Walking in Memphis
We came to See Elvis and MLK
but left remembering Nina
On our way to Memphis, we made a pit stop at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s the world’s longest known cave system. It extends more than 400 miles.
It wasn’t much for stalactites and stalagmites – at least not on the tour we chose – but the enormity of the subterranean chambers is impressive. I’ll remember it most for two things. One is an awkward family photo at the entrance sign. The other is for a little prank I played inside the labyrinth.
The tour guide had us all take seats that were built into one rocky chamber. Then, he turned out the lights so we could experience pitch blackness and silence. I anticipated this and since an aisle divided my wife and daughter from my son and me, I quickly eyed up the three steps it would take to my right to reach my daughter.
When I clutched her shoulder in the darkness, I gritted my teeth hoping I had the right person. When I heard the squeal, I swiftly retraced my steps back to my seat. I felt around half expecting to sit in someone else’s lap. When the lights came on, I couldn’t help but laugh at seeing how displeased my daughter was when she realized that I had been the culprit.
Sometimes in this family, we laugh AT each other.
Our Memphis visit first took us to Elvis Presley’s mansion. Only it was a rather modest home all considered. Don’t get me wrong, the home was pretty large but the façade seemed modest upon approach. The brick fence wrapping along the sprawling wooded grounds with lush lawns was beautiful, especially knowing the surrounding area was an urban jungle. It made me wonder if the congestion outside those famed gates existed back when the King ruled.
Inside, the storied rooms of Graceland met every expectation. In fact, for me, it exceeded expectations. It was a wild journey from room-to-room. The colors. The styles. It was a time capsule of one of the most original – and yes gaudy – periods in American history. Yet it had such a charming, personable sense that made it feel like a home. People marveled at the Jungle Room but the Billiards Room with its walls and ceiling completely covered in fabric was where I wanted to linger the most. The out buildings served as a museum with an absolutely incredible display of Elvis’ records, stage costumes, you name it. The stories told were pretty cool too.
But some things seemed so humble for the king of rock and roll. For example, his pool seemed quite small. Lisa Marie’s metal swing set was no better than mine growing up. And mine was bought on a blue-collar budget. Other stops across the grounds made people realize how famous and rich the man was. His car collection is stunning. Oh, and you can board his private airplane too. I have visited the Air Force One airplane from the same era in Dayton, Ohio, and Elvis’ craft is comparable.
Visitors to Graceland cannot leave until they get a photo at the customized iron gates and the picturesque graffiti-filled brick wall at the foot of the long drive.
A short drive across town took us to Sun Studio where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other legends first cut records. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Studio, formerly Memphis Recording Service, opened the doors at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis in 1950.
The exterior of the two-story, brick, corner building exudes historical site. It isn’t a large place except for its reputation. Inside, it’s smaller still. But again, history looms large in every nook and cranny making it a big deal. But this run down place would be a quick walk-through – there really isn’t a whole lot to it at a glance – if it weren’t for Nina and the other tour guides.
We were treated to a show. Nina made Sun rise! Our group gathered in a back room that seemed untouched since Sam Phillips last walked out of his office. The wall hangings and cluttered desktop with all its 1950s relics scattered about seemed to create an energy in its stillness. I felt the chaos of running that studio all those years ago.
Nina’s sense for dramatics wasn’t wasted. From the moment she swung open a heavy old door to a window to the past, it was like an old juke box slowly powered up as we climbed the rickety, dark, tight staircase to the second floor where everything came alive. It was just one room with memorabilia behind glass but Nina pushed all the right buttons. Her enthusiasm was spot-on. Her set up of each story was seasoned just right. And then she delivered tidbits that you could only hear from the oral traditions and storytellers like Nina.
Sun had soul! And it Rock N Rolled.
Back downstairs, we entered the hallowed recording studio where Sam Phillips launched the legendary careers of so many music hall of famers.
Nina grasped an old 1950s microphone and floor stand, lowering and slowing her voice. She spoke into it even though it wasn’t on – but in our minds it was – to tell us the story of one night where the legends of Sun gathered – some under different record labels at the time – and had a blast singing songs together. This piece of time at this storybook place had The King, Man in Black and The Killer – to name a few – laugh and sing together in that room from that microphone bouncing sound waves off those deteriorating but original sound walls.
There’s a photograph on the wall capturing this little known moment one night in Memphis.
Then Nina invited each of us to hold that very microphone for our own moment and photo op.
From Sun’s high we went to a Memphis historical low – The Lorraine Motel.
This is an old nondescript two-story motel where the doors to the rooms are outside. But almost hidden from the frontal view is the large building built connecting to it. This housed the National Civil Rights Museum.
We wanted to pay homage to one of the true heroes of history – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we walked up to the front of the motel, I noticed we were the only white people there at that time. I mentioned it out loud to my family to which my kids said they didn’t even notice and then chastised me for noticing. But I did notice. And I noticed that the same thing was true when we visited the MLK memorial in Washington D.C. a year earlier. Eventually, we saw other white people but it was rare. Why? I asked myself. With such a great man representing such a positive message I would expect to see many white people. I could understand why there would be more black people perhaps than white but there were virtually no white people at all. And there were a lot of people there.
Inside I fought back tears. I walked for a time behind a young black couple with the sweetest and cutest little girl. It was the flow of movement from one exhibit to another that kept us connected. The exhibits were gripping enough but what sent me pulling my shirt sleeve over my eyes was when the innocence of a little girl could not see color – just people – and asked, “Why is that man holding a sign that says ‘I AM A MAN.’ Of course he’s a man.” And at another exhibit, she innocently asked, “Why are some people being so mean to other people?”
As we wound through different areas – sitting with a replica of Rosa Parks inside a bus, participating at a sit in at a lunch counter, turning away from a fire prop showing the Freedom Bus ablaze – we neared the modest motel room of the original Lorraine Motel where MLK had stayed. The room was just as he left it, breakfast tray and all, a moment before tragedy struck on that balcony.
I stood still for so long, a gentleman working there did what he did to others before me. And that was to gently tug my sleeve to say time to move on for others to share in the experience.
Aside from cruising past Beale Street, the heart of Memphis blues, we craved one more uniquely Memphis staple – Memphis style Barbeque! And Central BBQ didn’t disappoint.
Neither did this town steeped in culture and icons.