Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Dave Anderson | Hemispheres, June 2015
Memphis is, in some ways, a city of ghosts. Its most famous attraction, Graceland, was the home of Elvis Presley, and the place where he died. The city is scarred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent white flight that left downtown deserted for years. Yet, for a place that could be haunted by its past, this city is full of life. It's the cradle of America's musical civilization, the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and soul, and revitalized Beale Street is once again bursting with the blues. The rich culinary scene proves that Memphians' tastes extend beyond barbecue. And the people here live up to their reputation for Southern hospitality. Memphis is America's most underrated city, and it's on the come up.
In which Justin marches with ducks and goes on a musical pilgrimage fueled by the best fried chicken in America
I wake in a spacious suite at the Peabody Memphis, slip on a robe, which is embroidered with ducks, fluff my pillow, also decorated with ducks, then shower and dry myself with a towel that's emblazoned with ducks. I think they're trying to tell me something.
As the elevator door opens on the ornate, marble-columned lobby, I find myself in a madhouse. Hundreds of people jostle alongside a red carpet leading from the elevator to a nearby fountain. The hero's welcome isn't for me: It's for the famous Peabody Ducks, who roost in a $200,000 “mansion" on the roof of the hotel and march to the fountain in the morning and back in the evening, a tradition that dates back more than 70 years.
John Doyle, Executive director, Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum (with Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, manager, Royal Studios, left)
“The ducks know they're the stars, and that every human being in that lobby is here to see them march," says Anthony Petrina, the hotel's red-jacketed “Duckmaster," after leading the line of birds along the carpet. “They've waddled through every little bit of fabric [of history] that Memphis has had."
Feeling rather, uh, peckish, I take a 15-minute stroll across downtown to the Arcade Restaurant, a bright diner that dates back almost a hundred years. I slide into a booth across from John Doyle, executive director of the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, who has agreed to give me an introduction to the city's musical history—once I've tried an order of the Arcade's grilled sweet potato pancakes, a perfectly crisp, sweet way to start the day.
From here, Doyle and I head back into the heart of downtown, the intersection of Beale Street and Highway 61 (the famous “Blues Highway") to visit the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. The exhibits detail how the call-and-response and sing-along songs of Southern sharecroppers—black and white—grew into country and the blues, which along with gospel collided in Memphis to form two quintessentially American musical forms: rock 'n' roll and, later, soul.
“Memphis is embracing its small-town—almost Austin, Texas—gritty side. We've preserved a lot of buildings and haven't necessarily torn things down. People think this is the coolest damn city in the world." —John Doyle
“Rock 'n' Soul is a great starting point for the Memphis music pilgrimage," Doyle says. “So many folks come here, and they do the Graceland thing and see the jumpsuits and the gold records, but this lays out the whole basis of rock 'n' roll." The audio tour features songs from pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers, and the exhibit includes items like Jerry Lee Lewis' flower-embossed stage costume
Memphis is a small city, but getting around without a car can be a trial. So Doyle and I take my rental a few minutes southeast to Royal Studios, an old movie house that was converted into a studio in the 1950s. It was here that the legendary Willie Mitchell ran Hi Records, where Al Green recorded many of his hits. “The studio's still a studio," Doyle says, pointing at a wall bearing the signatures of artists who have recorded here recently, including RZA, Robert Plant and Bruno Mars, who laid down tracks for “Uptown Funk" here last year. “It's exactly the way Willie Mitchell left it."
Lawrence “Boo" Mitchell, Willie's mellow (but extremely busy) grandson, who now runs the studio, gives us a tour. He stomps on the same Coca-Cola crate Green's guitarist, Teenie Hodges, used in 1972 to count off time at the beginning of “Love and Happiness." He also breaks out a set of electric bongos and plays the beat of “I Can't Stand the Rain," sending the haunting, metronomic riff echoing through the studio. “Once people get here and look at the room and feel the energy, they're like, OK, we get it," Mitchell says.
The Arcade, Memphis' oldest restaurant
Fittingly, lunch today is at another soulful local institution: Gus's Fried Chicken. The line here stretches around the block, pretty much all the time, and once I've tried the food, I know why. This is the best chicken in America, the meat perfectly tender and juicy, the breading a flawless blend of spicy, crispy and greasy. You could fry a Marine's boot in that batter and I'd ask for seconds.
