The Memphis Beat

It’s got Blues, barbecue and Elvis, but Tennessee’s Bluff City remains restless, eager to break out and try new things.

Forget a long weekend—a visitor could spend a lifetime in Memphis and still be perplexed by its contradictions and its stubborn refusal to stay still. This southwestern Tennessee city can’t even settle on the best way not to stay still. 

To paraphrase its most famous native, Elvis Presley, some places tap their toes, some snap their fingers and some sway back and forth. Memphis has done them all, and in such distinctive and down-home ways that its name has become more of a feeling—a mythic notion—than an actual place on a roadmap. 

“It’s the big one,” a droll trolley driver, navigating one of three separate city rail lines running downtown, says as he approaches iconic Union Avenue. “You said that about the last one,” a woman calls out from the back. “That’s Memphis,” he laughs. “The streetsthey’re all big.” 

From the fourth bluff of the Chickasaw, this settlement has overlooked the vast Mississippi River for centuries, beckoning to distant rafts and riverboats. Even as it navigates a 21st-century foodie culture, warehouse-to-loft conversions and new bikeways, this city alternately clings to seductive, eccentric traditions of pulled pork, pro wrestling and ducks marching in line at the stately Peabody Hotel. It may not be the beacon to rural dreamers that it once was, but people still flock to this shining city on the hill—of late, young people. “They hitchhike from California, ridin’ on a Honda from Arizona,” another celebrated son, Jerry Lee Lewis, once sang. “Houston, Boston, Kansas City, New Orleans and a doo wah diddy, they all come for the Memphis Beat.” 

Although its musical prime mover was the seminal jazz composer W.C. Handy, who was the first to immortalize downtown’s vibrant Beale Street in song (he’s even got his own museum here), Memphis is inarguably the place where rock ‘n’ roll music began. While some say that the kickstarter was Elvis, in 1954, it actually began several years earlier, in amped-up Blues recordings that the visionary producer Sam Phillips made with such trailblazers as Ike Turner, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. The city’s musical past reveals itself in the streets as well as on official tours—a signpost at Cooper and Walker commemorates Johnny Cash’s first performance inside a Methodist Church; a striking black and white image of soul duo Sam and Dave is affixed to a dilapidated shack in the city’s Soulsville neighborhood; and an official tourism banner quotes singer Al Green and his classic song, “Let’s Stay Together.” It’s a reminder that Memphis has benefited greatly from a unique, highly-creative symbiosis between all its citizens—black and white alike—who have long found music to be a fruitful common ground. 

Having lunch downtown at Gus’ Famous Fried Chicken, where the atmosphere is reminiscent of the kind of “joint” frequented by ’40s film noir protagonists on the lam, you see Memphis in microcosm—businessmen in suits pick at spicy chicken bones next to Hawaiian-shirted tourists seated near hoodie-wearing entourages led by corpulent, cane-using patriarchs. Everyone nods at each other and wipes hot tears from their cheeks. Without prompting, Gus’ attentive waitresses happily reveal the true secret of serving superior half-and-half iced tea. It’s all in the pour, they say—“You go back and forth between the sweet and unsweet.” 

And like a side order of delicious fried green tomatoes, you are just as entranced by the alleys and off street revelations of the city. Where most urban centers have paved over their weird, you can still encounter the spiky neon sputnik at Joe’s Liquors in midtown, Hickory Hill’s 10-foot tall stone Buddha, the gigantic wind chimes near Overton Park, or the river walk at Mud Island, a 2,000-foot recreation of the lower Mississippi. Memphis’ finer institutions pay loyal tribute to its offbeat singularity: At the Pink Palace Museum, patrons walk through the ghost aisles of the first self-service grocery store in the country, Piggly Wiggly, which started here, and find out more than they want to know about the city’s deadly, but defining 1878 Yellow Fever outbreak.

Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, has become one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, but rock ‘n’ roll-minded visitors can patronize an alternative Elvis tour—more informal and self guided. Most of the nine places Presley’s family lived in town are gone, but you can still visit room 328 at the Uptown Square apartment complex, formerly Lauderdale Courts, and see the wall of lipstick kisses that fans have left in his bedroom over the years. There’s also a small home at 2414 Lamar Ave. that the Presleys briefly dwelled in, now a day care center, and the upscale four-bedroom ranch house that Elvis bought for his parents at 1034 Audubon Drive, one year before moving into Graceland. The King’s favorite restaurant, the Arcade, billed as Memphis’ oldest eatery, continues to serve the sweet potato pancakes he craved—visitors to the South Main establishment can eat in his favorite booth. 

