Standing on the rooftop of the Hyatt Centric Beale Street hotel watching the nightly light show illuminate the bridge that spans the gently flowing river separating Tennessee from Arkansas, it is hard to imagine what this country would be like without the Mississippi River. From delivering a new type of American whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, onto the streets of New Orleans to providing a muse for literary greats like Mark Twain, the river’s currents transported stories, legends and a new way of life through the arteries of a young country still discovering who it was.
Its greatest contribution, however, was the music. Call and response rhythms that started in fields under the hot Mississippi Delta sun were carried along with suitcases onto the river headed north in hopes of a better life. They docked blocks from a street named after a forgotten war hero where those rhythms mixed with melancholic tones and new guitar strumming techniques to create a sound in which all other forms of American music would grow from.
Memphis’s Beale Street was ground zero for this new sound. The music pouring out of the clubs that lined the street in the early part of the 20th century became the bases for blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and jazz changing not only music but creating a ripple effect that touched almost every aspect of American culture. It is hard to overstate the importance of this river, and yet looking down on it with a bourbon in hand from a hotel perfectly situated halfway between the river and Beale Street, the water looks as if its only purpose was reflecting the bright colors from the bridge above.
Where to Stay
The Hyatt Centric Beale Street Memphis is the only hotel on Beale Street, making it the perfect home base to explore the nearby blues joints, barbecue restaurants, civil rights museum and beyond on foot. The 227-room hotel on the corner of Beale Street and Front Street pays homage to the musical city with music-inspired décor such as treble clef light fixtures and carpet patterns designed to mimic sound waves. Exposed brick and beams are remnants from the old William C. Ellis and Sons Ironworks and Machine Shop Building built in 1879. Hyatt kept as much as it could of the historic building that was once a family-owned manufacturing business.
You do not have to be standing at the noteworthy Beck & Call rooftop bar for sweeping views of the river and city’s iconic, M-shaped Hernando de Soto Bridge (although the Biscoff Old Fashioned makes it more than worth the elevator ride up) because guest rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views of downtown or the Mississippi River. Guests can watch the bridge’s nightly LED light show every night at sundown from Beck & Call or the comfort of their own bed. The hotel even has a resort-style pool with private poolside cabanas and a sun deck to relax after a long night out on Beale Street.
What To Do
Memphis’s Beale Street is one of America’s most iconic roads. While Wall Street is known as America’s financial home and Pennsylvania Avenue is America’s political thoroughfare, Beale Street is the heartbeat of America’s music.
The blues migrated up the Mississippi River from its birthplace along the Mississippi Delta and landed a few blocks from the dock on Beale Street. At the turn of the 20th century Beale Street provided a haven for African Americans migrating north from the Deep South. Legendary bluesmen such as W.C. Handy (who many consider the fatter of the blues), B.B King, Memphis Minnie, Rufus Thomas and Albert King regularly showcased their talents at the nightclubs that once lined the street. As author Rafael Alvarez once said, the music created in the clubs on Beale Street became the cradle from which all other forms of American music descend.
Today live music still spills out of open doorways and windows from iconic clubs such as Rum Boogie Café, B.B. King’s Blues Club and Silky O’Sullivan’s. A three-block section of the street is usually closed to traffic allowing visitors to meander down the street, order the popular Walk Me Down—a frozen blue drink with seven types of liquor—from a walk-up bar, watch street performers complete aerial somersaults, and just soak up the neon-drenched vibe that is modern day Beale Street.
Known as the “Home of the Blues,” “The Birthplace of Rock n’ Roll,” and a haven for soul music, there is no greater American city for music lovers than Memphis. And it has the music museums to prove it.
As the Memphis style of blues continued to evolve, a teenaged Elvis Presley spent time on Beale Street gathering inspiration for his new style of music. He recorded his debut single “That’s Alright (Mama)” a mile away at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio. While another bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup originally wrote and recorded the song, Elvis’s remake at Sun Studio launched a super star career that eventually dubbed him the King of Rock and Roll. Today Sun Studio is known as the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Visitors touring the studio-turned-museum hear stories behind legendary musicians like B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, who all recorded there, listen to tracks including the original “That’s Alright (Mama)” and see memorabilia from the studio’s heyday.
About three miles away lies another world-famous music museum, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is located on the former site of Stax Records, where Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Issac Hayes produced a string of soul-stirring hits. The famous marquee from its early days as a movie theater still reads Soulsville USA. The museum tells the story of Stax Records’s role of American soul music in the Civil Rights Movement.The tour starts in the interior of a reassembled circa-1906 Mississippi Delta church to remind visitors that soul music found its roots in the sounds of Southern gospel music. A highlight of the permanent exhibits is Isaac Hayes’ 1972 gold-trimmed Superfly Cadillac El Dorado.
The Smithsonian Institute created The Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum to highlight all the music genres that have made their mark on the city. It’s a journey through music history, from 1930s field hollers through the blues, soul, and rock that have made Memphis so legendary. The museum covers Beale Street, Sun, Stax, Hi Records, and also administers the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which is in a separate building a block away.
In addition to all the music and culture, Memphis is also home to one of the greatest tragedies to happen in American history. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. Rescued from demolition, the Lorraine Motel is now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum provides an immersive, multimedia overview of the American Civil Rights Movement from slavery to the present experience.
Jennifer Simonson is a travel writer by trade and a lover of the world’s food, cultures, drinks and outdoor spaces by nature.
Beale Street photo by H. Michael Miley under Creative Commons License
Sun Studio photo by David Jones under Creative Commons License