Thursday, April 12, 2012

Memphis–Birthplace of the Blues (And Rock & Roll)

(W. Memphis, AR) Hi 71 Low 45 – It was a beautiful sunny day, but very cool, especially in the morning. We actually turned on our small space heater in the bedroom last night. Today, after spending less time than normal on our morning routine, we left to explore downtown Memphis. We headed back east across the Mississippi River, where we exited I-55 onto Riverside Drive into the downtown area. We found a parking space about a block from Beale Street. Once we got parked I noticed it was about 10:45am. I knew from researching on the web that the famous Peabody Ducks make their twice-daily march to the fountain at 11am and 5pm. So the timing was perfect to walk the two blocks to the Peabody Hotel to see the 11:00 “show.”

The tradition of the Peabody Ducks dates back to 1932. For a quick explanation of how it all started, check here. When we entered the hotel lobby we saw a sign pointing to stairs that led to the mezzanine, which it said is the best place to view the ducks. Good thing we went up there, because the floor was very crowded. (Please excuse any blurriness in these photos; it was very dim lighting inside and I didn’t want to use flash. And remember, you can click on any photo to enlarge it.)

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The red carpet leads from an elevator, which we couldn’t see from our vantage point. The gentleman in the red coat is the “Duckmaster.” After he makes some official pronouncements about the heritage and tradition of the ducks, the elevator door opens and the ducks do their march to the fountain.

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Once the “march” was over, we went downstairs for a closer look.

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We managed to get a picture of the Duckmaster just as he was leaving on the elevator. Notice the sign?

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It was kind of cute to see, but I’m not sure we would have made it one of those “must see” events. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. After that we walked the two blocks back over to Beale Street. There are famous streets and roads in the U.S. that everyone has heard of… Bourbon Street., Fifth Avenue, Hollywood Blvd. Beale Street. is one of those. It’s the heart and soul of Memphis; where blues music was born.

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The main part of Beale Street. covers only a few blocks. But it’s a colorful, vibrant area, with shops, restaurants, and many nightclubs and blues joints, including the most famous of them all, B.B. King’s Blues Club.

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Here’s some views of the street.

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In one block area, they have musical notes embedded in the sidewalk commemorating many rhythm and blues artists. Sort of like the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Around the corner from Beale Street. is the Fed Ex Arena, home of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team.

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In the plaza in front of the arena was this interesting, athletic-themed street art.

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Across the street from the Arena, and one block over from Beale Street., is the Gibson Guitar factory.

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We didn’t take the tour, they didn’t have any openings until later in the afternoon. But we did look over the lobby and show room. Very attractive space, and the guitars in the showroom were gorgeous!

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By this time we were getting hungry. In Memphis you just have to have BBQ at least once before you leave. I did some checking online for Memphis BBQ restaurants and found many “top 10” lists. The place that seemed to consistently be on every list was Central BBQ. It’s a couple miles outside the downtown area in a seedier part of the city, but oh my, was it ever good!

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We ate in the outdoor part. Dee had a pork sandwich and I had the pork plate with a link of BBQ pork sausage on the side. We both agreed it was the best BBQ we’ve ever eaten!

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We walked out stuffed. If you’re ever in Memphis, we highly recommend Central BBQ.
We had one more stop before heading back across the river. I wanted to see and tour the world famous Sun Studio, where Elvis made is first record.

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Sam Phillips started Sun Studio back in 1950, and it was originally called the Memphis Recording Service. He shared space in the building with the Sun Records label business. His primary interest was recording the blues artists from Beale Street, But in 1951 a group called Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded a song called “Rocket 88.” It’s considered to be the first rock and roll song ever recorded (although that term wasn’t known then). In 1953 a young skinny kid named Elvis Presley came in with the $3.00 fee it cost to make a recording on his own of a ballad called “My Happiness.” Sam Phillips was out at the time, but his secretary Marion Keisker oversaw his recording session. She later told Sam about him and played the recording. But Sam wasn’t impressed. He slowly warmed up to Elvis and signed him in 1954 to make some more recordings, mostly of ballads. He didn’t think much would come of him until late one night, after a long recording session, Elvis picked up his guitar and led the other two guys of the band in an impromptu version of an up tempo song called “That’s Alright Mama.” Well, all kinds of light bulbs lit up in Sam Phillips’ head, and the rest, as they say, is history. By the next year Elvis became too big for Sun Records. Sam Phillips knew he didn’t have the resources to break Elvis into the national limelight, and he needed money to pay off debts and finance other recording artists. So he sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Victor in 1955 for $35,000. Doesn’t seem like much nowadays, but Sam was able to pay off all his debts and launch the careers of some other great singers, like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. Sam Phillips sold the studio in 1969 and it lay dormant until the mid-80’s when it became a tourist attraction. Interestingly, they still make recordings today. They rent out the studio in the evenings for recording sessions.

Whew, sorry for being so long-winded, but I think it’s such a neat story. When we went through the front door of the “studio” we were surprised to see we had entered a soda shop! It’s actually a “holding area” to wait for your tour to start.

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When we were called for our tour we were first led upstairs to see some of the equipment and memorabilia from the 50’s.

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Our tour guide did a great job of explaining the history of the studio, and played lots of clips from the original recordings. We were then led downstairs to the actual studio.

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It was rather unimpressive looking, but the walls, ceiling, and floor are all original, and as our guide explained the history, told stories, played music, and pointed to the actual spots where the stars stood, the feeling of being in a very historical place was almost overwhelming! For example, this microphone is one of the original ones from the early 50’s, and MAY have been used by Elvis!

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We headed back across the “Mighty Mississip” to return home. It was a great and fun day. One of those days that make this full time lifestyle so worthwhile! This was a long post, but I hope you enjoyed it.  Jim

Dee here:  While Jim was writing the blog I met with two other couples that are parked beside us for a couple hours. We discussed travels and RV's. What a fun day from beginning to end. We've noticed just since this morning the water level is going down in the Mississippi, no worries of getting flooded out of the park.


Mike and Terri said...

I've heard of the Peabody duck march. What a hoot!

The Sun Studio tour sounds interesting.

Mike and Terri said...

Really liked your post Jim!!! We'll have to get back to Memphis again and check out the Beale Street area, AND try some of that good BBQ!!! We just didn't have enough time last year. --Mike

Elaine said...

we also loved Memphis when we were there in 2010...we also saw the Peabody duck walk but not in Memphis saw it in Florida..cute cute...the hotel had ducks stamped on the toilet tissue, the handles of the silverware were ducks...pretty cute stuff with ducks both sure covered alot of ground today...looks like you had a great one...take care

Gail and Rick (Gypsy Turtles) said...

Great post! We stayed overnight at that campground returning from buying Lucy in Sept 2010. At the time, we had no time to spend there, but sure would like to go back. Especially for that barbeque!

Donna W. said...

dont worry post wasnt too long, it was very interesting. Glad you guys are having a good time

KarenInTheWoods and Steveio said...

What a fun day! those ducks are so famous... so glad you got to see them.

I loved all the other sites you saw too, sure was a fun blog to read about your adventures. Thanks for sharing!

Karen and Steve
(Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard