PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE ANDERSON
Memphis is, in some ways, a city of ghosts. Its most famous attraction, Graceland, was the home of Elvis Presley, and the place where he died. The city is scarred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent white flight that left downtown deserted for years. Yet, for a place that could be haunted by its past, this city is full of life. Itu2019s the cradle of Americau2019s musical civilization, the birthplace of rock u2019nu2019 roll and soul, and revitalized Beale Street is once again bursting with the blues. The rich culinary scene proves that Memphiansu2019 tastes extend beyond barbecue. And the people here live up to their reputation for Southern hospitality. Memphis is Americau2019s most underrated city, and itu2019s on the come up.
In which Justin marches with ducks and goes on a musical pilgrimage fueled by the best fried chicken in America
I wake in a spacious suite at the Peabody Memphis, slip on a robe, which is embroidered with ducks, fluff my pillow, also decorated with ducks, then shower and dry myself with a towel thatu2019s emblazoned with ducks. I think theyu2019re trying to tell me something.
As the elevator door opens on the ornate, marble-columned lobby, I find myself in a madhouse. Hundreds of people jostle alongside a red carpet leading from the elevator to a nearby fountain. The herou2019s welcome isnu2019t for me: Itu2019s for the famous Peabody Ducks, who roost in a $200,000 u201cmansionu201d on the roof of the hotel and march to the fountain in the morning and back in the evening, a tradition that dates back more than 70 years.
u201cThe ducks know theyu2019re the stars, and that every human being in that lobby is here to see them march,u201d says Anthony Petrina, the hotelu2019s red-jacketed u201cDuckmaster,u201d after leading the line of birds along the carpet. u201cTheyu2019ve waddled through every little bit of fabric [of history] that Memphis has had.u201d
Feeling rather, uh, peckish, I take a 15-minute stroll across downtown to the Arcade Restaurant, a bright diner that dates back almost a hundred years. I slide into a booth across from John Doyle, executive director of the Memphis Rock u2019nu2019 Soul Museum and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, who has agreed to give me an introduction to the cityu2019s musical historyu2014once Iu2019ve tried an order of the Arcadeu2019s grilled sweet potato pancakes, a perfectly crisp, sweet way to start the day.
From here, Doyle and I head back into the heart of downtown, the intersection of Beale Street and Highway 61 (the famous u201cBlues Highwayu201d) to visit the Rock u2019nu2019 Soul Museum. The exhibits detail how the call-and-response and sing-along songs of Southern sharecroppersu2014black and whiteu2014grew into country and the blues, which along with gospel collided in Memphis to form two quintessentially American musical forms: rock u2019nu2019 roll and, later, soul.
u201cRock u2019nu2019 Soul is a great starting point for the Memphis music pilgrimage,u201d Doyle says. u201cSo many folks come here, and they do the Graceland thing and see the jumpsuits and the gold records, but this lays out the whole basis of rock u2019nu2019 roll.u201d The audio tour features songs from pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers, and the exhibit includes items like Jerry Lee Lewisu2019 flower-embossed stage costume
Memphis is a small city, but getting around without a car can be a trial. So Doyle and I take my rental a few minutes southeast to Royal Studios, an old movie house that was converted into a studio in the 1950s. It was here that the legendary Willie Mitchell ran Hi Records, where Al Green recorded many of his hits. u201cThe studiou2019s still a studio,u201d Doyle says, pointing at a wall bearing the signatures of artists who have recorded here recently, including RZA, Robert Plant and Bruno Mars, who laid down tracks for u201cUptown Funku201d here last year. u201cItu2019s exactly the way Willie Mitchell left it.u201d
Lawrence u201cBoou201d Mitchell, Willieu2019s mellow (but extremely busy) grandson, who now runs the studio, gives us a tour. He stomps on the same Coca-Cola crate Greenu2019s guitarist, Teenie Hodges, used in 1972 to count off time at the beginning of u201cLove and Happiness.u201d He also breaks out a set of electric bongos and plays the beat of u201cI Canu2019t Stand the Rain,u201d sending the haunting, metronomic riff echoing through the studio. u201cOnce people get here and look at the room and feel the energy, theyu2019re like, OK, we get it,u201d Mitchell says.
