The irony of Memphis

Memphis Travel Blog

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Outside Sun Studio
Leaving Nashville was a bit hellish, as we were caught in a torrential downpour for about an hour. It's terrible sharing the two-lane highway with tens of tractor trailers and SUVs, trying to navigate around them while struggling to look out the window with the rain all around. George, however, is a good driver and managed to make it through the downpour on our way to Memphis.

Past the thunderstorm, the drive was uneventful. Our kitty cat Ema started to get too warm, which I only figured out after watching her get restless and then start to pant. That's awful watching your normally sweet peaceful kitty start breathing quickly and then meow with her tongue hanging out.
The Sun Studio gift shop is located in a former cafe next door.
But we quickly turned up the AC and cooled her down. She laid back down and chilled out for the rest of the ride.

Once we arrived in Memphis, we headed to the hotel to check in. However, the hotel was overbooked and the clerk said to check back in an hour to get a room. We couldn't sit outside with windows rolled down, as it's nearly 100 degrees and Ema obviously can't take the heat. So we decided to head to a barbecue joint that had rave reviews from one of George's coworkers as well as web review sites. Called Interstate BBQ, it's located a short distance off of I-240 West in a nondescript area just south of downtown Memphis.

George had to run in to pick up lunch, and boy did he do a good job picking out good food. He got us both a chopped pork sandwich loaded with spicy barbecue sauce as well as a side of the yummiest baked beans for me.
The owners kept the cafe's fountains and made sure the Million Dollar Quartet oversees the customers.
Despite being hungry, I only managed to eat half of the large sandwich. Definitely in our top 5 bbq places, perhaps even top 3!

After we finally checked into the hotel room, we chilled in the hotel room for a bit, letting Ema get used to her new surroundings before heading back out. The heat and humidity this afternoon was absolutely oppressing, making it hard to even breathe. We were spoiled in Nashville and Mammoth Cave with 80-something degree weather and low humidity. I watched the car thermometer climb from 68 this morning in Nashville to 99 by the time we reached Memphis. Just too damn hot! Chalk that complaint up to yet another reason why we're leaving the East Coast for the West. ;0)

We had a couple sites in mind to visit, the first being Sun Studios near downtown.
Elvis reincarnate
I had visited back in 1989 on a family trip, but George has never been to Memphis, so this site was his first priority. The tour was a lot of fun, a pleasant surprise for me and especially enjoyable for George. The tour guides have really amped up the nostalgia factor by playing music while explaining the various exhibits in a room upstairs from the cafe, which neighbors the original studio. I enjoyed the multimedia effect, it really emphasized Sun Studio's role in developing blues for the mainstream nationwide audience.

We got to see the original recording equipment used to record Elvis, Johnny Cash, BB King, Roy Orbison, U2, and many many others. When I had first done this tour back when I was 13, the most impressive part to me was being in the same studio where U2 recorded songs off of Rattle and Hum.
An Art Nouveau accent
Not that I'm a big Rattle and Hum fan--it's definitely a different, political album than the rest of their material--but I mean, it's U2! What 13 year old girl in the late '80s wouldn't appreciate that?! I remember being severely disappointed that "Pride (in the Name of Love)" with its references to MLK's assassination wasn't recorded there but "Angel of Harlem" and its NY references was. At the time, it just didn't make sense to me subject wise. Yes, I was a super nerd even back then. ;0)

The tour guide, Dave, was an interesting fellow. He was young, in his late 20s and obviously a rocker. In fact, all of the employees looked like rockabillies in their late 20s and early 30s. Dave said he was interviewed for a long time for the Walk the Line documentary about Johnny Cash and Sun Studios, but that all his interview material was cut in the final production.
Original recording equipment
Oh well. He spent the last few minutes of the tour promoting his CD as well as asking for tips. That was pretty strange and not really welcomed, but otherwise, he was a fun, knowledgeable tour guide, obviously enthusiastic about Sun Studios and the '50s and '60s blues and rock era. He even lip synched an opening that a Memphis DJ gave when playing Elvis's first single for the first time on radio. The song was so popular, 45 people called up and asked for him to play it again and he ended up playing it 14 times during his shift that same evening. What an illustrious start to a fantastic career.

After the tour, we spent a few minutes taking pics inside and outside the studio, which of course I can't share with you just yet. Still no camera cord, argh! Then we looked at the clock and realized that we had about 30 minutes to get downtown to the Peabody Hotel to watch the ducks trail from the lobby upstairs via the elevator.
Johnny Cash
I was so excited to share this with George. We got a great parking spot and walked in the hotel. We saw a lot of families in the lobby, and I thought for sure we just needed to find the right area to watch the processional. So I asked a staff person, and unfortunately, I was an hour off. The processional is at 5 PM, not 6 PM like I thought. So disappointing.

The next thing George wanted to do was walk across the pedestrian bridge to a peninsula on the Mississippi called Mud Island River Park. George wanted to check out the five-block replica of the Mississippi River. We walked through the downtown, checking out buildings on Main Street. Normally we love walking through downtowns, but today it was just too bloody hot. We were drenched in sweat (sexy, huh?) very quickly, and of course, walking between buildings was the worst without the river breeze.
Are these the Stray Cats?
So we walked another block to the trail along the river and passed Confederate Park, which is probably one of the saddest sights we've seen so far. A statute of Jefferson Davis is the highlight. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a Virginian and come from a long line of Southerners, so some Southern pride is definitely instilled in me. But really, naming a park Confederate Park in 2008? It clearly was a place for homeless men to camp out, including a band of rough looking white homeless guys sitting in circle talking. A bus stop was right in front of the park that appeared to be a bus line for low income people, all of whom were black at the time we passed by. George and I just had to shake our heads, we thought it was sadly ironic place, like most of Memphis. (As a side note, in Tennessee today I've seen two references to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the infamous Confederate general who founded the KKK.
The original name of Sun Studios
On I-40 about 1.5 hours east of Memphis is NBF state park, and near Sun Studios is a marker for NBF's place of death. I mean, seriously? Commemorating the founder of the KKK in a predominately black city?)

