Memphis offers a musical tour

Rock pioneer Sam Philips turned Sun Studio --

Rock pioneer Sam Philips turned Sun Studio -- where Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and many more recorded -- into a record label. (Credit: Dan Ball)

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This port city on the Mississippi River calls itself the birthplace of rock and roll. Its credentials? The Memphis Recording Service, forerunner of Sun Studio, in 1951 recorded "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, which some say was the first rock and roll record.

Several other cities make the same claim as Memphis, including Wildwood, N.J., Cleveland and Detroit. But it's hard to argue against Memphis, where some of the earliest practitioners of the blues and rock and roll got their start: Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Booker T. and the MGs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and, of course, Elvis Presley.

On this trip, it's tempting to visit the Civil Rights Museum, watch the ducks march at the Peabody Hotel, take a dinner cruise on a paddle wheeler, and go to a minor league ballgame.

PHOTOS: Memphis | Graceland

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But I grew up in the '50s and '60s, still own the scratched 45s I collected as a kid, and view rock and roll proudly and possessively as the music that distinguished my generation from the previous one. So I choose to immerse myself in Memphis' music-related landmarks.

HANDMADE GUITARS

First stop: the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Created by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of American History, it grew out of the history museum's traveling exhibition about American music. Exhibits trace the history of American music to gospel music, field hollers and work songs of sharecroppers in the '30s, examining how social and cultural forces shaped music. Also on display are guitars signed by Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray, a sequined jacket and hat worn by Sam of Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, the organ on which Mark James wrote "Suspicious Minds," a speaker cabinet used by U2 and much more.

Across the street is the Gibson Guitar factory. Our tour guide hands out safety goggles and makes it clear that taking them off won't be tolerated. Neither will stepping outside the lines on the factory floor. This is a factory where chemicals are used and wood dust floats in the air. No photography is allowed.

It's a Saturday, but a crew of luthiers is making hollow-bodied guitars. There are no automated assembly lines. The top and back wooden panels are cut, rims pressed into shape, center blocks glued on, rims glued on, tops and necks attached and bound. There is sanding, filling, buffing, staining and drying. The process of making a guitar takes three weeks or longer, I learn later; the factory noise drowns out most of what our guide says.

"MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET"

Sun Studio is in midtown Memphis, a mile from the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which offers a free shuttle. It began life as Memphis Recording Studio, but Sam Phillips soon turned it into a record label. This is where Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, with Ike Turner on piano, recorded "Rocket 88," an ode to an Oldsmobile.

Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his first record here. Phillips had not been enthused about Presley's initial efforts until he heard him casually sing a sped-up version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right." The song became Presley's first single on the Sun label.

Phillips also signed Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, who came together with Elvis on one memorable night in an impromptu jam session that inspired Broadway's "Million Dollar Quartet." The upstairs exhibit includes photos and concert posters of Sun Studio artists and Elvis memorabilia. In the downstairs recording studio, guitars lean against the walls, which are covered with blown-up photos of musicians. Guests are invited to take photos of each other handling the microphone that Elvis used.

IN SOULSVILLE

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is in Soulsville, a neighborhood about 21/2 miles south of Beale Street, close to the spot where the Stax recording studio was built in a former movie theater. The studio opened in 1960, but was later torn down.

Displays tell the story of Stax Records, an R&B label founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, white brother and sister, most of whose recording artists were black. Among the artists were Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, most of them backed at some point by Booker T and the MG's.

The museum has the "Express Yourself" dance floor with videos from "Soul Train," an authentic Mississippi Delta AME chapel that was disassembled and rebuilt in the museum, and a wealth of memorabilia: stage costumes; equipment trunks; Isaac Hayes' tricked-out Cadillac; the tape machine on which Otis Redding recorded; the piano used for the MG's' "Green Onions."