Fittingly, lunch today is at another soulful local institution: Gusu2019s Fried Chicken. The line here stretches around the block, pretty much all the time, and once Iu2019ve tried the food, I know why. This is the best chicken in America, the meat perfectly tender and juicy, the breading a flawless blend of spicy, crispy and greasy. You could fry a Marineu2019s boot in that batter and Iu2019d ask for seconds.
After lunch, I say goodbye to Doyle and continue my musical journey, starting at the famous Sun Studio. My guide here, a perky young woman named Coco, explains how, in 1951, studio founder Sam Phillips recorded Ike Turner playing a guitar through a busted amp stuffed with newspaper to get the distorted sound that would become a hallmark of rock, then leads us into the room where Elvis recorded his first hit, u201cThatu2019s All Right,u201d in 1954. The tour group circles around the Kingu2019s microphone, eyes wide, like pilgrims before the cross. u201cIu2019ve seen people do strange things with that microphone,u201d Coco says.
Iu2019m feeling all shook upu2014and ready for moreu2014so I drive to the Soulsville neighborhood and the Stax Museum, another old cinema that once housed the Stax recording studio. Stepping out of the car, Iu2019m greeted by speakers blaring Sam & Daveu2019s 1966 hit u201cHold On, Iu2019m Cominu2019.u201d Inside, I learn how the studio became the hub of u201cSoulsville, USA,u201d an integrated institution in a segregated city and home base for artists including Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. Thereu2019s so much music in the galleryu2014Tina Turner belting out u201cProud Mary,u201d the driving bass and Hammond organ on u201cGreen Onionsu201du2014that I practically dance through the museum.
A few minutes from here is one of Midtownu2019s hippest neighborhoods, Cooper-Young. I park the car and wander for a while, perusing Goner Records and Burkeu2019s Book Store, before grabbing a seat at the Beauty Shop for dinner. Owner Karen Carrier opened the restaurant in a defunct beauty shopu2014legend has it Priscilla Presley got her hair done hereu2014and the fixtures include converted hairdressing chairs. I pause at the sight of sugar and spice duck breast on the menu, remembering the Peabody Ducks, but the perfectly prepared dish defeats any lingering guilt.
At the restaurant bar, I start chatting with Allison Lawyer and Angie Johnson, a pair of Memphians out celebrating Allisonu2019s birthday. u201cIu2019m about to get off, and my band is playing next door,u201d says a passing waitress. u201cIu2019ll put you on the list.u201d We finish our drinks and move over to Bar DKDC, where the waitressu2019s band, Marcella & Her Lovers, gets a young, diverse crowd shaking to soul-inflected rock tunes, including a funky cover of u201cItu2019s My Party.u201d
We watch the band for a bit, then head to Mollie Fontaine Lounge, a cocktail bar (also owned by Carrier) that occupies a gorgeous red mansion in historic Victorian Village. The bar is packed with 20-somethings sipping cocktails and bobbing to the sounds of a DJ spinning upstairs. u201cI painted these stairwells,u201d Allison says as we make our way to the high-ceilinged second floor. u201cOne day I was here by myself, working, and the stereo upstairs just came on. I canu2019t explain it.u201d Iu2019m not one for ghost stories, but in this city and this building, why not?
In which Justin visits Memphisu2019 most amusing landmarku2014and then its saddest one
Iu2019m feeling a bit fragile this morning, but if thereu2019s one thing that can cure the breweru2019s flu, itu2019s a classic Southern breakfast. A few blocks up from the Peabody, on Court Square, I duff into the Blue Plate Cafe, where the cheesy scrambled eggs, buttery grits, flaky biscuits and peppery gravy engage in an artery-hardening competition.
Having discovered the redemptive power of fatty food, I shoot down Elvis Presley Boulevard, to Graceland. After a lengthy wait on the other side of the street (make reservations, yu2019all), Iu2019m waved onto a tour bus thatu2019s driven through a gate and up a hill to the mansion, which Elvis bought in 1957 and where he died 20 years later. The most striking thing about the property is that itu2019s actually not that big, and the rooms, while opulent enough, arenu2019t all that impressive by todayu2019s u201cMTV Cribsu201d standard. Still, itu2019s a marvelous monument to kitschu2014the collection of spangly jumpsuits alone is worth the price of admission.
