13 March 2015
Walking in Memphis…
As ‘Selma’, the first major feature about Martin Luther King, hits the cinemas, Plume Voyage takes you on a journey to Memphis.
This city played a crucial role in the African-American struggle to gain their rights. It was in Memphis that MLK was assassinated in 1968. An incredible and extremely moving museum pays homage to the man, offering a fascinating retrospective about the lengthy fight for civil rights, which ‘Selma’ addresses.
But Memphis is also the birthplace of blues and the largest ‘black music’ studios in America. It is also the ‘artistic’ hometown of Elvis Presley, a white man who lived and sang with so much soul…
Essentially, this stroll through Memphis leads you to the epicentre of the African-American struggle for their rights and their winning of hearts and souls through their music, from blues to disco, soul, rock, and, today, R&B…
Freshly renovated after 14 months of work costing over 27 million dollars, the brand new Civil Rights Museum reopened its doors in April 2015. And it is one of a kind. Here, you can retrace the long march of black people, in the hopes of having their rights recognised. From the slave trade up until the election of Barack Obama, they have come a long way! And visitors may tread this blood and tear-stained path. And the setting brims with little ploys that make you feel, almost physically, this long journey. First, a film viewing retraces the life of the black population from their arrival from Africa until the signing of the 14th amendment that abolished slavery. Then, the screen opens up, inviting you to move forward, accompanied by the image and sound of the footsteps of those who continued to protest for their rights. This makes you fully aware that their fight for equality represented a long, steep climb, sown with various perils! The museum blends pedagogy and playful stage design, such as the reconstruction of the Montgomery bus in which, back in December 1955, an elderly black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man. A simple act of resistance, and yet a stamp of real courage, this moment launched a wide campaign to mobilise all those who desired liberty and equal rights. Ten years later, in Selma, a small town in neighbouring Alabama, a historic march towards Montgomery marked a turning point in terms of raising awareness. In both cases, Martin Luther King was present. And it was in support of a strike by black binmen that he found himself in Memphis on 4th April 1968. Shot in front of the door of his room at the Lorraine Motel, this building now houses this gripping Civil Rights Museum. This exemplary museum does not seek to teach moral lessons but explain and fully reveal the fight for equal rights between black and white people. A mausoleum for Martin Luther King, the film ‘Selma’ brings his story to life today more than ever before.
The other celebrity that made his mark on the history of Memphis, a white face in a multi-coloured suit on which figures the face of doctor King, is Elvis Presley. This little fella who grew up in the popular and black neighbourhoods of the city, this kid who lived with his black friends and listened to their music, this “little white guy” with a diverse and mixed soul, started out his glorious career in Memphis in the Sun Studios. And it is in Memphis that he created his own little paradise: Graceland. And you can visit it today, wide-eyed in amazement, exploring the domain in which he loved to live, as a family, as a group, as a band…his house, which also houses his tomb, has remained frozen in time since the 1970s. The famous ‘jungle room’ makes you feel as if you are in Hawaii, with green carpet covering the walls! A projection room with three TV sets and yellow and blue leather sofas were considered very high-tech…Not to mention his private planes, his impressive collection of cars and his hundreds of stage costumes are exhibited amongst countless gold records that he has amassed since his death in August 1977. Graceland looks like a mini theme park dedicated to the King. But a gently dated park, that has not changed for thirty years. A fascinating outing that shows how this little Memphis kid transformed blues and rock’n’roll and, to put it simply, invented adolescent entertainment!
