Blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta but found a home in Memphis.
In 1927, the ‘Grandfather of the Blues’, W. C. Handy immortalised the vibrant, slightly risqué blues scene in Memphis in Beale Street Blues:
If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk
Married men would have to take their beds and walk
Except one or two who never drink booze
And the blind man on the corner singing Beale Street blues
I’d rather be there than any place I know
It’s gonna take a sergeant to make me go.
Following in his footsteps, legendary greats like Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters perfected what became known as the Memphis Blues.
As a young performer, B.B. King was billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy”. That’s actually where the “B.B.” comes from.
In 1977, Beale Street was declared ‘Home of the Blues’ by an act of Congress. Even so, it was in decline, with many boarded up shops and closed clubs. But a revitalisation program in the 1990s brought it back to life. Thankfully, it was well done. Lots of venues with authentic live blues and not much tourist tat. It’s buzzing with great music and bars with good vibes.
We saw some pretty good old style blues there. This invitation was too good to pass up!
In what was still a strictly segregated city, a young Elvis Presley would come to Beale Street to listen to the black musicians sing the blues in the early 1950s. Together with Southern gospel and country music, the African American blues heavily influenced his music. A statue at the top of Beale Street honours him.
The apartment we stayed in had an Elvis themed pool.
Elvis admired the fashions, too. He’d loiter outside Lansky Brothers Tailors just off Beale Street admiring the suits. Bernard Lansky recalls inviting him in. Elvis said “I don’t have any money, Mr Lansky, but when I get rich, I’m going to buy you out”. Lansky replied “Don’t buy me out, just buy from me!” And he did. Presley apparently remained a life-long customer.
The original Lansky shop is still there, complete with Elvis tribute.
The business has moved to the shops in the Peabody Hotel, still capitalising on the Elvis connection almost 50 years after his death.
Built in Italian Renaissance style in 1925, the Peabody Hotel calls itself ‘the South’s Grand Hotel’. It is definitely opulent but is perhaps most famous for its resident Peabody Ducks.
In 1940, bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus entertainer, began training the ducks to walk in formation. For the next 50 years, he was the Duckmaster. Under his care, they became famous, appearing on the Johnny Carson Show, with Ernie and Bert on Sesame Street, on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in the pages of People magazine.
Ducks and Duckmasters have come and gone. But to this day the routine remains the same.
The ducks live in a $200,000 Royal Duck Palace on the hotel roof. Every morning at 11am, the Duckmaster releases them. They waddle to the lift and descend to the lobby. The Duckmaster escorts them along the red carpet to the fountain where they paddle around until returning upstairs at 5pm.
The fountain is under wraps during a lobby renovation at the moment, but the ducks and Duckmaster still make an appearance for an adoring crowd. Kids love it. It’s quite a spectacle, even if there is something vaguely silly about a grown man high five-ing a bunch of birds.
Getting back to Elvis, he recorded his first singles at the Memphis Recording Service at Sun Studios in 1953 and continued with Sun until RCA bought out his contract for a record price in 1955 in a deal brokered by the infamous Colonel Tom Parker.
Sun’s owner Sam Phillips had a knack for picking potential greats. Other artists he recorded who went on to become stars included B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee Lewis.
On 4 December 1956, Carl Perkins came in to record a few songs. Phillips thought the band needed something extra and brought in Jerry Lee Lewis. By pure chance, Elvis Presley dropped in. And at some point, Johnny Cash arrived. An impromptu jam session ensued. Phillips flicked ‘record’ and captured it all. Then dashed over to a mate at the local newspaper to have some photos taken.
Only Presley was a big name at the time and the recordings were forgotten. But all four went on to become mega-stars and when the recordings were discovered in Sun’s archives years later, they were released in 1981 under the title ‘the Million Dollar Quartet’.
Similarly influential was Stax Records. Established in 1957, it launched the careers of Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs and Isaac Hayes. The studio is now the Stax Museum of Soul Music.
For a complete walk through of the blues and rock music that came out of Memphis, the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum should not be missed.
We tracked down the house where Aretha Franklin was born. Sadly, it’s neglected and fenced off.
WDIA, the first radio station in the United States to be programmed specifically for the African American community, commenced broadcasting from a studio in Union Avenue on 7 June 1947. B.B. King and Rufus Thomas both got their start working there.
It’s still on air, although from different premises, but the neon sign still sits over the original address.
As well as launching careers, WDIA was important in broadcasting news to a Black audience through the Civil Rights era.
Through the 1960s, Memphis was still a racially divided city. African Americans were banned from joining unions, were paid less than white workers doing the same work and were denied promotional opportunities open to white workers. They could be fired by white supervisors for no reason and often had to work in unsafe conditions.
In February 1968, two African American garbage collectors were crushed to death in a garbage compactor. Rumbling discontent about working conditions erupted into open protest.
The vast majority of the city’s sanitation workers were African American and more than 1,300 went on strike. They marched to City Hall with signs declaring “I am a Man”, demanding better working conditions, equivalent pay to white workers and the right to unionise. The City administration refused to meet with them.
After three days, more than 10,000 tonnes of garbage had accumulated in the streets. The Mayor called in strike breakers. Violence ensued. The strike continued.
The strike garnered country-wide attention and several Civil Rights leaders came to Memphis to address rallies of the striking workers. The strikers held firm.
On 3 April 1968, Martin Luther King Jnr came to Memphis for the second time to address and march with the workers. He gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. With horrifying foresight, he proclaimed:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land”.
The following evening he was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel several blocks away. A wreath hangs permanently on the balcony rail at the spot where he was shot.
The motel now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s an incredibly comprehensive, well presented, moving museum covering the history of the Civil Rights movement. There’s a ton of information, videos and displays on the pivotal events which culminated in the Civil Rights Act including the campaign to de-segregate cafes and buses.
These campaigns were particularly hard fought in Tennessee and Alabama, and we’ll expand on them in detail in later posts.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr caused such public revulsion that the Mayor must have realised he had to concede defeat. After refusing to engage for almost two months, four days after King Jnr’s death, the strike was resolved with the workers achieving most of their demands. It marked a significant step towards equality.
An installation in the park from which the marches began honours those who stood tall and demanded their dignity.
There’s also a small mention of a little-known hero of this event. Abe Plough, a wealthy, local white businessman anonymously donated the entire amount necessary to fund the requested pay increases to help end the strike. His act remained unknown until after his death in 1984. Now that’s pure philanthropy.