The Road to Memphis (Summer 2013)
Memphis Tennessee is the spiritual home of Rock n Roll and that is a massive part of a whole lot of people’s lives. It was named after the city in Egypt when it was founded because of its geographical similarity, only instead of sitting on the banks of the Nile- Memphis TN sits on the banks of the muddy Mississippi. It was a personal pilgrimage in so many ways to go to Memphis, since I got into Rockabilly first back in the early eighties, it features in so many songs, and is where the Mississippi delta blues really was given its first chance to shine on Beale St. But we had a cool seven hour journey before we got there- heading west.
Sitting in the car leaving Atlanta we pass by Roswell (not the town that experienced the Flying Saucer crash) but another, the roads we pass under or over have wonderful colourful names such as Silver Comet Trail, Sweet Water Creek, Bright Star Road, Temple, Tallapoosa and we haven’t even reached the state line with Alabama yet and the Eastern time zone we will be entering. When we do the names continue to delight and intrigue me as to their origins, there’s: Muscadine, Hoflin Holis, Eastaboga, and we pass under Wolf Creek Road before heading passed Chula Vista. It all seems so far away and distant then you will see a sign post to Leeds and eventually the big Northern town of Birmingham. This is Alabama-to me Hank Williams country and all the while the huge trees that line the highways disappear as far as the eye can see, I had no idea that the Eastern Southern States where so green.
Heading towards the Mississippi border my old mate Nick Jones informs me that the shredded truck tyres on the side of the road are known as Road Gators – recumbent dark strips with thick textured backs sleeping in the southern heat, and there are many of them. Further on we pass Brookside (a tad different to the one in Liverpool) Dog Town, Brilliant, Bull Mountain Creek, we are now on the Appalachian Highway (no-where near the Appalachian Mountains) and it occurs to me in the 300 miles that we have just travelled there has not been a break in the woodland, we have been travelling through a deep dark sea of trees-incredible!
Tupelo Mississippi (110 miles SE of Memphis)
Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo in 1935, his parents Gladys and Vernon Presley sadly lost the other twin Jessie at birth(some say that Elvis got a double dose!) Tupelo sits on Highway 78 in Northern Mississippi and was to me as important than our eventual visit to Memphis. We pulled off the highway as dusk approached to visit the birthplace of Elvis in the countryside just outside Tupelo. We drove up to the little white wooden shack that Vernon had built him-self it stood quietly in the humid summer air and had an unobtrusive modesty that belied the might of its importance in world history.
The hard wooden swing bench on the porch seemed to be its only form of luxury, a shot gun shack, a stark reminder of hard times in the South. Down the road and around a corner and we come to the town of Tupelo. Little has changed here, a railroad line passes directly down the side of the Tupelo Hardware Co. -the place were a young Elvis Presley got his first guitar. Apparently he wanted a rifle but his mother thought it was too dangerous and eventually they settled on a guitar. The Tupelo Hardware Store also sold Blues and Rhythm and Blues records and Elvis heard this music here for the first time. This was really the place where it had all started. Today it seems to stand in a by-gone time – through the glass door the cubical shelving that cover the walls still supply the local community with everything from fencing wire to sickles, from bags of nails to overalls.
We left Tupelo smiling, listening to Elvis Radio (on Sirius XM) and headed back onto the interstate 78 north west to the far north of Mississippi and the dark Tennessee border, we passed Blue Springs, Hell Creek, on passed Olive Branch and entered the Memphis City Limits listening to the Beatles singing Memphis Tennessee by Chuck Berry in a quintessentially Liverpool manner. (Thanks to Nick’s DJing consideration!)
Sun Recording Studio
Next day the heat in Memphis was intense, the beautiful architecture a stark contrast to the rural surroundings that spread for hundreds of miles. We made our way down Union Street to Sun Recording Studios. Opened by Sam Philips in the early 1950’s to essentially record the local black Blues musicians, it was a small shop front next to a corner café. The neon in the window was authentic and a huge Gibson Semi Acoustic was suspended on the outer wall to mark its provenance.
It’s down homey nature was a delight to be behold. Stepping off the street out of the heat and into the air conditioned café (which was the start of the Sun Records tour) Johnny Cash’s Big River pounded out over the speakers, people bought stickers, decks of cards, patches, Tee-Shirts and plectrums –all sporting the rays of that famous Sun logo. The walls festooned with Sun recording artistes- Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and just to the right as you walked in a signed photograph of one of my favourites Charlie Feathers.