After lunch, I say goodbye to Doyle and continue my musical journey, starting at the famous Sun Studio. My guide here, a perky young woman named Coco, explains how, in 1951, studio founder Sam Phillips recorded Ike Turner playing a guitar through a busted amp stuffed with newspaper to get the distorted sound that would become a hallmark of rock, then leads us into the room where Elvis recorded his first hit, “That's All Right," in 1954. The tour group circles around the King's microphone, eyes wide, like pilgrims before the cross. “I've seen people do strange things with that microphone," Coco says.
I'm feeling all shook up—and ready for more—so I drive to the Soulsville neighborhood and the Stax Museum, another old cinema that once housed the Stax recording studio. Stepping out of the car, I'm greeted by speakers blaring Sam & Dave's 1966 hit “Hold On, I'm Comin'." Inside, I learn how the studio became the hub of “Soulsville, USA," an integrated institution in a segregated city and home base for artists including Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. There's so much music in the gallery—Tina Turner belting out “Proud Mary," the driving bass and Hammond organ on “Green Onions"—that I practically dance through the museum.
A few minutes from here is one of Midtown's hippest neighborhoods, Cooper-Young. I park the car and wander for a while, perusing Goner Records and Burke's Book Store, before grabbing a seat at the Beauty Shop for dinner. Owner Karen Carrier opened the restaurant in a defunct beauty shop—legend has it Priscilla Presley got her hair done here—and the fixtures include converted hairdressing chairs. I pause at the sight of sugar and spice duck breast on the menu, remembering the Peabody Ducks, but the perfectly prepared dish defeats any lingering guilt.
Good advice at Gus's Fried Chicken
At the restaurant bar, I start chatting with Allison Lawyer and Angie Johnson, a pair of Memphians out celebrating Allison's birthday. “I'm about to get off, and my band is playing next door," says a passing waitress. “I'll put you on the list." We finish our drinks and move over to Bar DKDC, where the waitress's band, Marcella & Her Lovers, gets a young, diverse crowd shaking to soul-inflected rock tunes, including a funky cover of “It's My Party."
We watch the band for a bit, then head to Mollie Fontaine Lounge, a cocktail bar (also owned by Carrier) that occupies a gorgeous red mansion in historic Victorian Village. The bar is packed with 20-somethings sipping cocktails and bobbing to the sounds of a DJ spinning upstairs. “I painted these stairwells," Allison says as we make our way to the high-ceilinged second floor. “One day I was here by myself, working, and the stereo upstairs just came on. I can't explain it." I'm not one for ghost stories, but in this city and this building, why not?
In which Justin visits Memphis' most amusing landmark—and then its saddest one
I'm feeling a bit fragile this morning, but if there's one thing that can cure the brewer's flu, it's a classic Southern breakfast. A few blocks up from the Peabody, on Court Square, I duff into the Blue Plate Cafe, where the cheesy scrambled eggs, buttery grits, flaky biscuits and peppery gravy engage in an artery-hardening competition.
Having discovered the redemptive power of fatty food, I shoot down Elvis Presley Boulevard, to Graceland. After a lengthy wait on the other side of the street (make reservations, y'all), I'm waved onto a tour bus that's driven through a gate and up a hill to the mansion, which Elvis bought in 1957 and where he died 20 years later. The most striking thing about the property is that it's actually not that big, and the rooms, while opulent enough, aren't all that impressive by today's “MTV Cribs" standard. Still, it's a marvelous monument to kitsch—the collection of spangly jumpsuits alone is worth the price of admission.
Aram Goudsouzian, Chair of the Department of History, University of Memphis
From here, it's a 15-minute drive back downtown, where I drop my car at the Peabody and cross the street to Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous, Memphis' best-known barbecue joint. Sitting at a red-and-white-checked table in the subterranean dining room, I order pork ribs and inspect the schwag hanging from the ceiling—decrepit clarinets, snowshoes, football helmets. “You've got a pretty good view," my waiter says, grinning as he sets the plate down. The ribs are dusty with dry rub, and as I add spicy barbecue sauce, I note that my only utensil is a plastic spoon for the beans and the tangy mustard-and-vinegar slaw. So … this is gonna get messy. Not that I'm complaining, as I strip the meat from the bone.