We continued walking until we eventually reached the Mud Island visitor center. but...the place was closed! It closed at 6 PM, and it was about 6:30 at the time. Boy, were we not happy. It just didn't make sense why the pedestrian bridge was closed to the public at an early time.

So now we were cranky, hot, and thirsty. We decided to walk back to the Peabody, but along the way thought it might be fun to check out Beale Street for a block or two. Along the way, we came across Front Street Deli that had several handwritten signs for milkshakes. I figured, hey we're on vacation and need to cool off, why not get one and check out a local place at the same time? And what do you know, George tries the door, and it's locked.
The Sun Studio reception area where not-yet-famous musicians like Elvis met receptionist/bookkeeper Marion Keisker before recording.
Who knows when it closed for the day? We struck out three times in a row and were pretty much ready to call it a day. But we did end up walking a block of Beale Street so George could find a greeting card, which was surprisingly hard to find. I guess no one wants greeting cards these days, although certainly post cards are still popular.

By the time we reached our car, it was about 7:30. We felt we had walked around the city for hours, although it had only spent less than two. I was supposed to attend an anthropology conference in downtown Memphis in March and now am kinda glad I couldn't go. I don't think I would've enjoyed spending several days without a car just walking around the city. I saw so much despair and poverty on the streets that I haven't seen in a long time, and that makes my heart feel heavy with sadness.
Our hipster Sun Studio tour guide


We were near S. Third Street, so we decided to head back to Interstate BBQ for dinner. We got to see a part of the city that normally we would've bypassed on the interstate. Dinner was delicious, and I enjoyed listening to other diners' conversations. The TV in the dining room was tuned to CNN, which was discussing its Black in America special. That sparked an interesting conversation between two older black men eating ribs, and it was interesting to hear their thoughts after having formed some opinions about race relations in Memphis based on observations throughout the day. One of the men had a neat Obama "Progress" tee shirt on, and though I'm not quite sold on Obama, it was just neat to see someone who evidently was proud that Obama's running.

Tomorrow morning we head out early to Oklahoma City to meet up with a friend I met on Kaboodle.
Elvis with Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips and the lady who first recorded him, receptionist/bookkeeper Marion Keisker
com. More to come!


montecarlostar says:
It's funny, I was also caught in a storm in Nashville last year around these dates. It was horrible to drive in those conditions around all those big trucks
Posted on: May 21, 2011
Vermithrax says:
Nice! Yes, that's definitely the Stay Cats!
Posted on: May 20, 2011
goezi says:
Great stuff Jackie. I'm looking forward to you putting up a few of those pics.
Posted on: Jul 25, 2008
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Outside Sun Studio
Outside Sun Studio
The Sun Studio gift shop is locate…
The Sun Studio gift shop is locat…
The owners kept the cafes fountai…
The owners kept the cafe's founta…
Elvis reincarnate
Elvis reincarnate
An Art Nouveau accent
An Art Nouveau accent
Original recording equipment
Original recording equipment
Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash
Are these the Stray Cats?
Are these the Stray Cats?
The original name of Sun Studios
The original name of Sun Studios
The Sun Studio reception area wher…
The Sun Studio reception area whe…
Our hipster Sun Studio tour guide
Our hipster Sun Studio tour guide
Elvis with Sun Studio owner Sam Ph…
Elvis with Sun Studio owner Sam P…
Sun Studio sits on the corner of M…
Sun Studio sits on the corner of …
The Sun Studio entrance
The Sun Studio entrance
Standing where the big guys walked…
Standing where the big guys walke…
George had heard about this, but t…
George had heard about this, but …
The Peabody Hotel
The Peabody Hotel
The Peabody Hotel sign
The Peabody Hotel sign
The grand Peabody Hotel lobby
The grand Peabody Hotel lobby
Inside the The Peabody Hotel. Are …
Inside the The Peabody Hotel. Are…
A sign in the Peabody Hotel. Doesn…
A sign in the Peabody Hotel. Does…
Memphis Art Nouveau architecture.
Memphis Art Nouveau architecture.
The trolley passes by on Main Stre…
The trolley passes by on Main Str…
Jefferson Davis in Confederate Par…
Jefferson Davis in Confederate Pa…
Someone left some might big shoepr…
Someone left some might big shoep…
Front Street in Memphis
Front Street in Memphis
A parking garage sign on Front Str…
A parking garage sign on Front St…
Abandoned buildings on Front Street
Abandoned buildings on Front Street
Looking down towards the Mississip…
Looking down towards the Mississi…
The Elvis statue on Beale Street
The Elvis statue on Beale Street
Enjoying ribs at Interstate BBQ
Enjoying ribs at Interstate BBQ
My yummy bbq sandwich
My yummy bbq sandwich
Interstate BBQ
Interstate BBQ
Our posh La Quinta hotel room in M…
Our posh La Quinta hotel room in …
Memphis
photo by: vulindlela