|ALL SHOOK UP IN MEMPHIS
By Simon Collins (The West Australian)
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I'm standing in the recording room of Sun Studio nearly 60 years after Elvis Presley
wandered into the Memphis recording shack, eager to record a song as a present for his
However, according to the genial tour guide, that tale ain't true - the future king of rock 'n'
roll knocked on the door of 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, in August 1953
and Gladys Presley's birthday was in April.
Unless the notorious mama's boy was a very early shopper, the story of how music
history was made at Sun Studio (entry $12) is apocryphal and it's closer to the truth to
say Presley wanted to hear his voice on vinyl or was serious about breaking into the
vibrant Memphis music scene.
But that's all right, mama. Given travel experiences usually involve inflating legends, to
hear the guide tear up a myth is refreshing - and one of the many ways that Memphis is a
place that keeps it real.
About 60 years after the enterprising Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, located a decent stroll from the blues nexus of bustling Beale
Street in downtown Memphis, the Sun Records tour is a no-frills tourist must - especially for a music lover like myself. Sun is more a sacred site than a
museum, with a modest display of vinyl and rock relics.
The thrill of standing in the same studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and many others first
recorded is tangible.
It was right here in 1951 Ike Turner laid down Rocket 88, a song about an Oldsmobile regarded by many as the first rock 'n' roll record.
And visitors can pose with one of the original microphones Phillips used to record the greats - my wife, Myra Robinson, and I did our best Johnny Cash and
June Carter pose for a happy snap. An Oldsmobile, or any other car, would've been handy to get to the studio. Sun was a long 20-plus- minute walk along
wide, desolate and unfamiliar streets from downtown Memphis. Like everything in the South, the blocks are big.
In town, and with more bells and whistles than Sun Studio, is the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum (entry $10). Opened by the Smithsonian Institution in
1996, the museum hosts interactive displays on Memphis' rich musical history as well as rural culture and race relations.
The highlight was undoubtedly the vintage jukeboxes with an iPod's worth of music dating back to the era of sharecroppers and cotton farmers.
The Rock and Soul Museum is a primer for the Stax Museum (entry $20), built on the site of the original Stax Records studio on McLemore Street in a
predominantly African-American neighbourhood where Aretha Franklin, Rufus Thomas and other soul superstars grew up.
Stax is the racially integrated studio that produced the best soul records of all time. Even better
than the more commercial Motown label.
Highlights include Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac, the video footage of Sam & Dave and Otis
Redding's blistering live performances, plus the actual instruments played on Stax hits, like Soul
Man, In the Midnight Hour and Hold On, I'm Comin'.
But the real strength of the tour is how well it conveys the rise and rise, then tragic fall, of the great
Stax began to fall apart in 1967 when Redding died in a plane crash, and the label's distribution
deal with Atlantic Records ended the following year - about the same time that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis. The assassination had a
major impact at Stax, driving a major wedge between the black and white artists.
The amazing Stax story is told via a brief film shown before visitors continue through the displays, a poignant reminder music never exists in a bubble. At least,
the music lives on.
Sadly, there was only a handful of visitors at the stunning Stax Museum.........Where were they? Graceland.
To be fair, you can't visit Memphis without heading to Elvis' home and final resting place.
But before we do, Memphis is the home of soul food and two of the best joints in town are
Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken and Charles Vergo's Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs.
The former is a shack just off the main drag that serves spicy chicken, with typically
generous sides of fried green tomatoes, collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
The latter is a downtown restaurant that has been serving the best ribs on the planet since
1948; seriously drool-worthy pork ribs that they can ship anywhere in America. In fact, a US
diplomat once got some FedEx'd to Canberra.
Once you've eaten, it's time to visit Graceland.
The best way to get there is to join one of the tour companies that, for $49, will drive you the
half an hour out to Elvis Presley Blvd and corral you along with the other hundreds of white
tourists through the lines. With abundant gift shops, tacky displays and other King-sized
cash-ins on one man's musical career, this is Disney Elvis.
The swivel-hipped legend has been transformed into a rock 'n' roll Mickey Mouse.....Now that's off my chest, I've got to say Graceland is AWESOME.
The tour of the actual white-columned mansion is fantastic, a surreal journey through a spectacularly lavish pad decorated by a guy with oodles of cash, zero
taste and no one telling him "Mmm, Elvis . . . do you really think lime green carpet on the walls is a good look?"
There are televisions in every room, including the jungle room, pool room as well as the room just off his racquet ball court, which now holds his jumpsuits and
hundreds of sales awards from around the globe.
I was amazed by a house that had everything, until I realised it needed to because Presley couldn't venture off the 5.6ha property and mingle with the public.
Even his grave had to be relocated back to Graceland to prevent it being dug up. (Yes, you can go and pay your respects.)
Along with the gift shops across the road from the actual Graceland home are the dozen or so cars that Elvis didn't give away to his friends, including a pink
Cadillac, as well as his two private planes, the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog. Like most rooms in Graceland, the interior decorating screams 70s bachelor on
After exhausting the four major music-related museums of Memphis, we found ourselves back downtown about 5pm. We'd heard about the Peabody Hotel
and a curious tourist attraction whereby ducks swim in a fountain in the hotel's foyer during the day, before returning to their rooftop nests at 5pm via the lift.
A "duck-master" explained this 80-year-old tradition, before cueing some music and corralling the ducks down a red carpet and into the elevator. This fills the
hotel foyer every day. Seriously.
That's the brutal reality of Memphis tourism. While the wonderful Stax Museum languishes, the punters flock to Disney Elvis and daffy ducks.