No visit to Beale Street is complete without a pilgrimage to sculptor Andrea Lugar’s bronze Elvis statue, the centerpiece of nearby Elvis Presley Plaza, which immortalizes him in mid-hip-swivel. An earlier Elvis statue that once stood here, by Eric Parks, can now be seen at the Memphis Welcome Center, mere feet away from a statue of another Memphis King, B.B. And real gone daddies can still shop at Lansky Brothers, the clothier that sold Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and more their cat clothes and brothel creepers. It now has four locations, including an anchor store inside the Memphis Hard Rock Café. (Unfortunately, many of Presley’s most cherished haunts have been demolished, including the Loew’s State Theatre on South Main, the cinema where he had his first job.) 

The house trio at Wild Bill’s.

Though you are more likely to encounter a cool new band at an outdoor festival—there’s one nearly every weekend in today’s Memphis—than in a smoky club like you would 30 years ago, the authentic juke joint we think of when we imagine Memphis is still alive in Wild Bill’s, which is situated next to a heavily fortified North Memphis convenience store. On a typical Saturday night, Wild Bill’s house trio lays down a raw Blues soundtrack. The mixed crowd of young and old sip 40-ounce brews and bask in the air conditioning from units chained to the walls. “It is the only place left,” Henri, a visitor from France, says in broken English of the red-painted room as he nods his head to the band doing a greasy rendition of Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book While Looking at the Cover.” This is the Memphis a visitor expects to find from reading the tourist brochures, but it’s disappearing rapidly. 

There are other, more pressing challenges here. Like similar urban centers in the South, Memphis began to fall victim to neglect in the 1970s, but unlike, say, Atlanta, the revitalization has been slow and hard-fought. The new Bass Pro Shops complex, ensconced in Memphis’ iconic Pyramid arena (which juts out of the skyline like a silver spade) is a destination point for outside dining, shopping, bowling and even archery. But other areas still seem trapped in the amber of poverty and crime. On the southside, the Stax Records Museum—one of the city’s greatest attractions and most engaging history lessons—is the centerpiece of a historic neighborhood called Soulsville, where dozens of important music-makers, from Memphis Minnie to Maurice White, were born and lived, and where producer Willie Mitchell created indelible hits with Al Green in his Royal Studios. But even with a new charter school, the Underground Railroad Museum, and Stax, opportunities seem distant—the childhood home of Aretha Franklin sits crumbling on Lucy Avenue, walled off with no marker to chart its significance. Too small for a museum, too dilapidated for true renovation, its fate is currently being debated by local politicians.

The most successful of Memphis’ revitalization projects, the South Main Arts District, is housed in what used to be a separate suburban community called South Memphis. Because many of its historic buildings and warehouses have survived intact, it has become a go-to location for films like Hustle and Flow and Mystery Train, and its once sketchy streetscapes now bustle with art galleries, restaurants and the entrepreneurial fruit of start-up business incubators.

Memphis is all too aware of what its culture has meant to the American zeitgeist. But it also seems eager to break out and try new things. This eternal restlessness is why so much of its great music is raw and beautifully disheveled, not polished and neat like Nashville’s, and why the city still seems alive and vibrant, perpetually reinventing despite an inclination to embalm itself. It remains a great city, revelatory for a few days or a lifetime, a uniquely American place that, like perfect half-and-half tea, knows all too well how to mix the sweet and the unsweet. 

Explore Memphis

From museums honoring its musical history to fried chicken and barbecue joints, and from the home of The King himself to one of the South’s grandest hotels, here’s a guide to making the most of Memphis.

Park and Ride

Take the newly-restored Memphis trolley—$3 for a day pass—and thank us later. Whether it’s the Center for Southern Folklore, Tom Lee Park, the historic Orpheum Theater, the Blues Hall of Fame, or the new Bass Pro complex housed in the old Memphis Pyramid, you can get there by rail.

High on the Hog and Other Good Things to Eat

Its slogan is “the best breakfast in Memphis.”Brother Juniper’s has been a University of Memphis mainstay since the 1960s. Tip: Get there early to order the trademark San Diegan omelet or the from-scratch biscuits, or you’ll be standing in a long line.

Gus’ Fried Chicken offers wings and breasts with a spicy outer breading, a mouth-assault that is counterbalanced by a delectably tender white meat filling. A relatively new Memphis tradition (it originated in Mason, 40 miles away) Gus’ came to downtown Memphis in 2001 and has franchised out to 14 stores across the U.S.

No one has ever eaten bad barbecue in Memphis; it may even be against city code to serve it. There are famous eateries like Jim Neely’s and Corky’s, but even a raggedy cinderblock dive like Payne’s on Lamar Avenue will yield ribs and chopped pork you won’t soon forget. Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, however, is in a special class. For nearly 70 years, this Memphis landmark has been serving its dry rub barbecue in a basement location on 2nd Street next to the Peabody Hotel, setting the spit for slow-cooked, smoke-flavored pork ribs (people across the world can get the meat shipped to their door, and do). The Rendezvous also serves as something of a local museum, with walls filled with photos, newspaper clippings and oddball Memphis bric-a-brac.

