The Music Geek's Travel Guide to Memphis

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The Music Geek's Travel Guide to Memphis

Music nerds with a penchant for rock’s roots often find themselves landing in Memphis, Tenn., home of the original blues explosion and where a sideburned boy became King. The history runs thicker than barbecue sauce in the Bluff City, and rockabilly twang and bluesy riffs still ring in the air.

1. Sun Studio
706 Union Ave.
Call it the Sistine Chapel of rock. The big bang exploded within the walls of Sun Studio thanks to original owner Sam Phillips, the forward-thinking general who helped lead the genre’s stampede. It’s where Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats cut “Rocket 88,” a track many historians cite as the first rock ‘n’ roll song. For years Sun’s rays beamed blue with Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and others churning out tracks. A wave of rockabilly, including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, had its crest thanks to Sun. But it was that fateful eve in 1954 when Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right,” with Scotty Moore slinging guitar and Bill Black slapping doghouse bass, that proved to be the biggest game changer. Step inside the studio and you’ll see three Xs, each showing the spots where Elvis, Scotty and Bill stood during the session. Upstairs you’ll find an intimate museum chock full of memorabilia telling the Sun story. The actual booth used by legendary Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, credited for being the first to play Elvis over the air, lives there. When Sun’s museum sets for the evening, the studio’s boards light up. That’s when might catch a Justin Townes Earle or a Grace Potter slipping inside for a Sun-soaked recording session.

2. Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E. McLemore Ave.

So what if the original Stax Records building burned to the ground? This recreation of Soulsville U.S.A. is so spot-on you can practically smell the green onions. Stax laid claim to some of soul’s heaviest hitters, a starting line up including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Issac Hayes, Booker T. & the MG’s, The Staple Singers and a laundry list of others. Stax was unique in the fact it was a totally integrated company, from the artists all the way to the top of the corporate ladder. The label and studio’s unique history unfolds with a massive collection of memorabilia from flashy stage threads to the exhaustive Hall of Records, some 912 singles and 292 LPs plastering its walls. The recreation of the famed Studio A sits on the exact spot where countless cuts were put to tape, Booker T.’s seasoned Hammond at the ready. Yet Issac Hayes’ 1972 Cadillac El Dorado, lined with fur and trimmed with gold, serves as the background for a majority of the selfies shot at Stax. Take the self-guided experience to the next level by booking a special personal tour with Wayne Jackson, one half of the iconic Memphis Horns. Jackson’s horn magic appeared on a multitude of Stax tracks and label tours, and he’ll happily share his studio and on-the-road yarns while exploring the museum. He’ll even wrap the jaunt at his condo with cocktails and a peek at his own career collectibles.

3. Graceland
3734 Elvis Presley Blvd.

Full disclosure up front: I’ve been known to curl my lip as the official blogger for Elvis Week, the annual gathering of Presley devotees from around the globe. Yet that doesn’t negate the fact Graceland remains rock’s equivalent to the White House. Whether you’re a card-carrying Elvite or simply have a drive-by fascination, there’s no denying the tangible spirit coursing throughout the property. Set foot inside the Colonial Revival mansion with its Southern Superfly motif, peruse the King’s royal fleet of automobiles and soak up the copious exhibits, and you’ll likely walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation of Presley. Recent tour upgrades see Elvis swiveling into the 21st century. Before hopping a tour bus and scuttling across the street to Graceland, each guest scores an iPad and headphones. “Full House” actor John Stamos serves as narrator for this house full of Elvisness. As you take the tour, an image of each respective room and area appears on the tablet’s screen offering loads of additional content. For instance, when cruising through Graceland’s kitchen, a video icon appears on the screen allowing you to watch a home movie of a young Elvis walking through that very room. Although the velvet ropes keep visitors from venturing past certain points, the iPad gives you a chance to take a virtual walk on sacred ground. A wellspring of other interactive content flows from the tablet—from still photos, movie trailers and TV appearances to audio interviews and live concert footage. The recently added Graceland Archives Experience takes place inside the Archive Studio located just behind the mansion. Since the Presleys were bonafide pack rats, the Graceland archives contains more royal relics than can possibly be displayed at once. This intimate theater gives guests the chance to see rotating items not available on the regular tour. Who knew the King rocked a mobile phone?

4. Beale Street
Strip away Bourbon Street’s nudie bars, urine stench, flying beads and flashing mammaries, and you have Beale in a nutshell. Once a thriving district for African-American businesses, today bars, nightclubs, souvenir shops and eateries line this kinder, gentler stretch of tourist-trodden real estate. Brass musical notes, each featuring the name of an important Memphis musician, bring bling to the sidewalks. No stop can be complete without perusing A. Schwab (163 Beale St.), a general store dating back to the late 1800s. Its current owners keep its old-school flavor in tact, mixing souvenirs with A. Schwab classics like vintage candy and voodoo accessories. A pair of artists who helped continue to put Memphis music on the map have their names glowing in neon above respective restaurants and watering holes. B.B. King’s Blues Club (143 Beale St.) and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk (310 Beale St.) both feature local and touring acts. Memphis Music Records Tapes & Souvenirs (149 Beale St.) shills blues and other Memphis-related genres on CD and wax, including vintage 45s from Sun, Hi Records and Stax. Hard Rock Cafe Memphis (126 Beale St.) recently moved into the original home of Lansky Bros., the legendary clothing store known for decking out Elvis and others. After wiping away the remnants of a Blue Hawaii burger, explore Hard Rock’s museum-worthy collection of Memphis-centric memorabilia, including Jerry Lee Lewis’ blindingly bright paisley sports coat. A smaller version of Lansky Bros. shares space with the Hard Rock, offering a bevy of flashy threads. You’ll easily find live performers carrying the Memphis music torch on Beale, including Brad Birkedahl, whose fancy fretwork can be seen regularly at Blues City Cafe (138 Beale St.). Birkedahl, whose former band The Dempseys has a music note on Beale, replicated Scotty Moore’s licks when he played the iconic guitarist in “Walk The Line.”

5. Lansky Bros.
149 Union Ave.

The lavish Peabody Hotel, a fully functional piece of Memphis history, may lure camera-snapping tourists for its daily duck march. A troupe of waddlers residing on the roof walk single file to and from the lobby fountain. But it’s Lansky Bros., whose clothing and gift shops rule the Peabody’s retail roost, that draws both rock’s fashion conscious and sharp dressed metrosexuals. Lansky boasts four concepts at the hotel: Lansky at the Peabody offers men’s sportswear; Lansky 126 bills itself as a “contemporary denim boutique” for guys and girls; The Lucky Duck specializes in Memphis and Peabody-related gifts; and Clothier to the King focuses on vintage-style duds. It’s the latter that attracts Elvis fans looking for retro-minded wear. They carry an Italian wool sweater that’s a dead ringer for the one the Presley wore in “Jailhouse Rock,” real blue suede shoes, a racing striped windbreaker straight out of “Speedway,” and countless other pieces inspired by the contents of the king’s closet. Don’t be surprised if you bump into touring musicians, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top, who regularly stop and shop. Second generation owner Hal Lansky is always happy to chat it up with shoppers, share Elvis stories and dispense one liners.