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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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More to Memphis than ‘The King’

Tags: Travel Memphis
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The Memphis skyline as seen from the Mississippi River. [Michael Stavsky photo]

When you first arrive in Memphis, Tenn., you would be forgiven if you thought Elvis Presley was the city’s founding father. Or the god of a local religion.

Photos and memorabilia of “The King” abound in this southern city of 400,000. There’s even a statute of Elvis in front of the “Elvis Presley Plaza” office building that is surrounded by a security fence. Apparently, if you get too close to the fence, an alarm sounds and Memphis police are dispatched.

But Memphis has more to offer than Elvis’ footprints through the city. Memphis was the birthplace of soul music, with a music tradition that continues to this day along Beale Street. The nearly three-kilometre street has been the city’s music centre since the late 1890s, with many great performers opening clubs of their own. Today, Beale is still the music home of Memphis, with countless clubs open every night.

The city was also the site of the assassination of the civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King, an event that sent the city into racial turmoil for years afterward. And, as we found out very quickly, Memphis’ Jews have played a significant role in all areas of the city’s economic development since their arrival during the 1800s.

Our touring began with Elvis’ legendary home Graceland, located, of course, on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Purchased from a local family during the 1950s, the estate was named for the family’s daughter, Grace. She later inherited it and sold the property to Presley after he attained stardom.

The mansion consists of 23 rooms, although only the main floor and basement are open to the public. The furnishings have been recreated to look as it did following Presley’s sudden death in 1977. Certainly the most impressive room is the Jungle Room – a main-floor area covered in forest-green shag carpeting and decked out with lion-shaped chairs and an indoor waterfall.

Graceland is also the final resting place of Elvis. Known as the Meditation Garden, the area is adorned with wreaths from fan clubs around the world. Every year, on the anniversary of Presley’s death, thousands make a pilgrimage to the site.

Make sure to also see Elvis’ famed car collection and two personal airplanes located across the street from Graceland, along with the exhibits Elvis Presley: Fashion King and Elvis in the News.

The former Stax record company, now turned into a museum, was the first recording studio for such famous soul-music artists as Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. The museum’s tour starts with a film documenting the history of soul music from its gospel foundations to today’s R&B artists. Many fascinating artifacts relating to the recording studio’s history are on display.

We next went to Sun Studio, the small record company that recorded Elvis’ first hit, That’s All Right. Albeit more dilapidated than I had anticipated, the studio has been preserved since the 1950s, complete with the microphone Elvis used and an “X” marking the spot where he stood.

Years ago, Sun Studio recorded hits for such other legendary artists as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The famous 1956 “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session featuring the three, with Elvis at the piano, took place at Sun Studio. The piano still sits in a corner of the room.

In 1968, King was gunned down on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. The event resulted in several days of racially motivated rioting in the city and directly caused the economic decline of Memphis over the next decade. The motel has been preserved by the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed at the site.

The museum’s tour begins with the film The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306. The Academy Award-nominated documentary is a personal account of the fateful day King was killed, narrated by his associate, Rev. Samuel Kyles, who stood on the balcony next to King when the shot rang out. Rev. Kyles describes the events leading up to King’s assassination in vivid detail, along with an account of the tumultuous days that followed.

The Civil Rights Museum illustrates the history of the American civil rights movement, beginning with the early days of slavery during the 17th century. Numerous photos, videos and displays document the struggles by both black and white Americans in attaining equality for African-Americans throughout the United States.

The museum tour ends inside Room 307 of the Lorraine Motel, next door to the room King had lounged in moments before his assassination. Through a glass window, you view King’s room, fully restored to look as it did during the assassination. The adjacent window looks out on the balcony where King died.

The exhibits continue across Mulberry Street, inside the former rooming house where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. The chronology of events from Ray’s perspective, both leading up to the shooting and his escape from Memphis, through Toronto, to London, England, are shown in chilling detail. Numerous artifacts recovered from the scene are on display. Most remarkable is the perfectly preserved room from which Ray fired. 

Large numbers of eastern European Jews first moved to Memphis during the late 1800s. It was at this time that the Baron Hirsch Synagogue was formed. The synagogue has the distinction of being the country’s largest Orthodox congregation. Although many of the synagogue’s members aren’t personally observant, Memphis Jews are disproportionately involved in Jewish communal affairs compared to other major cities. Many feel it’s due to the pressure to affiliate with a religious institution in this “Bible belt” city.

Numerous Jewish families were active in the economic development of Memphis. Lansky’s, the famed clothing store on Beale Street, which advertised as Elvis’ personal clothiers, first opened in 1946. Since that time, the shop has catered to celebrities with its high-end, cutting-edge fashions. The store was the first in Memphis to market colourful designs to white men in the otherwise conservative city. Today, the store is located in the historic Peabody Hotel.

The hotel, owned by Jewish philanthropist Jack Belz, first opened in 1925. Over the next 50 years, it was considered the city’s fanciest hotel, but suffered from the economic decline of the 1970s. The hotel closed in 1975 when it was purchased by the Belz family, who undertook a six-year renovation. Reopened during the 1980s, it regained its former opulence and remains the city’s premier hotel today.

The Peabody is best known for its trained ducks that ceremoniously march to the fountain in the lobby every morning. There they stay until precisely 5 p.m., when they are led by the “duckmaster” along a red carpet back to an awaiting elevator. The hotel’s tradition of having ducks in the fountain dates to the 1930s, when its inebriated general manager placed live ducks in the hotel’s fountain one evening. Guests loved the spectacle and the tradition has remained since.

Whether you’re an Elvis fan or not, Memphis’ many great attractions are worth experiencing, but be warned that summers are extremely hot, so dress appropriately when visiting.

Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in arranging his family’s trip to Memphis.

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