Next, it's time to visit one of America's most somber historical sites. Just off South Main Street stands the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In front of the building—now home to the National Civil Rights Museum—I meet Aram Goudsouzian, a history professor at the University of Memphis and author of Down to the Crossroads, a book about James Meredith's 1966 March Against Fear.
Goudsouzian and I walk through the museum—which reopened last year after an extensive renovation—pausing inside a 1950s-era bus, in which there sits a statue of Rosa Parks, still refusing to cede her seat to a white passenger, an act of defiance that launched the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. There's also a vintage Woolworth lunch counter, a replica of the one where students initiated anti-segregation sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Then there's the room in which Dr. King was staying when he was killed. It looks so mundane—a basic, unadorned room—and that, somehow, adds to its power.
“Memphis has a very palpable personality that's sort of half gritty but half charming. It is like nowhere else in America. To me, it's one of those iconic American places, like New Orleans or … I don't even know where else." —Aram Goudsouzian
“For years, I lived in a condo that looked right down on the Lorraine Motel," says Goudsouzian, a Boston native who's been in Memphis for more than a decade. “The history just sort of spills out here. It feels like part of you. Martin Luther King is like a ghost that hangs over Memphis. He's an inspiration, but also his assassination has become the great tragedy of the nation and of Memphis' story."
I leave Goudsouzian and head back across town to Hog & Hominy. Owned by Memphis natives Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, the restaurant is renowned for its fusion of Southern and Italian cuisines. My fast-talking waitress, Jenna, runs me through the menu. “If you like spicy food, and you're an adventurous eater, the sweetbreads are great," she says. I'm barely able to nod before she zips off, returning shortly with the sweetbreads, served in jalapeño vinaigrette, and a The Wry Is Cast cocktail, made with moonshine and mezcal. For an entree I have the wood-oven Thunderbird! Forty Twice! pizza (the name comes from a song about Thunderbird wine), topped with pepperoni and Calabrese salami and drizzled with honey. If that's not decadent enough, I cap it off with a slice of peanut butter pie, which, with its bottom layer of banana, would have made Elvis happy. “I have a hard time keeping them in," the chef, Lee Mitchell, says of the pie. “If I make a hundred of them, we sell a hundred."
After dinner, I make like Jenna and zip back downtown to see the Memphis Grizzlies. The “Grit and Grind Grizz" have become a unifying point for this basketball-mad, blue-collar city. There are a few Memphis touches to the game experience: The nachos come topped with barbecued pork, and the halftime entertainment is a jumping set from house band Black Rock Revival. The crowd goes nuts in the second quarter when swingman Tony Allen gets a steal and a breakaway layup, but sadly the Grizz have run into the best team in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, and they fall 103-83.
On this 1950s-era bus at the National Civil Rights Museum, white passengers stand for Rosa Parks
Outside, I join the disappointed masses on neon-lit Beale Street. With me are Chelsea Chandler and Eric Hasseltine, both of whom cover the Grizzlies for local radio. Music blares from the doorways of Silky O'Sullivan's, the Rum Boogie Café and B.B. King's Blues Club, but we have another Memphis institution in mind. A few blocks away, on South Main Street, stands the city's best dive bar, Earnestine & Hazel's. Named for two sisters who ran a café out of the building in the 1950s and '60s—where they catered to musicians like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin—the bar has an in-house ghost and a jukebox that Eric describes as “the best in America." Then there's the Soul Burger, a simple, perfect bite of late-night grease.
As we sip cheap beer and munch on our patties, I ask Chelsea, who's also a singer, what her favorite Memphis tune is. “Probably 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay,'" she says. “It's perfect." Moments later, we hear Otis Redding in the air. “They say the jukebox starts on its own and plays records that aren't there," Chelsea says. “That could be Earnestine and Hazel coming back," our bartender chips in. “I believe it," Eric replies. “I've come up here and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and not because it was cold."
Seeking spirits of a different kind, we hop a cab over to Paula & Raiford's, a smoky, neon-lit disco that Chelsea calls “a club for people who don't like clubs." The music here tends toward Michael Jackson, and the Rubik's Cube dance floor has me looking for John Travolta. There's also a drum kit and an, um, exercise pole that are available to anyone brave enough to jump on them. I am not that brave. And I need my bed.
