Tuning into Memphis: The legacies of music and civil rights live on in this electric city

The Cher song gets it right.

When you’re walking in Memphis, your feet are ten feet off the ground. The city has a unique buzz. European in feel, it is anti-identikit, anti-chain-store, anti-homogeneous. Cool without even trying.

In Memphis, the histories of music and civil rights are intertwined – a point underlined by both Martin Luther King Jr and Elvis Presley dying in the city within a decade of each other.

Blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll: Beale Street in Memphis is full of live music bars and clubs

This year marks Memphis’s bicentenary – surely the perfect excuse to visit. Music simply pours out of every nook and cranny and has played a role in the development of the blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.

The tone is set the moment you land and are greeted by the airport logo, which is a vapour trail traced out in the shape of musical note.

When you visit the airport loos, you are serenaded on the PA by the inimitable sound of BB King strumming his beloved guitar, Lucille. We begin where it all began for Elvis, Sun Studio. This is the recording studio, where in 1953 a shy and inordinately good-looking 18-year-old truck driver strolled in off the street, wondering if hemight record a song for his mother.

The King: Elvis Presley lived in Memphis

The King: Elvis Presley lived in Memphis

Elvis was asked by Marion Keisker, the assistant to the studio’s owner, Sam Phillips: ‘What do you sound like?’ ‘Mam,’ the singer replied, ‘I don’t sound like nobody.’ You can pose at Elvis’s original microphone in the centre of the recording studio. However, our guide warns us: ‘Do not lick or kiss the mic. It has a lot of germs, and after 70 years none of those germs belong to Elvis.’ We then go on to The King’s storied home, Graceland, on the outskirts of Memphis. This is one building that Elvis has not left. Even though it is now 42 years since he died there, his presence still resonates in the mansion and the adjoining exhibition centre.

This contains his private jet, dozens of his trademark white, rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits and some of the 5,000 items of fan mail the King used to receive every single day.

Stax Records has also been a major contributor to the musical heritage of Memphis. It is commemorated in the world’s only soul music museum, a few miles away from Graceland.

It brings to life the label’s roster, which included peerless soul artists such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Booker T And The MGs.

We spend the evening wandering down Beale Street, perhaps the finest strip of blues and soul bars on the planet.

Every door on this street is thrown wide open, enticing you in with its magnetic beats.

We wind up enjoying a superb blues band in the Rum Boogie Cafe. The interior is decorated with more famous people’s guitars than you can shake a plectrum at. Memphis has music in its DNA.

Poignant history: Beale Street was the site of mourning after Martin Luther King Jr's death

Poignant history: Beale Street was the site of mourning after Martin Luther King Jr’s death

Like much of the U.S., Beale Street burned on the night Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The outstanding National Civil Rights Museum has been built around the motel.

Opened in 1991, the museum recounts in meticulous detail the history of the Civil Rights Movement from the 17th century. The centrepiece is the room where King was staying on April 4, 1968. Room 306 has been perfectly preserved from that fateful day, right down to a half-filled coffee cup and two ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.

Looking at the spot on the balcony where King was shot and seeing the still-visible bloodstain on the floor – as Judge D’Army Bailey, the co-founder of the museum, puts it, ‘the bloodstain is still speaking to us from that concrete’ – I defy anyone to remain unmoved.

Moving tribute: The scene of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination is now a civil rights museum

Moving tribute: The scene of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination is now a civil rights museum

As I stand there in quiet reverence, the grown man beside me is in floods of tears. I know how he feels.

If Memphis just had one of Sun Studio, Graceland, the Stax Museum, Beale Street or the National Civil Rights Museum, it would still be worth visiting. But it has all of them, for goodness’ sake.

As I reluctantly bid farewell to the city and listen to BB King for one last time in the gents at the airport, I’m missing Memphis already. It’s a city that leaves you all shook up.  


James Rampton travelled with Bon Voyage Travel (bon-voyage.co.uk), which offers trips to Memphis from £995 per person, including flights from London Heathrow with American Airlines and five nights in the Talbot Heirs Guesthouse. 


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