Inspired vegetarian food in the land of rib meat? Try the unassuming Fuel Café, an offshoot of a popular food truck housed in a renovated 1920s gas station, which serves up yummy black bean veggie tacos, vegan chili bowls and a real treat, the walnut sammie, a fake meatloaf made of walnuts.

Hog and Hominy is a treat. With an inviting open kitchen, and a creative take on Southern comfort food, this East Memphis eatery is perfect for gourmands and the simply hungry alike. The different varieties of pizza, fired in a brick oven, are thin in crust and thick on taste; your grandma may just want to steal the collards recipe.

The top-rated Flight allows you to combine as many scrumptious small plates as you want. You can sample different pairings suggested by the chef (like the “fish flight” with gulf snapper, Louisiana redfish and sea bass), or freelance on your own. While the entrée dishes are superior (and creative), you won’t soon forget the deviled eggs with Gulf oysters and bacon marmalade hidden on the appetizer menu.

OK, so the food is uneven and the rules arcane (you pay for a glass but bring your own wine), but Pete and Sam’s personifies old-school Memphis. Maybe it’s the drawling waitresses, straight out of a ‘70s sitcom, or the Italian menu that most Memphians know by heart (gotta love those baby pizzas), but this pasta enclave is as Memphis as a cheap guitar.

Mind Your Musical History

See music history unfold at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, just off of Beale Street alongside the FedEx Forum, home of the city’s pro basketball franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies. Armed with its own formidable artifacts, like a bodacious early ‘60s Tina Turner stage outfit, the Smithsonian-affiliated institution helps to connect the missing pieces of other city music tours.

The Stax Records Museum of American Soul Music, housed in the renovated movie theater where Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Sam and Dave and countless other soul music legends recorded their hits, tells the story of black and white musicians at the influential Stax label working together in the 1960s, harmoniously in every sense, to craft a gritty, horn-driven soul sound that endures today. You’ll marvel at Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac, and a recreation of TV’s Soul Train dance floor will compel you to initiate a dance off.

On the Sun Studio tour, you’ll find out how Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Rufus Thomas, Charlie Rich and others put their forever stamps on American music in a place not much bigger than your uncle’s storage shed. The former Memphis Recording Service site is a sacred space for music fans—Bob Dylan called it “the most mysterious place on the planet.” Diehards will love the newly-added restoration of the deejay booth where wild disc spinner Dewey Phillips first unleashed Elvis onto the world.

Talk to the animals

The Memphis Zoo is one of the county’s oldest (est. 1906) and highest-rated animal sanctuaries, with more than 500 species on display, including Tyranza, the oldest elephant in North America, and 35 different types of butterflies. There’s music history here too, with special plaques honoring the late singer Jeff Buckley (a lifelong visitor) located near the Sumerian tigers.

Do the Elvis thing

Graceland, Elvis Presley’s iconic home, attracts tourists from around the world. The experience offers each visitor a laptop with a digital celebrity tour guide (remember TV actor John Stamos?) leading you through the colonial revival mansion’s time capsule treasures, including the gloriously gaudy “Jungle Room,” where Elvis would often jam and record songs alongside leopard skin couches and an indoor waterfall, and the Mediation Garden, where the King is buried along with his mother, father and grandmother. (Private tours may also be arranged, by appointment.) There’s also a just-opened $75 million hotel built by Elvis Presley Enterprises, The Guest House, right next door. Considering that this 13.8-acre estate was originally a place for rest and solitude, we wonder what the King would think about the new neighbors, or the 650,000 people who wander through his house each year.

Experience Beale Street

Peabody Hotel duckmaster Jimmy Ogle with the hotel’s ducks.

King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame Bar & Grille is the closest thing to the old Beale Street—once the Southern heartbeat of black American culture—housed in a historic structure that has been, at times, an infirmary, a hip clothing store (Pepe’s), a police precinct and a barbecue restaurant. Amid colorful grappling paraphernalia (Lawler is perhaps the city’s best known pro wrestler—Memphians have long had a passion for the wrasslin’), talented new-school bluesmen like Eric Hughes recreate the slide guitar and gnarled vocals of an earlier, more real Beale.

The majestic Peabody Hotel, half a mile from Beale Street at Union and 2nd, has been called “The South’s grand hotel,” and it’s the home of the famous Peabody Ducks; five spirited mallards that are brought down by elevator from their penthouse lair and famously march to the first floor hotel fountain twice a day in a ritualized procession. (Arrive 30 minutes before showtime or you may not even get a glimpse.) Come for the grandeur, stay for the waterfowl.

Don’t Miss

The exhibits in the National Civil Rights Museum tell so well the complex story of the fight to end segregation in the ’50s and ’60s, and the transformative role of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that you almost forget you are standing inside the very Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated in 1968. This moving historical remembrance is as much about healing as it is history.

This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue. 

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