From here, itu2019s a 15-minute drive back downtown, where I drop my car at the Peabody and cross the street to Charlie Vergou2019s Rendezvous, Memphisu2019 best-known barbecue joint. Sitting at a red-and-white-checked table in the subterranean dining room, I order pork ribs and inspect the schwag hanging from the ceilingu2014decrepit clarinets, snowshoes, football helmets. u201cYouu2019ve got a pretty good view,u201d my waiter says, grinning as he sets the plate down. The ribs are dusty with dry rub, and as I add spicy barbecue sauce, I note that my only utensil is a plastic spoon for the beans and the tangy mustard-and-vinegar slaw. So u2026 this is gonna get messy. Not that Iu2019m complaining, as I strip the meat from the bone.
Next, itu2019s time to visit one of Americau2019s most somber historical sites. Just off South Main Street stands the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In front of the buildingu2014now home to the National Civil Rights Museumu2014I meet Aram Goudsouzian, a history professor at the University of Memphis and author of Down to the Crossroads, a book about James Meredithu2019s 1966 March Against Fear.
Goudsouzian and I walk through the museumu2014which reopened last year after an extensive renovationu2014pausing inside a 1950s-era bus, in which there sits a statue of Rosa Parks, still refusing to cede her seat to a white passenger, an act of defiance that launched the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Thereu2019s also a vintage Woolworth lunch counter, a replica of the one where students initiated anti-segregation sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Then thereu2019s the room in which Dr. King was staying when he was killed. It looks so mundaneu2014a basic, unadorned roomu2014and that, somehow, adds to its power.
u201cFor years, I lived in a condo that looked right down on the Lorraine Motel,u201d says Goudsouzian, a Boston native whou2019s been in Memphis for more than a decade. u201cThe history just sort of spills out here. It feels like part of you. Martin Luther King is like a ghost that hangs over Memphis. Heu2019s an inspiration, but also his assassination has become the great tragedy of the nation and of Memphisu2019 story.u201d
I leave Goudsouzian and head back across town to Hog & Hominy. Owned by Memphis natives Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, the restaurant is renowned for its fusion of Southern and Italian cuisines. My fast-talking waitress, Jenna, runs me through the menu. u201cIf you like spicy food, and youu2019re an adventurous eater, the sweetbreads are great,u201d she says. Iu2019m barely able to nod before she zips off, returning shortly with the sweetbreads, served in jalapeu00f1o vinaigrette, and a The Wry Is Cast cocktail, made with moonshine and mezcal. For an entree I have the wood-oven Thunderbird! Forty Twice! pizza (the name comes from a song about Thunderbird wine), topped with pepperoni and Calabrese salami and drizzled with honey. If thatu2019s not decadent enough, I cap it off with a slice of peanut butter pie, which, with its bottom layer of banana, would have made Elvis happy. u201cI have a hard time keeping them in,u201d the chef, Lee Mitchell, says of the pie. u201cIf I make a hundred of them, we sell a hundred.u201d
After dinner, I make like Jenna and zip back downtown to see the Memphis Grizzlies. The u201cGrit and Grind Grizzu201d have become a unifying point for this basketball-mad, blue-collar city. There are a few Memphis touches to the game experience: The nachos come topped with barbecued pork, and the halftime entertainment is a jumping set from house band Black Rock Revival. The crowd goes nuts in the second quarter when swingman Tony Allen gets a steal and a breakaway layup, but sadly the Grizz have run into the best team in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, and they fall 103-83.
Outside, I join the disappointed masses on neon-lit Beale Street. With me are Chelsea Chandler and Eric Hasseltine, both of whom cover the Grizzlies for local radio. Music blares from the doorways of Silky Ou2019Sullivanu2019s, the Rum Boogie Cafu00e9 and B.B. Kingu2019s Blues Club, but we have another Memphis institution in mind. A few blocks away, on South Main Street, stands the cityu2019s best dive bar, Earnestine & Hazelu2019s. Named for two sisters who ran a cafu00e9 out of the building in the 1950s and u201960su2014where they catered to musicians like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklinu2014the bar has an in-house ghost and a jukebox that Eric describes as u201cthe best in America.u201d Then thereu2019s the Soul Burger, a simple, perfect bite of late-night grease.
