Walking In Memphis With My Feet 10 Feet Off Of Beale

21 Sep

New Orleans. Savannah. Gettysburg. Boston. There are many cities in the U.S. that claim to be the “most haunted city in America,” but this week in Memphis has made me suspect that those other cities might be a touch overzealous in their advertising. Yes, New Orleans and Savannah have a creepy vibe about them, and I must admit that I’ve regrettably never been to Gettysburg, but Memphis feels like a city that just isn’t ready to let go of its ghosts. In his 1991 song, “Walking In Memphis,” Marc Cohn sings:

Saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue.
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland,
Then I watched him walk right through.
Now, security, they did not see him,
They just hovered ’round his tomb.
But there’s a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room.

I don’t know if I believe in the paranormal – I’ve never had a ghost encounter of my own – but there’s something about this town that makes me “get” what Cohn was singing about. No, I haven’t seen a literal ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue (but wouldn’t that be cool!?), but I do feel that downtown Memphis is, for better or worse, perpetually stuck in the mid-60’s and that any moment you should expect to see Elvis coming out of the Peabody Hotel. There are billboards on every corner advertising Graceland with huge images of Elvis and the tagline, “Elvis Lives.” In the gift shops at the Peabody – one of the finest hotels in the South – they sell tacky statuettes of Elvis in his jumpsuit days next to imported Chinese vases and Tiffany lamps. There’s a building on Union Avenue that advertises in big lettering, “Elvis Souvenirs and Airport Limo Service.” Lansky Brothers, the “Clothiers to the King,” have a store in the Peabody where they continue to sell the same clothes that they dressed Elvis in 50 years ago. Need blue suede shoes? That’s the place to get them. It’s both kitschy and cool at the same time. In my first few hours in town, I saw four men with jet black pompadours and giant sideburns. The city has an entire week dedicated to Elvis during the anniversary week of his death that draws thousands of fans for concerts and candlelight vigils at his grave at Graceland. I passed a sports bar the other day that had a neon Elvis sign in the window and there’s a statue of the King on the corner of Beale and Main Street. You cannot be in this town without being aware of Elvis’ influence. Thirty-six years after his death, his music, his legacy and his house are still a huge industry for the city of Memphis. It’s estimated that 600,000 people visit Graceland annually, contributing more than $150 million in annual revenue to the city.

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The statue of Elvis Presley at the corner of Beale and Main Streets in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Beyond Graceland, however, Elvis’ influence can be felt at Sun Studio, where he made his first record and recorded his first hit, “That’s All Right.” The tour at Sun Studio starts upstairs in the adjoining building, where a tour guide describes the beginnings of the studio and it’s owner, Sam Phillips, and eventually gets around to talking about the various artists who recorded there. There are artifacts and memorabilia to look at, but the full impact of the studio’s history and import doesn’t hit you until you’re standing in the room where Elvis recorded “That’s All Right. ” The same room where Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On;” where Johnny Cash recorded “Walk the Line” and Carl Perkins recorded the original “Blue Suede Shoes.” As ridiculous as it may sound, you can feel the importance of the room as you enter it. It is the birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll as we know it. It’s the studio where the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session happened. It is, for musicians and fans, hallowed ground. To be in that room, listening to Elvis singing a song in the very room where that recording was made was so overwhelming that I was nearly moved to tears. Greatness was created in that room, and that sense that something very important happened there carries throughout the city of Memphis. Big things happened here, and not just in the music scene.

Sun Studio, Memphis, TN

Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee

Beyond the constant awareness of the music that was crafted here and the overwhelming presence of a man who has been gone for three decades, I have also been very aware that we are in the hot seat of the civil rights movement in the city where our country lost one of its greatest leaders to an assassin’s bullet. Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, was an eery reminder of how far we as a nation have come, but also how incredibly far we have to go. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what had happened in the very spot where I was standing. To a lesser extent, I felt the same way standing on the 6th floor of the old Texas Book Depository in Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. But the 6th Floor Museum, as it’s called now, has changed through the years. It’s been renovated and renamed and, with the exception of two corners of the 6th floor that have been staged to look like they did on the day of his assassination, the building looks modern with a trendy, industrial feel, as if it were a loft apartment that just happened to be where an assassin shot a president. The Lorraine Motel, however, has been preserved to look just as it did in 1968, including Dr. King’s room and that of his brother, just two doors down. A large wreath hangs on the balcony where Dr. King was gunned down and visitors are allowed access to the very spot where he was standing when his life was cut short as a recording of the great Mahalia Jackson singing at Dr. King’s funeral is pumped through a sound system – one of the few modern additions to the building. History of another sort was made there.

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The balcony of the Lorraine Motel (now part of the National Civil Rights Museum) where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

The charm and quaintness of the city is at the same time a sad indicator of its depressed economic health. It’s a great place to visit, but I’m not sure it’s a city in which I’d like to live. The neighborhood surrounding the Civil Rights Museum is a poor one. The buildings throughout downtown look very much like I would expect they did around the time that Dr. King and “The King” were both in Memphis, though many of the storefronts are now bare. The trolleys that run up and down Main Street are a throwback to an older time, and sitting in those cars with their wooden benches and no air conditioning must be hell mid-August. Much has changed here, but much has remained the same. These are the ghosts of Memphis, and they are everywhere.

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9 Responses to “Walking In Memphis With My Feet 10 Feet Off Of Beale”

  1. Nina Anderson September 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    I grew up in a town about 150 miles south of Memphis, and my parents and I went to Memphis from time to time to shop. I loved going to the downtown Goldsmith’s department store to shop and eat their delicious chicken salad, always beautifully presented. Many of Memphis’s well-dressed ladies lunched there, and I always felt special getting to eat there. This was also in the days before there was security at Graceland, and we could drive up into the driveway, get out, and look around, being careful not to get too close to the house so as to disturb whichever of the Presley family might be home. Several years later, I was thrilled to watch the parade of Cotton Carnival barges float down the Mississippi River from my vantage point high above the river bank. They were filled with gorgeous lights and beautiful people. Memphis holds many memories for me.

    • jasonhbratton76 September 21, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

      That sounds so lovely, Nina! I didn’t realize you grew up in this area. I thought you were an Okie through and through!

  2. Vicky Momm September 21, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    I love reading these stories Jason, thank you for sharing! BTW Elvis has been dead 36 years …(I know ‘cos he died on my 20th birthday)

    • jasonhbratton76 September 21, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

      You’re right!! Typo. Sorry!! I won’t tell you how old I was when he died. 😉

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