Thursday, March 15, 2007

Memphis: From the Lorraine to Sun Studio to Graceland

Sally and I spent Monday and Tuesday in Memphis with our good friends George and Kay Rable from Tuscaloosa, taking in as much as we could of the city in a day and a half of touring. The major reason/excuse for this excursion -- besides just meeting our friends -- was a pilgrimage to Graceland, home of the King, Elvis Presley. But that was properly at the end of our trip, on Tuesday morning, and Monday was filled with discovering what else Memphis had to offer.

Turns out, it was a lot.

This isn't everything, but it will give an idea.

The Lorraine Motel

Memphis has many great sites and places to visit, so with limited time, you have to choose. Our major Monday morning stop was the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel is where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 (a date that I remember well). King was standing on the second floor walkway of the motel outside room 306 when he was shot by a sniper from the back bathroom of a boarding house on the next block.

The museum is an extension of the motel, and that leaves the front of the motel pretty much as it was in 1968. There are even a couple of vintage cars parked out front to give it the feel of the time when King died.

The museum itself is loaded with information and exhibits about the history of the Civil Rights movement. Too much information, in fact. There are pictures, videos, audios, exhibits, explanations and other material that would take a week to listen, view and read. The introductory video is poorly produced and misleading, paying more attention to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy than the real white hero of civil rights, Lyndon Johnson.

With the way the museum is built, you have to endure all of this stuff before you can get to the real reason the museum exists to begin with -- the murder of Martin Luther King. That comes as you get to the second floor of the motel and can go into the adjoining rooms that King and his entourage occupied during those final days. The room is filled with the voices of some of those who were there that day, and that is well worth seeing.

Our advice is to walk through the other stuff (after skipping the opening video) as quickly as possible to get to this point. That's when things got good.

Then they got better.

When you leave the motel room, you exit the building and walk across the street to the boarding house where James Earl Ray was staying when King died. On the second floor, you can see the room Ray occupied and the bathroom at the end of the hallway where King's killer fired the fatal shot. Ray was eventually captured, convicted and sentenced to prison for King's killing, but theories and rumors persist that he did not act alone or even that he was set up and had nothing to do with the killing. All of this is dealt with in an extraordinary exhibit on the same floor of the boarding house. There is even a section on theories that the Memphis police were involved in the conspiracy.

All this -- not the first exhibits -- is worth the price of admission.

Sun Studio

Late Monday afternoon had us driving down Union Avenue in search of Sun Studio. To call this the birthplace of rock 'n roll is not an exaggeration. Sam Phillips, a white man who got interested in the sound coming from the blues singers on Beale Street, set up a recording studio in this modest building. He recorded singers, such as B.B. King, who later defined the modern blues sound.

But in the early 1950s, the white world wasn't ready for black music from black artists. So Phillips kept recording and kept looking. He wanted something different.

That's what he got when a kid named Elvis Presley recorded a song called "That's All Right, Mama" in 1954. Presley had been hanging around Sun Studios for about a year, listening to what he heard from others, taking it in and making it his own. That song was what Phillips was looking for -- blues blended with country, powered by a driving beat. Phillips took the recording to a local wild man DJ and asked him to play it one night. By the end of the night, the station had played it 14 times because of the many phone requests it provoked. Phillips was onto something, and rock music had been defined.

The building has been well preserved, offers tours and still serves as a recording studio to the very famous.


This was the reason for the trip.

We arrived fairly early on Tuesday morning and made our way into the Graceland visitors center to pick up our tickets for the tour of the house. It was truly All Elvis All the Time, as they themselves say.

Graceland was built in the 1930s by a Memphis physician and sits on 13 acres facing Highway 51, Elvis Presley Boulevard, not far from the Tennessee-Mississippi border. Presley bought it in 1957 for $100,000. He was 22 years old.

Graceland served as headquarters for the King and his family and entourage until his death from heart failure there in 1976.

The house is stately but fairly small by today's standard of upper middle class houses, but everything inside is purely Elvis and purely 1970s, down to the carpeted ceilings and shag carpets on many of the floors. Tourists are not allowed in the upstairs of the house but can get a close look at everything on the first floor and in the basement. There are also several other buildings on the grounds that tell stories about various parts of Elvis' life, personality and music.

Graceland is interesting and well worth the visit, even if you're not a particular fan of Elvis. He was a huge cultural phenomenon, but he led a rather sad existence, and you come away from Graceland understanding both of those things.

More pictures of our Memphis trip can be found here at PicasaWeb, Google's photo site.

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