Memphis invented rock and roll. That statement may seem straightforward, but I’ve spent plenty of time and energy obfuscating this fact, as do most native Ohioans. I once repeated Cleveland’s claim to a friend who grew up in Memphis. He shook his head, disgusted. “Uh, no,” was all he said, letting out a little cough-laugh that strikes my ear as particular to this part of Tennessee, where centuries of southern gentility have been frayed by the grit and grind of more recent decades.
Cleveland’s contention involves a convoluted story surrounding a canceled concert. At Sun Studios in Memphis, they show you the room where it happened. It’s a simple story: People out in the Delta towns were messing around with an evolving style of aggressive jump blues. A guy named Ike came up from Clarksdale to lay it down on wax, with simple lyrics about the Oldsmobile he drove up to the studio.
Nashville calls itself Music City, but when it comes to a legacy of shaping the sound of modern American music, no mid-sized city can touch Memphis. For those who want to eat benne wafers at Husk and take tea at The Hermitage, go two-hundred miles east. For students of rock, blues and soul who’ll take a city on its own terms—touring studios until you can play a few chords and eating smoked meat at every meal—Memphis is a treasure.
Get Your Bearings
Memphis is on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Main Street, which is now a pedestrian mall with a trolley line, runs parallel to the river. On this trip we stayed at Big Cypress Lodge, which is inside the iconic Memphis Pyramid on the north end of downtown. The north side, across from a peninsula known as Mud Island, is a quieter area of town. Big Cypress accentuates this with decor which includes a lot of dark wood and lighting that preserves a perpetual twilight. The thirty-two story pyramid was originally a venue, but has been redeveloped by Missouri’s own Johnny Morris to include a Bass Pro Shop megastore plus the hotel, a bowling alley, a spa and a pistol range. The property includes the country’s tallest free-standing elevator to an amazing view of the city, which you can ride for free if you stay there ($10 otherwise).
Take The Edge Off At Loflin Yard
If you’re going to Memphis this summer, there’s a good chance the trip across the mighty Mississip’ was impacted by the shut-down of the Interstate 40 bridge, which left one lonely seventy-year-old crossing for a hundred miles of river. Lucky for you, there’s a large and relaxed patio bar very near the exit from the “Old Bridge.” Loflin Yard (7 W. Carolina Ave., Memphis) has a full-acre of shaded patio complete with a bayou-fed waterfall and frozen drinks. They also make some of the better cocktails in town, including a Staten Island with Old Overholt rye, lillet blanc and Amaro Averna.
Buy Some Records At Goner And Shangri-La
Memphis is home to two of the finest record stores you’ll ever step foot in, Goner (2152 Young Ave., Memphis) and Shangri-La (1916 Madison Ave., Memphis) which are only about a mile-and-a-half apart. Goner is a gen-X garage rock mainstay notable for its associated label, home to the late Jay Reatard. And Shangri-La is… well, what the name says. It has a medium-sized but extremely well-curated collection of records, CDs and memorabilia. There’s an emphasis on Memphis music but you’ll also spot a stack of yellowed NMEs featuring the young Beach Boys.
Beale Street is, to its credit, not a wax museum. This historic party district is very much an active party district. Expect as much Power & Light as 18th and Vine, with a young, vibrant crowd drinking cash-only party drinks ordered as a reply to “red or blue?” For oldsters, the trick is to get upstairs—the leather couches at the denlike Absinthe Room (166 Beale St., Memphis) are a great perch to observe the happenings below.
Shuffleboard At Longshot
Longshot (477 S. Main St., Memphis) is a shuffleboard bar with five full-sized tables below the Arrive Hotel. The classic cocktails are stiff, the booths are plush and the menu is rich comfort food. It’s a great place to end the night.
Breakfast At The Arcade
A few blocks after the Main Street pedestrian mall gives way to traffic, you’ll find The Arcade (540 S. Main St., Memphis). This is the oldest cafe in Memphis, founded by a Greek immigrant more than a century ago. It remains a great spot for a traditional Southern diner breakfast—country ham, biscuits and gravy and sweet potato pancakes all impressed.