On Friday night, I'm out with a group looking for music. The 21/2-block pedestrian-only section of Beale Street is crowded with people drinking from plastic cups, wandering through music and souvenir stores, and watching the Beale Street Flippers, who cartwheel across the cobblestones for tips.

With live music, most of the clubs have a cover charge, but they're still busy. Our group tries Mr. Handy's Blues Hall first, but it has standing room only and we end up in Rum Boogie Cafe, where the music is not quite loud enough to drown out conversation.

A block away is the Brass Note Walk of Fame, which celebrates more than 100 people who contributed to Memphis' musical history with brass notes embedded in the sidewalk in the style of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.

ELVIS SLEPT HERE

Finally, there is Graceland, the 14-acre farm that Presley bought in 1957 at the age of 22 and has become the focus of Elvis fans everywhere. This summer, Graceland marked the 35th anniversary of his death.

Graceland's importance to Memphis can't be overstated. Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982, five years after Elvis' death. It wasn't until after those tours started drawing in music lovers that Sun Studio and Stax Records followed suit, the Smithsonian opened the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, or that Beale Street began its comeback.

Tours of Graceland are self-guided, so visitors proceed at their own pace, but most stop longest at the Jungle Room, with its waterfall, shag-carpeted walls and jungle motif; the billiard room, in which the walls and ceiling are covered with elaborately pleated print fabric; the displays of gold records and glitzy jumpsuits; and the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents and other family members are buried.

If you go

WHAT TO DO

Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum: 191 Beale St.; $11 for adults, $8 for ages 5-17; 901-205-2533, memphisrocknsoul.org

Sun Studio: 706 Union Ave.; open daily, $12 studio tour; 800-441-6249, sunstudio.com

Gibson Guitar Factory: 145 Lt. George Lee Ave.; $10 daily tours; 901-544-7998, ext. 4075, gibson.com

Stax Museum of American Soul Music: 926 E. McClemore Ave.; open daily for $12 adults, $8 children 9-12, free under 9 with adult; 888-942-7685, staxmuseum.com

Graceland: 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd.; open daily (basic tour is $32, tour plus access to Presley's airplanes and auto museum, $36); 800-238-2000, elvis.com/graceland. Three new exhibits feature artifacts that have never been displayed publicly.

WHERE TO STAY

Madison Hotel: 79 Madison Ave.; 901-333-1200, madisonhotelmemphis.com. 110-room boutique hotel in the former Tennessee Trust Building has a gym in the former bank vault, indoor pool, martini bar, eighty3, a well-reviewed restaurant and rooftop garden, and a blues-and jazz-themed decor. Advance-purchase rooms from $193.

River Inn of Harbor Town: 50 Harbor Town Square; 901-260-3333, riverinnmemphis.com. Luxury small hotel on Mud Island near downtown; most of the 28 rooms and suites have Mississippi River views; elegant decor; two restaurants. Rooms from $245, including full breakfast.

Peabody Hotel: 149 Union Ave.;800-PEABODY or 901-529-4000, peabodymemphis.com. The oldest, grandest hotel in the city, where the ducks march in at 11 a.m. and spend the day in the lobby fountain. Four restaurants; rooms from $209.

WHERE TO EAT

Blues City Cafe: 138 Beale St.; 901-526-3637, bluescitycafe.com. Eat while listening to live performances. Serves barbecue ribs, steaks and tamales; from $4.75 for three tamales to porterhouse steak at $15.25 a pound, minimum 2 1/2 pounds.

Charles Vergos' Rendezvous: in the alley behind 52 S. Second St.; 901-523-2746, hogsfly.com. The late Charles Vergos started grilling in 1948, and now his kids run the place known for its ribs; entrees $8.95 to $19.75.

The Pig on Beale: 167 Beale St.; 901-529-1544, pigonbeale.com. "Pig with an attitude," hickory-smoked on the premises; entrees $9-$35.

INFORMATION

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau: 901-543-5300, memphistravel.com

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