In which Justin eats at every restaurant in Memphis and strikes out with a Southern belle
In need of a kick start, I hop in the car and drive out to Porcellino's, a café and artisanal butcher shop that's owned by the Hog & Hominy duo Hudman and Ticer (the two eateries share a parking lot). This may be the city's premier purveyor of meat, but I'm more interested in the nitro-pumped, cold-brew coffee, which has the texture of a creamy stout. I'm joined by Felicia Suzanne Willett, an Arkansas native and New Orleans–trained chef who owns Felicia Suzanne's, a restaurant she opened in the city's then-blighted downtown 13 years ago. Since then, she's become both a mainstay of and evangelist for the Memphis food scene. As I dig into a kimchi-brined-chicken biscuit topped with spicy honey and Sriracha, she tells me about the local food scene.
“[Hudman and Ticer] are the 'it' guys right now, and I love what they're doing," she says. “As far as the restaurant community goes, it's like, the more the merrier. We go to dinner together. We go to each other's restaurants. We send people to each other's restaurants. We love each other."
Felicia Suzanne Willett, Chef/Owner, Felicia Suzanne's
Willett then proceeds to take me on an impromptu culinary tour of east Memphis. Summer Avenue, an unglamorous stretch of strip malls between downtown and the freeway, doesn't seem like the sort of place a gourmand would gravitate to, but Willett has a favorite spot on seemingly every block: Lotus, Bryant's Breakfast, Taqueria Los Picosos. “It's not celebrity chefs," she says. “It's mom-and-pops. It's real life." We stop at Elwood's Shack, where Willett orders me a brisket sandwich. “Not a lot of the barbecue places do beef," she says. “Wait 'til you taste it."
Are we done eating yet? No! Our next stop is Muddy's Bake Shop, because if I'm in the South, I'm having as much pie as possible. “I love her pecan pie," Willett says of owner Kat Gordon. “I think we should have a piece of the pecan. And the chocolate chess. You should have one of each." Who am I to argue?
“People would come to Memphis, and for so long all it was was barbecue. When someone asks, 'What's your best barbecue place?' I go, 'How much time do you have?' But it's a great community, and we have such a great food scene. You'd need a month to go everywhere." —Felicia Suzanne Willett
I could use something to wash down all this food, so we head for the city center, stopping at the Wiseacre Brewing Co., a converted warehouse next to the railroad tracks on a revitalized stretch of Broad Avenue. The space is packed, the crowd spilling onto the sunny deck. At the bar, I strike up a conversation with a young Memphian named Ellen. I tell her I like her accent, and she replies, “You have an accent too." What do I sound like? “A Yankee." With a sigh, I take my amazingly named beer, the Gotta Get Up to Get Down coffee milk stout, back out to the patio.
From here, Willett steers me past Overton Park—“Everyone loves to go to the zoo and see the pandas"—and back downtown, where I drop her off with a promise to meet later for dinner. I consider going back to see those pandas, but decide instead to walk off my multistop brunch along the river. It's just a short stroll down the hill to the Mississippi, the east bank of which is lined with pretty parks, each filled with people enjoying the late afternoon sun. I pause briefly before a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis—another ghost of Memphis' past—then turn my attention once more to the perfect, cloudless blue sky.
The Delta humidity has done its job, so I head back to the Peabody for a quick shower, then stroll up the Main Street pedestrian mall to Felicia Suzanne's, where Willett, seeing that her first attempt to kill me with culinary kindness was unsuccessful, tries again. I work through a smoked salmon deviled egg; a bite-size BLFGT (bacon, lettuce and fried green tomato) sandwich; fried gulf oysters over grits with Louisiana barbecue sauce; short ribs with gnocchi and bourbon cream sauce; and a white chocolate coconut bread pudding with buttermilk brown sugar ice cream. If I gotta go, I'd be hard-pressed to do better for a last meal.
After dinner, I pop around the corner to the Madison Hotel and take an elevator up to the rooftop bar, the Twilight Sky Terrace, where a young and chatty crowd takes in the sweeping view of the Mighty Mississip. As the sun sinks in the west, the M-shaped arches of the Hernando de Soto Bridge light up, and I head out into the night, the words of the Tom T. Hall classic in my head: “You go where your heart wants to go. That's how I got to Memphis."
Hemispheres managing editor and house guitarist Justin Goldman has only one Memphis regret: He didn't have time to take the Gibson factory tour.
This article was written by Justin Goldman from Rhapsody Magazine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.