If you’re going to Memphis, there’s probably nothing that’ll discourage you from going to Graceland. It’s an American rite of passage—as Authentic Brands Group, the company licensed to offer tours of Graceland (3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis) understands very well.
Lisa Marie Presley still owns her late father’s mansion, and according to John Stamos—you may remember him from Full House, and he’ll be doing your audio tour—she still stays upstairs when she’s in town. A vast complex of gift shops, galleries and theme restaurants across the street is owned by Authentic Brands Group, which expanded and renovated it in 2017.
The cheapest tour that gets you inside the Graceland Mansion is $75, and you won’t learn much about Elvis from Uncle Jesse, as the tour has been carefully stage-managed by Lisa Marie and mostly focuses on how much Elvis loved his family, horses and racquetball. There is quite a lot of information about horses. There are some photos on the wall—all feature Elvis at his peak, occasionally standing tight with pretty blondes who are not identified. Give yourself two-and-a-half hours for the tightly scripted tour.
Lunch At Cozy Corner
Cozy Corner (735 North Pkwy, Memphis) is not especially cozy, but it is singular. This barbecue institution is famous for its BBQ spaghetti and dark dry-rubbed ribs, but the soul food desserts are where it really shines.
On March 3 or 5—no one is sure which, but not March 4—of 1951, rock ‘n’ roll music was invented at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. The particulars surrounding the recording of “Rocket 88” are best told by a guide at this landmark studio where Sam Phillips presided over the early works by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and Roy Orbison. The Sun Studio tour takes about an hour, and it’s packed full of interesting information and humorous anecdotes. If you only do one thing in Memphis, make it this.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
There’s much more to Memphis than rock and rockabilly, as is very evident at the former Stax Studios (926 E. McLemore Ave., Memphis) where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes among others recorded. The museum opens with a transported historic church from the Mississippi Delta and continues through an operable dance floor and the gold plated Cadillac El Dorado the studio leased for Hayes at his height.
Dinner At Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
Charlie Vergos was a legend in Memphis. He developed the city’s signature dry-rub ribs, which are cooked over hardwood charcoal for only an hour and fifteen minutes. He also famously ignored calls to move out of his landmark subterranean restaurant in an alley (52 S. Second St., Memphis) after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King exposed tensions downtown. The restaurant exudes broken-in charm and while the ribs may or may not be to KC taste, you won’t leave unhappy.
Walk Along The River
The northern half of Memphis is separated from the main channel of the Mississippi by Mud Island, a peninsula populated with middle-class housing. Even with the island as a barrier, the river’s spring flows can rise enough to necessitate a towering flood wall. Walk outside the wall at dusk on a hot summer night, and the only sounds are rustling in the bushes, a barge pushing hard against the current down the bend and the distant crackle of fireworks. You stand a full ten minutes of travel from the nearest human, as you watch rabbits dart into brush so thick you’d struggle to punch your arm through. There’s a pedestrian bridge with a people mover to take you across to Mud Island from downtown, but it’s seen better days. Instead, head north of the Pyramid to the A.W. Willis bridge and get a gorgeous view of the nightly light show on the (currently closed) New Bridge from quiet Greenbelt Park.
Breakfast At Sunrise Memphis
Sunrise Memphis (670 Jefferson Ave., Memphis) is an offshoot of Central BBQ, one of the city’s high-profile pits, and you’ll see that stamp on items like a breakfast sandwich made with house-smoked bologna. Whatever you get, make sure it comes with a biscuit.
National Civil Rights Museum
Throughout your time in Memphis, you’ll hear frequent references to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in April 1968. In some ways, the story of the city is “before” and “after.” The man who assassinated Dr. King was a drifter raised in rural Missouri who arrived in town the day before, but the stain has stuck. The subject comes up subtly in unexpected places—even at Graceland, where you’ll hear snippets of Elvis Presley’s tribute, “If I Can Dream,” which closed out his 1968 comeback special. The place to hear these important stories is the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built around the Lorraine Motel. Also note the protest outside, a thirty-year vigil by anti-gentrification activist Jacqueline Smith, who was evicted from the motel when it became a museum and has stayed outside ever since.