A walk through Memphis
Published 5:24 pm, Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Standing in the recording studio of the former Sun Records earlier this month -- where arguably the first rock 'n' roll song was recorded, where Elvis Presley was discovered and recorded his first hits -- I was at total peace. This Memphis landmark is the Mecca of rock 'n' roll and for me it was a return trip from a 2004 visit.
Memphis isn't the prettiest city in the world. Far from it. But if you're a fan of music, a fan of music history, a fan of American history itself, you should plan to visit. The former Sun Records is just one of many stops in Memphis for music lovers. There's also Graceland, Elvis' former mansion located on 12 acres of property along what is now known as Elvis Presley Boulevard. It is representative of what fame and fortune can bring and it's a far cry from Elvis' two room childhood home in Tupelo, Miss.
But Memphis isn't just about Elvis. If you're a fan of the blues and soul music, there's also Beale Street and the Stax Museum of Soul. Blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King (back when he was a skinny guy) sharpened their skills playing in the many clubs along Beale Street. W.C. Handy, known as the "Father of the Blues," moved to Memphis with his band in 1909 and established a presence on Beale Street. His 12-bar song, "Memphis Blues," published in 1912, is widely considered the first blues song. As for soul music, Memphis' Stax Records, a converted movie theater, was where Otis Redding ("Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay") and Sam & Dave ("Soul Man" and "Hold On! I'm Coming") laid down their vocals. The original building is gone but the museum, built on the old site, was made to look like the theater that served as the record label's studio. The music of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave -- two of my favorite artists of all time -- were backed by Stax's house band, better known as Booker T. and the MG's. Their music packed more punch than the more refined sound that Motown was putting out. I love Motown, but Redding's music, Sam & Dave's music, has a more raw, more organic feel to it.
But let's get back to Sun Records. Long before I was a reporter working for a town newspaper, I was a fan of music. Before I could work, as a teenager I was renting books from the library on the history of rock 'n' roll, Elvis, Motown, you name it. I also checked out records. I've always been fascinated by the origins of various genres of music, from rock 'n' roll to rap, so to return to Sun Records, this time with a digital camera, was a real treat. The walls and floors haven't changed at all since a young Elvis set foot in the place. Elvis is often called the king of rock and roll but he wasn't the first rock and roller. Chuck Berry and Little Richard deserve a lot of credit for shaping the rock 'n' roll sound, but before them, there was a song recorded at Sun Records that is widely hailed as the first rock 'n' roll song.
It was called "Rocket 88" and it was recorded by Jackie Brentson and his Delta Cats, and the band included a then-unknown Ike Turner. Even if Elvis Presely and others, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, never set foot in Sun Records, the fact that the first rock 'n' roll song was recorded there, in 1951, is reason enough alone to visit the former label-turned-museum. "Rocket 88" pre-dates the singles put out by those rock 'n' rollers who helped shape the genre, including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Comets ("Rock Around The Clock").
If Sun was the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Stax is largely responsible for defining the sound of Southern soul. But the Stax family -- where black and white musicians worked alongside one another without seeing color, which was unusual at the time in that part of the country -- was dealt a big blow in December 1967 when it lost his star artist, Otis Redding, in a plane crash. Redding's death sort of signified the beginning of the end for Stax's hit-making ways, though there were many artists.
Four months later, the city of Memphis became known the place where civil rights leader Marin Luther King Jr. was struck down on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray. The color blindness at Stax became less blind after King's tragic end.
King had come to the city to fight for higher wages for the city's African-American sanitation workers. The motel where King was killed is no longer a motel, but its facade has been preserved and the National Civil Rights Museum has been built around it. Parking one's car and walking closer to the museum, it feels like you've been transported in a time machine back to 1968. There are two old cars below the balcony where King was shot. The only difference between then and now is there a wreath on the balcony to mark where King was killed.
The museum tour inside the building eventually takes you up to a window just a few feet over from the spot where King was standing, in front of Room 306. A blood-stained patch of concrete, long since removed from the balcony, appears to be the only thing different from King's final day on Earth. The room where King spent his final hours is immediately to your right. It has been preserved and is viewed through Plexiglas. The king-sized bed he slept on is still there. Look out the museum window and you see the old boarding house across the street -- on top of a small hill -- where James Earl Ray fired the fatal bullet. Later in the tour, you can walk under that hill, via a tunnel, and take an elevator up to the building where Ray fired upon a man who only wanted peace and equality for all. The tour gives you the victim's point of view and the killer's vantage point. It is very overwhelming.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a brave soul. Every time he visited a city, marched, spoke at a rally, to try to correct wrongs, he put himself out there, vulnerable as can be. He lost his life fighting for justice but he didn't die in vain. Forty years after his death, Barack Obama, an African-American, was elected president of the United States. That would likely not have been possible without Martin Luther King Jr's selfless efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. He was the most influential figure of the Civil Rights Movement and if you're planning a trip to Memphis to visit Graceland, be sure to check out the National Civil Rights Museum as well. Graceland, former home of "The King," is the most popular tourist attraction in Memphis. But two Kings died in Memphis. One had a big impact on music. The other had a big impact on this country.