Beale Street is the birthplace of blues. On this little Memphis street that is legendary today, black people could open shops, restaurants of clubs, a rare feat at the start of the twentieth-century in the segregationist South. And it is in these clubs that blues came into being. And today, it is the life and soul of the city, the one reason to take a trip into downtown Memphis. Beale Street is often compared to the French ‘Vieux Carré’ streets of New Orleans where one hear intoxicating jazz playing. Beale Street is a luminous and bustling spot after dark, amidst the mostly deserted Memphis city centre. Beneath the neon signs, music escapes through the open windows of numerous clubs, as comers and goers hang around on the street, glass in hand…and Beale Street is not lacking in charm. Amongst the most celebrated clubs, make sure that you don’t miss the BB’s King Club, where it is easy to spot the owner of the place, the famous BB King, accompanied by his celebrity friends…
Aside from Beale Street, Memphis plays host to several of the most renowned music studios in America. The most iconic is, hands down, Sun Records. It is here, in the summer of 1953, that Elvis Presley came to record two songs on a vinyl record for his adoring mother. The owner of this studio, who records songs by the biggest blues musicians in the country, is one San Phillips; and he would be captivated by the voice of this boy who sang nothing like other white crooners of his time. He was doing a sound-check, which was proving fruitless until the moment when Elvis improvised a rendition of “That’s All Right Mama”, a gospel-blues that transformed into a rock’n’roll tune. The record would be created, broadcast on the local radio, becoming a national reference for black music. And so the career of the King began! And you can still visit Sun Studios, which are still very much active. They have maintained the ‘juice’ of the era. The recording studio, which borders the main street, exudes a disarming simplicity and yet the biggest names still return to record here, making the most of the positive waves of the place…And check out the historic photo, which reunites the four ‘millions boys’ who made the Sun Studio reputation: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It doesn’t get better than this! But Memphis was such a music hub that another iconic studio came into being: Stax Records. Famous for producing soul music in the 60s, Star signed and produced, amongst other names, none other than Isaac Hayes, one of the biggest African-American stars of the 70s. Today, an impressive museum allows visitors to immerse themselves in the abundant history of ‘made in Stax’ soul music and to admire, amidst other curious treasures, Isaac Haye’s own impressive gold Cadillac! Finally, you can’t leave Memphis without visiting St Blues Guitar, one of the most sought-after guitar makers in the world. Based in Memphis since 2011, this guitar shop highlights the crazy challenge of making instruments in the USA, which rhymes with the famous Memphis blues. You can order a personalised guitar and visit the underground workshop of his boutique, which is situated – not by coincidence – on the Elvis Presley Boulevard!
Memphis: the coloured capital of Tennessee, birth place of black music, vibrating turntable of regional business, the southern city where people come to slum in smoky clubs…these are all images of the past. For it must be noted that the glorious era of Memphis is long gone! While strolling through the city centre, it is a surprise to see the streets so deserted. All the shops are practically shut. Apart from Beale Street, which attracts tourists like bees to a honeypot, the rest of the city is empty…or almost! This is a unique characteristic for any American city, particularly this one, which has been defined by the large riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel. The city centre has been prone to violent clashes between civil rights activists and police forces. Numerous businesses have shut down. Residents have migrated to the suburbs, in search of tranquillity. And the economic crisis halted the city’s pauperisation process. The result: a hint of Detroit reigns over Memphis with its old and beautiful abandoned red-brick buildings, the most emblematic being the Chisca Hotel, a sort of impressive monster, the largest hotel in Memphis constructed around the 1900s. The Chisca is famous for having housed first that first broadcast Elvis Presley’s debut record! Abandoned, sold on, its immense framework dominates the city centre, like a shipwreck. By exploring the streets of Memphis, you will encounter many other ghosts of the city’s triumphant past, including an impressive pharaoh-esque pyramid, which formerly housed an enormous sports store! These buildings that were once full of life, are today derelict.
There is only one hotel to stay in whilst in Memphis: the Peabody. This marvellous example of architecture is simultaneously ornate and very ‘Gotham-city’; evidently, as it offers guests every modern comfort: class and good taste. But the main reason for frequenting the Peabody is for…its ducks! In the 30s, the hotel manager and one of his hunting friends, having drunk far too much Jack Daniels, thought it would be very amusing to place several ducks on the grand marble fountain enthroned in the lobby of this luxury hotel. And the clients loved it. Ever since, ducks have paddled in the fountain every day. There is even a duck master who is charged with bringing the ducks down from their very comfortable home on the roof, down in the lift and then across a red carpet, going to and from the fountain, both morning and night! The Peabody ducks have become the most popular attraction in Memphis. And the hotel dedicates themselves to serving them. Thus, you will never find duck on the menu at any of the hotel’s restaurants!
In terms of dining out, head straight for the Rendez-vous for the best char-grilled ribs in the whole city or even, some would say, in the whole of Tennessee! You can’t go wrong by pushing open the door of the Central BBQ, next door to the Civil Rights Museum. Its pulled pork is the most sumptuous for miles. As for the Four Way Grill, don’t be astonished if certain geriatric waiters start talking to you about their dear Doctor King, who they used to wait on, as this was the favourite haunt of the black leader who loved simple, invigorating soul food. This understated address has been hidden away in this residential zone for 70 years, entertaining foodies with its breadcrumb-coated chicken. And nobody understands why it should change now!