968. It has a powerful impact on my emotions, and I stand there, mute, for some time. Equally as impactful is the museum itself, covering four centuries of the civil rights journey.

Exterior of National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum © Andrea Zucker

Explore the history of Martin Luther King Jr

Many sites are related to Martin Luther King Jnr and the civil rights movement, from the Mason Temple – the location of his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech – to the I Am A Man Plaza and the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, where a magnolia tree out the front is a sign that it was a safe haven for runaway slaves, part of the courageous Underground Railroad.

I Am A Man Plaza
I Am A Man Plaza © Helen Hayes

The Arcade Restaraunt

The Arcade Restaurant, the oldest café in Memphis established in 1919 and now being run by the fourth generation of the Zepatos family, was a favourite for Elvis. He used to enter through the side door to avoid any girls who were waiting at the front. Then, he’d sit in the back booth. I sat in his seat and ate what he ate; a fried peanut butter ‘n banana sandwich with bacon. It was surprisingly good. The Arcade has a lot of history, and has been featured in many movies including Walk the Line, The Firm, Elizabethtown and Rain Man, and is a hotspot for celebrities including local Memphian, Justin Timberlake.

The Arcade Restaurant in South Main District
The Arcade Restaurant in South Main District © Phillip Parker

Graceland

Graceland is the siren call for visitors, and doing a tour is a must. The actual Graceland mansion is smaller than I imagined, but the experience as a whole is huge. Elvis is big business and there is so much to see, with several different buildings showcasing all things Elvis. I particularly love the ‘Making of Elvis Movie’ exhibit, showing the attention to detail and the mind-blowing amount of research Baz Luhrmann and his team did before making the movie.

Once inside Graceland, in carefully monitored tour groups, it is surreal to be walking through the Presley property that Priscilla had the foresight to open to the public in 1982. We see the lounge room with its 4.5-metre custom-made sofa, the kitchen where staff were on duty 24 hours, the bedroom where Elvis’ parents slept, the ahead-of-its-time media room in striking yellow, the den (Jungle Room) with its green shag carpet and African vibe, and the pool room, as well as the exterior buildings – Vernon’s office, the trophy building and the racquetball court.

Out by the pool is the Meditation Garden, a space Elvis loved and that now is where he and his parents were laid to rest. Sadly, more graves have been added, including that of his beloved daughter, Lisa Marie. Standing in front of his gravestone, reading the tribute, it starts with “He was a precious gift from God we cherished and loved dearly”. I think back to that modest shack in Tupelo, to that room where Elvis made his entrance to the world, and silently agree.

Graceland Mansion
Graceland Mansion © Memphis Tourism

Read more
Shake, rattle and roll: these Memphis hotel’s offer more than just slumber
The 4 trendiest neighbourhoods in Memphis
Is this the tastiest way to see Tennessee?

Read more inspiring stories by Vacations & Travel…

Tags: ,