Tops Bar-B-Que isn’t where you’d choose to go for a last taste of barbecue in Memphis. It’s not Rendezvous, the legendary dry-rub joint downtown, or Central BBQ, the down-home shop near the Lorraine Motel with the melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder, slow-smoked with hickory and pecan wood.
But my wife and I had to catch the 10:40 p.m. Amtrak train home to Minnesota after a three-day visit to Memphis and Nashville last summer, and the Tops shop on Union Avenue, east of downtown in a sketchy area, was our last chance for one more messy, sweet and sharp pork sandwich, with beans and slaw, so we stopped.
The barbeque was so-so. But the worn-out restaurant, which had a leaky pipe in the ceiling that dripped rhythmically into a bucket behind the counter, was a temple of Elvis. The wood-paneled walls were covered with vintage photos and posters, some faded, some new, of Presley in his heyday — young and handsome and incredibly gifted.
It was perfect: one last encounter with Elvis, complete with barbeque, before we left town on the City of New Orleans. And it was just down the street from Sun Records, where the 19-year-old Elvis made his first record, in 1954, “That’s All Right (Mama).” At the time, he lived just on the other side of downtown. The restaurant opened in 1952, so we’ll assume Elvis and friends — Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Sam Phillips, maybe even Colonel Parker — enjoyed some cheap barbeque there along the way.
That’s what Memphis is like. It’s a city of music, memories, characters, sights and sounds, some of which you don’t know you care about until you get there. Don’t care about the Pelvis? I didn’t either, but you will by the time you leave Memphis — you’ll at least want to listen to the Sun sessions. Haven’t tuned into B.B. King, also known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy”? You will after Memphis.
Rock ‘n roll was more or less born here, right on Union Avenue, midwifed by gospel, rockabilly and what was called at the time “race music.” The Delta blues, practiced by musicians who arrived from all over the Deep South, were perfected on Beale Street. Soul found its groove here, as did R & B.
Memphis has a rich, turbulent history, and a few connections to Minnesota, beginning with the Mississippi River, which shapes the city and is lazy, wide and lined by parks as it passes Mud River Island downtown. It’s prettier than you expect, knowing where it’s been since leaving Minnesota. And Highway 61, which we know as the North Shore highway and the river road through Red Wing, Wabasha and Winona, is the Blues Highway in Memphis and points south — the mother road for Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House and a parade of artists, not to mention Bob Dylan.
The city has had its challenges in recent years — fast-growing Nashville has left it in the dust as Tennessee’s largest city — but it’s currently enjoying a prime-time moment. “Bluff City Law,” an NBC courtroom drama, is set in Memphis, and when we were there, film crews were finishing floodlit location shots at the University of Memphis School of Law, a Beaux Arts masterpiece overlooking the river. At nearby Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar (www.flightmemphis.com), as horse-drawn cabs and vintage trolleys passed by, people talked about the show with some pride, as if Memphis was ready for its closeup.
Downtown, though, has been down on its luck for the better part of 50 years. Our first night in town, a cop stopped us around Beale Street and helpfully said, when my wife asked if it was safe around there, “You know this is the third most violent city in America, don’t you?”
That’s not how Visit Memphis would handle it, and no, we weren’t aware of the 2018 FBI report, which put Memphis at No. 3 on the homicides-per-capita list. Good to know, but it didn’t change our plans. It’s an old, diverse Southern city with a history of segregation and inequity that’s slow to change. It also has progressive leadership, a lot of jobs at Fed Ex, and a culture of people getting along and making music together.
If you care about the blues, nothing will keep you from the clubs and juke joints on Beale Street, where all the greats since W.C. Handy have worked. Nashville’s Music Row district is larger and vastly more polished, more like a theme park, and the three-block Beale Street area also has been institutionalized to the point of having a neon arch and a congressional designation as the “home of the blues,” which would seem to be the kiss of death. But the 25 clubs and bars that remain are the protectors of a gritty authenticity and some rowdy, totally original music.
Close by is the Lorraine Motel, where a lot of Beale Street musicians stayed over the years and where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. I remember that April night 51 years ago like it was yesterday, and when we walked down the hill from the Main Street trolley and first saw the motor court with the Space Age sign, it took my breath away. On fast glance, it looks as if nothing has changed since that awful day. There’s a low-profile addition behind the motel, which is part of the National Civil Rights Museum, but it otherwise looks frozen in time, with boat-sized cars with fins out front and a floral wreath on the balcony outside King’s room, as it was immediately after his death.
It’s a museum of the civil rights movement, not simply a memorial to King, which likely is how he would want it. It opened in 1991 after a long preservation battle and was greatly improved in 2014. The interactive, Smithsonian-caliber exhibitions and videos outline the history of the slave trade in America, the facts of slavery and how it was written into our Constitution, how segregation flourished after the Civil War, and how the modern civil rights movement began.
