I tried really hard to eat salads in Memphis. It’s just so difficult not to indulge. Rendezvous with its ribs and jabbering waiters, Gus’s with their boiling vats of oil birthing fried chicken with a kick, Chez Pierre at the Peabody serving a pistachio soufflé with Crème Englais. Please don’t force me to check my cholesterol levels when I return home to the land of fruits and nuts.
Memphis is déjà vu for many of us. There are some requisite stops on the Memphis tour that are like familiar friends. Graceland is familiar, even for first-time visitors. It is a time capsule of a late 70s frat room, decked out with shag carpet, mirrored ceilings, and burl wood tables…everything a reflection of the over-indulgent adolescent who was Elvis Presley. A visit to STAX records provides a taste of the southern influence to the Motown sound. The Civil Rights museum is heavy in signage and the Lorraine Motel itself provides equal opportunity to pause and remember a time when segregation was accepted, tolerated and even embraced. The Peabody Hotel is right up there with Graceland as being a must-do stop, particularly for those traveling with kids. Twice a day visitors to the Peabody can catch the duck parade- a darling migration of five ducks from the central fountain to their roof top duck palace-penthouse overlooking downtown and the river. Their route takes them up the elevator and through the lobby via a red carpet, which serves more or less as a guide, until one duck decides to explore the lobby and the patient duck-master has to call for security. Crossing the lobby to the tune “be kind to your web-footed friends,” the drake attempts to engage a female in duckling-making. Parents in the parade audience quickly attempt to explain “nature’s plan” to their curious children, “for a duck could be somebody’s mother…” These are all the bits and pieces of Memphis that make it worth the trip, but I will give you the secret that makes it magic…and the guide to get you there.
Tad Pierson has a 1955 Caddy and a passion for music. You can do Beale Street on your own, but he will take you on an epic night-time tour of juke joints and blues clubs that will have you feeling like the hippest, funkiest, most “in” person on the planet. Pierson has the history of music down pat and everyone knows him at all the best clubs. Cover is $10 at several places, frequently the policy is bring your own booze and buy a set up. The music runs from good to excellent, but if you demand sublime then have Pierson take you to the corner of Hollywood and Chelsea in North Memphis. Here, every Friday and Saturday night in the corner parking lot next to the strip mall a small outdoor venue plays electronic blues. This is the genuine article. The audience sits on the fenders of their cars, or relaxes in lawn-chairs or atop milk crates. Grandmothers holding purses dance while men sway, sipping occasionally from their 40, concealed with a brown paper bug. The evening starts about 10PM and keeps rolling until one in the morning. The stage is about 12×12 and two feet off the ground, covered by a lean-to made entirely of scrap plastic signage. A single incandescent bulb illuminates the evening. And the music? The music is divine. Amateur and pro alike sit in to play the STAX catalogue and some earthy blues. After a few sets on the drums Big Don is replaced by Little Don. A few singers rotate in depending on the varying needs of a changing playlist. The crowd is about 200 people strong, all locals from the neighborhood. Most are 30 and above. “No young kids causing problems,” explains “Groove,” the organizer. The pleasures are basic and enjoyed by everyone: warm air, great music and great dancing. The crowd moves in rhythm before the stage. The lone bulb hanging from the stage competes with the fluorescent strips above a neighboring market to cast shadows of happy people grooving. Lost in the music, men and women dance by themselves, only occasionally acting as partners. The dance floor is dirt and the only cost is what you would like to drop in a plastic tip jar. Professionals may play for money, but these amateurs do it out of love and passion and their music puts the pros to shame. It is a perfect moment, being here on a warm night in Memphis, one I owe to my transporter-cum-music-connoisseur for so generously sharing the knowledge of this secret parking lot and the music that accompanies it.
I roll back to the Peabody at 2 AM and try to think about winding down, but it’s just two blocks from Beale Street, and it is Friday night in Memphis and suddenly the music and the temperature and the moon all seem to be making demands that defy logical decision making. Pass the ribs and the fried chicken! Open another cold one, it’s Memphis in the summertime.
Tad Pierson and his 55 Caddy http://www.americandreamsafari.com 901-428-360
Peabody Hotel, Memphis http://www.peabodymemphis.com/
Gus’s Chicken http://www.gussofms.com/
Civil Rights Museum http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/home.htm
STAX records http://www.soulsvilleusa.com/
SUN records http://www.sunrecords.com/