Marc Cohn’s one-hit wonder inspired by his first visit to the land of the Delta Blues hits the key notes and key places that a newcomer should experience when visiting Memphis. I never really listened to the lyrics until I found myself, like Marc Cohn, walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale. I never even heard of Beale Street before Larry suggested we fly into Memphis rather than directly into Nashville for our annual jaunt to the Ryman Auditorium. For the past three years, Larry and I have traveled to Nashville to attend a charitable country music concert that raises money for St. Jude’s Hospital. This year, Larry booked flights into Memphis International Airport and rented a car so we could explore the area before driving to Nashville, which is straight three hour shot along what is called Music Highway.
Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane.
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain.
The pilot announced we were a half hour from landing, and I took the time to refresh my 6th grade knowledge of geography by typing MEMPHIS into my google maps app, and discovered that Memphis is situated in the far southwestern corner of Tennessee, very near the border of Mississippi and Arkansas and not far from Missouri. We disembarked the plane and headed straight for Graceland, and we were surprised to find out that Elvis’ grand mansion is not perched in some remote location distant from swooning public and press as I would have imagined, but it is smack dab in the middle of Highway 51, surrounded by discount hotels and a few boarded-up businesses. Tour buses and visitors park across the street from the mansion, adjacent to the sprawling Graceland museum, which consists of multiple exhibits including Elvis’ fantastic car collection, his glittery costume collection, historic memorabilia from his family, uniforms from his days serving in the military, and the Lisa Marie, Elvis’ private plane. The cost of a ticket to tour the mansion, the museum and the airplane will run you around $70 per adult, and you can expect to spend anywhere from 3-4 hours at Graceland. Even if you are not an Elvis afficionado, the experience to walk through the home where the King lived and died, to soak in the outlandish and over-the-top décor, and to learn more about the legend who achieved unrivaled success in his mere 42 years of life is priceless.
After Graceland, we checked into our hotel, the Westin Memphis Beale Street, which was a stellar location directly across from the Fedex Forum, home of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team, and literally around the corner from Beale Street. For dinner, we had plans to meet my Uncle Donald, my late father’s baby brother who was stationed in Tennessee when he was a Lieutenant in the Army and he never came back home, and his daughter, Nicole, who I hadn’t seen since 8th grade, and her family. Although native barbeque would have been my first choice, Uncle Donald made reservations at an Italian restaurant a couple of blocks from Beale named Spindini. While no comparison to the Italian dishes served on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx or the North End of Boston, my veal scallopine marsala was very good and presented in a sophisticated space with very accommodating service. However, what made the dining experience truly enjoyable was the opportunity to reconnect with my Southern family and reminisce about days gone by, while sharing details of our lives for the past 40 years. Definitely a wonderful experience.
After dinner, we kissed family goodbye with promises to meet again, and walked to Beale Street, a nearly two mile boulevard which runs from the Mississippi River to the center of town. It is restricted to pedestrian access only, which is important, since it is quite easy to become distracted by the colorful neon signs and blues music which is broadcast from each of the venues in what becomes a musical competition attempting to hook the ears of passers-by and bring them inside. With our ears as our primary guide, Larry and I were seduced into Rum Boogie Café, a dimly lit blues joint offering red-vinyl clothed tables positioned front row to a performance stage decorated with mesmerizing memorabilia. In the space, over 200 autographed guitars dangle from the ceiling, including guitars from Elvis, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, U2, to name a few. Frankly, we stopped looking after developing a painful crook from straining our necks. The walls are plastered with autographed dollar bills and the original STAX Memphis recording studio sign is perched over the stage. As if the sights were not thrilling enough, we were blown away by the performers. At first it felt awkward to be seated so close to the stage, but that feeling quickly dissipated when Queen Ann Hines and the Memphis Blues Masters took the stage. Let me say that while I am a fan of all genres of music, there is nothing quite as emotionally electrifying and soulfully connecting like the blues. As the pluck of the electric guitar pricked at our nerves, the girth and beauty of the lead singer certainly commanded our visual attention, but it was her smoky expressive voice that entitled her to the befitting name of Queen. When she sang B.B. King’s Thrill is Gone, I wanted to shout out, “Queen Ann, you done brought it back!”
Unfortunately, our stay in Memphis was only a mere 24 hours. That night on Beale Street, after Queen Ann closed out her soulful performance with a lively rendition of “I just want a little bit,” Larry and I left Memphis thinking our time on Beale Street was just not enough . . . yeah, we want “just a little bit more.”
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