Where Sun never sets: Walking in Memphis

Dusting off his blue suede shoes, John Carter savours the many tantalising delights of Memphis and its musical heritage.

Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee

There are bound to be some extra high jinks in Memphis this year, as it celebrates the 60th anniversary of a musical milestone. It was on July 5, 1954 that Elvis Presley recorded That’s Alright Mama at Sun Studio in Union Avenue. After which, as they say, nothing would ever be the same again.

In fact, Elvis had recorded at Sun Studio a couple of times previously, but had paid for the privilege, saying the discs were presents for his mother.

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This monumental musical breakthrough came about by accident. Sun’s proprietor, Sam Phillips, had arranged for the young unknown to sing a couple of songs with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. The results were far from satisfactory, and they were on the point of packing in when Elvis started to fool around with his guitar and sang That’s Alright Mama, for the sheer fun of it. When Moore and Black joined in, Phillips burst into the studio, yelling at them to “back up” so he could find a point at which to start recording.

Memphis, Tennessee

With Graceland, Presley’s home, being its major tourist attraction (and, incidentally, second only to the White House as the most visited property in the USA), Memphis is inevitably dominated by The King. But there is far more to this city than the story and legacy of a single performer.

There are fabulous fairs and festivals, exhibitions and events throughout the year, as well as a much wider musical legacy. And without wishing to detract in any way from the Presley impact, it is worth noting that Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and the legendary BB King also recorded at Sun Studio.

I’ll return to the musical heritage in a moment. Let’s take a wider look at the fascinating city of Memphis and some of what it offers its visitors.

For a start, there’s a year-long programme of festivals and special events – Memphis in May covers the customs, cultures and heritage of the city, and the same month sees Greek and Italian food festivals, along with a mammoth barbecue event.

The prestigious National Civil Rights Museum has just completed a massive renovation, and in the spring the Beale Street Landing project is to open. Among its attractions is a children’s play area with water features, and the famous Memphis river boats will arrive and depart from its dock.

One of the city’s more unusual attractions is to be found in Mud Island River Park. A scale model representing 1,000 miles of the mighty Mississippi runs for half a mile through the park. Particularly fascinating is that the water level is constantly changed to mirror that of the real river running alongside.

Memphis has a Carnival, too, which – while not as well-known as the Mardi Gras of New Orleans – is a great excuse to party. What makes it special is that it combines the spectacle of carnival floats and “Krewes” with the tradition of St Patrick’s Day, as the “Silky Sullivan” parade is held on March 15.

That parade takes place in Beale Street – which brings me back to the city’s musical heritage (the annual Beale Street Music Festival takes place in May). And to WC Handy who, while not as well-known generally as Elvis Presley, had as great an impact on the music scene. It was Handy who “invented” the Blues, shortly after moving to Memphis in 1909. Memphis Blues and Beale Street Blues are two of his many compositions, as is St Louis Blues.

He played in the Beale Street clubs, as did BB King (one of them bears his name). And, a young Elvis Presley learned his craft by watching the acts in those very same establishments.

There will, of course, be extra events and attractions at Graceland in this 60th anniversary year, but to get the most and the best out of Memphis, don’t overlook its other attractions, and the other outstanding talents that the city claims as its own. Stroll into WC Handy Park and seek out the statue of the great man himself. And, pay a visit to his home which, while not as famous as Graceland, has an equally important place in musical history.