Most important for Memphis, it explains what was happening in 1967 and ’68 that brought Dr. King to the city. The final displays and videos, leading to Room 306 where he and his friends were staying at the time of his death, are unforgettable. There’s more to see, hear and do in Memphis, but it’s the National Civil Rights Museum that will stick with you and change you.
And then there’s Graceland. Even if you don’t care about Elvis, you can’t really say you’ve been to Memphis if you don’t visit the mansion that the young man from Tupelo, Miss., bought not long after his overnight fame in the mid-’50s. Who he was, how he lived and why it happened in Memphis is all represented at Graceland, and it says a lot about the city, the singer, the music and American-style celebrity.
All the tourist stuff across Elvis Presley Boulevard — the museums with jumpsuits he wore in Las Vegas, the gold records and airplanes, the cars — can be skipped, but the 17,500-square-foot estate itself, which has been kept pretty much as Elvis left it, is fascinating. He apparently was his own interior decorator, and the Jungle Room, with its green shag carpeting on the ceiling and the “Blue Hawaii” tiki touches, is revealing all by itself. Thousands of fans filed past his open coffin in the Music Room after he died upstairs in August 1977.
Elvis is buried, along with his parents, who lived with him at Graceland, in a memorial garden out back by the swimming pool. As the grave marker says, “He became a living legend in his own time; earning the respect and love of millions.”
He and his parents moved to Memphis in 1948 when he was 13. For all the twists and turns in his life, he never really left the city in which he invented himself. When he returned from Army service in West Germany in 1960, he was asked what he missed about Memphis. “Everything,” he said.
A reporter asked where he planned to live next. “I’m going to stay in Memphis,” he said flatly.
Even on a quick visit, you can see why Memphis — prodigiously musical and regenerative, richly endowed but persistently divided, beat up and beautiful, picturesque and full of ghosts — has a hold on people.
Jay Furst lives in Rochester, works at Mayo Clinic and has been a journalist for more than 30 years.
WHERE TO STAY
Hu Hotel, 79 Madison Ave.: In the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from the landmarks you see on “Bluff City Law.” Formerly the Madison Hotel, the renovated, 110-room Hu is elegant and affordable, with traces of the old Art Deco landmark overlaid with contemporary style. Main Street is a half-block away and it’s easy to catch a vintage trolley to Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum. Reservations: (833) 585-0030
Peabody Memphis Hotel, 149 Union Ave.: The Peabody is one of the grand hotels of the South — 150 years old this year — and it’s immaculately cared for, with all 464 guest rooms completely renovated several years ago. Just about all the major historical events in Memphis since the end of the Civil War have had some connection to the Peabody, and you can feel it just walking amid the stained glass and yes, the trained ducks, in the Grand Lobby. Reservations: 901-529-4000
NASHVILLE SIDE TRIP
Nashville is only three hours away, and between the Grand Ole Opry, the Opry’s historic former home, Ryman Auditorium, and all the honky tonks on Broadway, it’s a musical experience that complements Memphis.
What to see:
Grand Ole Opry: You can’t go to Nashville without going to the Opry, which started as a radio show in 1925 and has spun off an empire of music, commercial development and tourism in Nashville. The Opry radio shows run from February to October, but there’s country-style entertainment throughout the year. Information: 1-800-SEE-OPRY
Ryman Auditorium: The old Union Gospel Tabernacle downtown where the Opry had its start. The Opry moved out in 1974 and the Ryman went dark for years. It reopened in 1994 with a radio broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion,” and it remains one of the country’s great concert halls. If you can’t catch a show, take the tour. Information: (615) 889-3060
Johnny Cash Museum: If you’re at all a fan of the Man in Black, you’ll want to check this out, also in the Music Row area.
The Parthenon: Maybe it’s kitsch, but it’s high-quality kitsch. This full-size reproduction of the Greek Parthenon has an interesting history that goes way back in Nashville, “the Athens of the South.” I guarantee you’ll always remember seeing the 42-foot-tall gilded statue of Athena inside. Information: (615) 862-8431
Where to stay:
Union Station Hotel, downtown Nashville: A spectacular Romanesque train station has been transformed into a 125-room Marriott Autograph Collection hotel. For location, comfort and affordable grandeur, you can’t do better in Music City. Phone: (615) 726-1001
Kimpton Aertson Hotel, near Vanderbilt University, Nashville: Also fairly close to Music Row is the much newer and boutiquey Kimpton Aertson, tucked into a leafy area across North Broadway from Vanderbilt’s lovely campus. The 4,000-square-foot spa is nice, but best of all is the rooftop pool, complete with cabana and a commanding view of the city. Phone: (615) 340-6376.