Lydia our tour guide looked about 23 but spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about this place that you couldn’t help be swept along by her delivery and deeply moved at times, (I seemed to only ever be a breath away from losing it!) after the visit to Tupelo the night before and understanding more fully the story of Elvis moving to Memphis when he was 13 and entering Sun Recording Studios a few years later to record a series of low key country ballads. Eventually Sam Phillips gave him a shot at playing with his friends Scotty Moore and Bill Black on guitar and Double bass respectively. Sam still wasn’t that impressed until Elvis nervously started goofing about singing ‘That’s Alright Mama’ by Arthur Cruddup, the rhythm section kicked in and Sam Phillips recognised immediately that something special had just happened- the rest as they say is history.
To stand in that studio was an intense thing, the original white perforated tiles that cover the walls and staggered ceiling –exactly as they were- the old worn floor tiles that have the x’s marked in black to mark where the optimum sound was to record – THE original silver microphone that Elvis sang into, alongside a whole bunch of other rhythm and blues artists and true Rockabilly Cats. Sam Phillips donated this microphone himself on the condition that it was not kept in a glass case and could be held in the hands and photographed by the legions of visitors to Sun Studios- Now that’s Rock n Roll!……… It really was an unforgettable, authentic and magical experience.
Sun records appeared like a beacon in a segregated country that was the size of a continent, it created something that put the fear of God in to white, conservative America, it was incendiary, sexy, exciting and revolutionary and had altered everything for ever.
We headed down Martin Luther King Highway towards the outskirts of Memphis to the white Mansion that Elvis had bought when he was just 22 years of age for $100,000. The boy had done good! Only 9 years earlier he had left that little wooden shack in Tupelo. We were ushered in to a huge car park like that at a football ground, we walked over a little creek and into a massive corporate world of gift shops, cafes and queuing. I was starting to wonder if we had done the right thing in coming here- Sun Records had been perfectly sensitive to the occasion, understated and true. This now seemed like the Mega Buck Machine had usurped all that was descent and respectful- this was Elvis post Vegas. People milled about, like this was what you had to do when you got to Memphis.
We boarded the bus after having our photographs involuntarily taken against the painted back drop of the famous white Graceland gates. We crossed the road passed through the real gates, up the tree lined driveway to the entrance. As we passed through the front door with a group of people we were meticulously told about the mirrored living room to the right by the pleasant southern voice of the narrator on our head-sets, confined behind ropes we saw the dining room, the swish looking kitchen that had been revamped in 1975 and down in to the basement where Elvis played pool and partied with his friends (aka The Memphis Mafia) and the magnificently tacky-ticki ‘Jungle Room’. A yellow mural on one of the walls of Elvis’s music room had a lightning flash with the letters ‘TCB’ this stood for Taking Care of Business – and in a flash – Elvis the King could do this. Green carpet now lined the walls and ceiling of the hallway that took us out of the back of the house in to where Vernon (Elvis’s father) had an office then on past Elvis’s firing range (he got that gun after all!) and through a series of buildings that contained what seemed to be a thousand gleaming gold discs, trophy’s, brilliant 1960’s film posters, that black leather suit of the 1968 come-back special and a collection of white embroidered suits that were worn during his extended Las Vegas residency in the 1970’s that served to fund his manager Col. Tom Parker’s gambling addiction………….
Elvis was a simple country boy at heart – he would ask the Colonel (who wasn’t actually a real Colonel!) ‘Why don’t I go and play in England- people say I would go down a storm over there?’ to which he would reply – ‘Oh there’s no-where big enough for you to play over there Elvis’, there are some interesting theories as to why Col. Tom Parker never wanted to return to Europe. Though it can be argued it never would of happened for Elvis without him. For example: in the early days as Elvis was taking off The Col. Tom Parker made I Love Elvis badges for all his girl fans, but when he heard guys saying ‘Oh I hate Elvis’ he made I hate Elvis badges- that’s enterprising, he realised there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Gracelands all seemed so gloriously epic and if anything just too much to take in. That all changed after we walked past the kidney shaped swimming pool at the end of the tour and on to a garden of reflection where there was flowers and a fountain. There in a semi-circular area where the black marble graves of Elvis’s parents, his grandmother, a small stone for Jessie and at the centre the grave of Elvis himself. This was again a moment I struggled to contain my emotion and something I hadn’t been expecting, our tour had taken in his birth-place, where he got his first guitar, Memphis and Sun Recording Studio, the country boy that changed not just his world but The World, was laid to rest here, quietly, at the end of what had been an incredible life. Everyone who walked slowly past seemed to be truly moved– who couldn’t be- the life of Elvis was monumental, turbulent, exciting, excessive, simple and complicated, that he was a generous man was indisputable, that he was born to sing and perform also, what he gave to the world was magnificent-
Without Elvis and all the other Artists that came out of the Sun Stable, without Sam Phillips (and his much maligned assistant: Marion Keisker) there would have been no Rock n Roll and the myriad of genres that it has spawned, (and probably no Beatles!)