Lagniappe: Memphis In The Meantime

Lagniappe: Memphis In The Meantime
September 24, 2009
By John Redick
The Amplifier

My approach to a long-anticipated weekend, exploring the much sung-about city of Memphis, was open-minded and celebratory. From Roy Acuff’s Night Train to Memphis to Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis; the many songs sung about this city all promised a warm weekend of funky southern culture. My prejudicial leanings towards the music of my past homes (New Awlins and the mighty Motor City) were to be my references in the musical Litmus test that I had planned for Memphis. Being the card-carrying music snob and not one to indulge tourists, shock well-describes the confusion felt on considering the analytical results of the visit. The legendary Sun Records, the dry-rub ribs at the Rendezvous, the soul icon that is Stax Records, pale in the light of the undeniable fact…..ELVIS…THE KING LIVES…and will never die.

Elvis Aron Presley died thirty-two years, six days and four hours ago. His breath is still in the air in Memphis. His footprints are everywhere. Going to see the Peabody Ducks, we passed a shop window in the hotel that displayed head-turning shirts. The Lansky Clothier’s shirts demanded a tour; ultimately producing Bernard Lansky… the ninety year old proprietor and “Clothier to the King”. Mr. Lansky was the one that told Elvis that all the kids in the fifties were wearing pink and black together. Taking my leave, I stopped to admire a beautiful pair of black shoes with bright white tops. I flashed on John Hiatt’s song Memphis In The Meantime, and the line about trading in his cowboy boots for a pair of Italian shoes. Mr. Lansky asked, “What size can I get you?” I replied that I love them but I live in a town that’s too conservative to wear those shoes. He shrugged in agreement, “What cha gonna do?”

I just knew that Musical Memphis had more to offer than Beale Street for steamy, summer music on a Friday night; so I hit the Internet before leaving home. Bada-bing…Big Sam’s Funky Nation at the Leavitt Shell in Overton Park… sounded like a show that would hit the spot. Big Sam (late of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), and his troupe is a trombone- led quartet from New Awlins, pushing brassy funk. The Leavitt Shell , a great venue (beautiful music shell, in a lush park in the middle of town); a warm summer night, and a great show (lots of people dancing). It was conveniently only six blocks from Southern Living Magazine’s tip for the best Margaritas in Memphis (Molly’s La Casita)…. Thanks Southern Living, they have our vote….But wait, our Mojo Tour on Saturday returned us to Overton Park, and as it turns out; the Leavitt Shell is the site of Elvis’s first professional gig. He was a last minute replacement as the opening act for Slim Whitman..(Yes, that Slim Whitman).

A slim, dimpled, thirty-something white guy named Memphis Jones was our tour guide on Saturday’s Mojo Tour. Very cool tour on a vintage 50’s city bus. Memphis Jones sings and plays guitar between points of interest. They pass out some tambourines (I got a red one) and bongos; to enhance the musical experience I’m sure. The bus pulled up beside a decent-looking brick housing project and MJ pointed out a window that had been Elvis’s bedroom when he was a little rocker. I was like…duuuude! Memphis Jones was singing a good Buddy Holly song as the bus pulled up to the Sam Phillips building. It was built with the money that Sam got when he sold Elvis to Colonel Tom Parker ($35,000…way to go Sam!).

Sun Records is a groove, they have a cute little, hot pink ’57 T-Bird convertible parked out front. For me, going to Sun Records, was like giving myself a Rock merit badge. Been there and done that. Though homage-worthy, it is way too merchandized; however, it is a (still-standing) historical part of Rock Music’s foundation… Maybe a Sun refrigerator magnet….naaah.

Sam Phillips, as head of Sun Records, had Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Elvis and Johnny Cash in his stable. Even with as magnificent a talent pool as this, Sam had to go to the bank, every month, to keep Sun Records afloat. Seems it was hard to sell black music to white kids, even when it was sung by white guys.

The Stax Records Museum is a missed-must-see; one of the things that rate a return trip to Memphis. Stax was started by Estelle Axton (St-Ax) and her brother …. (She co-wrote Heartbreak Hotel for Elvis). She mortgaged her house and bought an abandoned theater to set up a recording studio and a small record store. Another group of mega-talented, starving artists: Isaac Hayes producing, playing piano and writing songs, and Booker T and the MGs for a house band..OMG! (MGs Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn (guitar and bass), were the first to be picked for Jake and Elwood’s super group in the Blues Brothers movies). While trying to sell their records out of their store in front proved a poor idea; this old theater, nonetheless, was producing legendary scorching southern soul and grit. The whole experiment looked like it was going belly up until someone sent a tape to Ahmet Erdegan in New York. This brilliant Turkish immigrant and his Atlantic Records were thrilled, they did business, and the rest is a big chunk of the American Music Annals. After the 1967 death of its biggest star, Otis Redding, Stax distribution by Atlantic was dropped. Sadly, the original theater was torn down; but has been deftly reproduced to create this archival Soul Music museum….I’ll be back.

Nobody Loves Me but My Mother, and She Could Be Jiving Too. They’re B. B. King lyrics from the early seventies. Thirty five years ago, this lyrical moan was one of my first futile attempts at trying to understand the Blues. How can a song that sounds this sad, make us feel good? And yes friends, I found the t-shirt. It’s bright blue and bought at B.B.’s place on Beale Street. My Nobody Loves Me But My Mother shirt, and a couple of good Bloody Marys (the ones from Alfred’s place were the best) were to be my treasure gleaned from this historic avenue with its blocks of musical and libatious come-ons.

Memphis became a jumping-off point when the blues migrated out of the cotton fields after the Civil War. Our tour guide, Memphis Jones, calls his city: “the belly button of the South”. It’s the half-way point of the City Of New Orleans, the legendary train running from Chicago to the Crescent City. It’s where the North and South blended; it’s where black and white blended. It’s where acoustic and electric blended. Detroit’s Berry Gordy and his hand-picked, hyper-hip posse of hitmakers, pasteurized Rhythm and Blues music to make Motown. Memphis took Rhythm and Blues music, added muddy water, left the Black intact and made pure Soul. How could this musically-steeped city, nestled into the bank of the muddy Mississippi, possibly escape an honorable destiny?

Late Sunday morning, we checked out of our motel, a nifty-fifties-styled place on Union Avenue, called…what else…The King’s Court. It seemed ironic that we were saving the most reverent day of the week for Graceland. Like the Lorraine Motel (on the Mojo Tour) where Dr. King was shot; Elvis’s house is a place for quiet and respectful admiration. Lisa Marie is quoted as saying that her “Dad had a presence; as I would come home, and walk through the front door, I could tell whether he was in the house or not.” On touring the Jungle Room, I saw the piano where Elvis sat, in his housecoat, and played and sang: How Great Thou Art; the morning of the day he died…. I was moved. Our imminent adieu to Memphis was not necessarily planned for this Rock Mecca, but yet… it seemed so. As I stood quietly at Elvis’s grave, alongside the tearful Alabamans and Japanese, the reverence of the moment gave me pause to ponder: If Rock and Roll were a religion, what part would Memphis and this elaborate shrine play?
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