As we sip cheap beer and munch on our patties, I ask Chelsea, whou2019s also a singer, what her favorite Memphis tune is. u201cProbably u2018Sittinu2019 on the Dock of the Bay,u2019u201d she says. u201cItu2019s perfect.u201d Moments later, we hear Otis Redding in the air. u201cThey say the jukebox starts on its own and plays records that arenu2019t there,u201d Chelsea says. u201cThat could be Earnestine and Hazel coming back,u201d our bartender chips in. u201cI believe it,u201d Eric replies. u201cIu2019ve come up here and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and not because it was cold.u201d
Seeking spirits of a different kind, we hop a cab over to Paula & Raifordu2019s, a smoky, neon-lit disco that Chelsea calls u201ca club for people who donu2019t like clubs.u201d The music here tends toward Michael Jackson, and the Rubiku2019s Cube dance floor has me looking for John Travolta. Thereu2019s also a drum kit and an, um, exercise pole that are available to anyone brave enough to jump on them. I am not that brave. And I need my bed.
In which Justin eats at every restaurant in Memphis and strikes out with a Southern belle
In need of a kick start, I hop in the car and drive out to Porcellinou2019s, a cafu00e9 and artisanal butcher shop thatu2019s owned by the Hog & Hominy duo Hudman and Ticer (the two eateries share a parking lot). This may be the cityu2019s premier purveyor of meat, but Iu2019m more interested in the nitro-pumped, cold-brew coffee, which has the texture of a creamy stout. Iu2019m joined by Felicia Suzanne Willett, an Arkansas native and New Orleansu2013trained chef who owns Felicia Suzanneu2019s, a restaurant she opened in the cityu2019s then-blighted downtown 13 years ago. Since then, sheu2019s become both a mainstay of and evangelist for the Memphis food scene. As I dig into a kimchi-brined-chicken biscuit topped with spicy honey and Sriracha, she tells me about the local food scene.
u201c[Hudman and Ticer] are the u2018itu2019 guys right now, and I love what theyu2019re doing,u201d she says. u201cAs far as the restaurant community goes, itu2019s like, the more the merrier. We go to dinner together. We go to each otheru2019s restaurants. We send people to each otheru2019s restaurants. We love each other.u201d
Willett then proceeds to take me on an impromptu culinary tour of east Memphis. Summer Avenue, an unglamorous stretch of strip malls between downtown and the freeway, doesnu2019t seem like the sort of place a gourmand would gravitate to, but Willett has a favorite spot on seemingly every block: Lotus, Bryantu2019s Breakfast, Taqueria Los Picosos. u201cItu2019s not celebrity chefs,u201d she says. u201cItu2019s mom-and-pops. Itu2019s real life.u201d We stop at Elwoodu2019s Shack, where Willett orders me a brisket sandwich. u201cNot a lot of the barbecue places do beef,u201d she says. u201cWait u2019til you taste it.u201d
Are we done eating yet? No! Our next stop is Muddyu2019s Bake Shop, because if Iu2019m in the South, Iu2019m having as much pie as possible. u201cI love her pecan pie,u201d Willett says of owner Kat Gordon. u201cI think we should have a piece of the pecan. And the chocolate chess. You should have one of each.u201d Who am I to argue?
I could use something to wash down all this food, so we head for the city center, stopping at the Wiseacre Brewing Co., a converted warehouse next to the railroad tracks on a revitalized stretch of Broad Avenue. The space is packed, the crowd spilling onto the sunny deck. At the bar, I strike up a conversation with a young Memphian named Ellen. I tell her I like her accent, and she replies, u201cYou have an accent too.u201d What do I sound like? u201cA Yankee.u201d With a sigh, I take my amazingly named beer, the Gotta Get Up to Get Down coffee milk stout, back out to the patio.
From here, Willett steers me past Overton Parku2014u201cEveryone loves to go to the zoo and see the pandasu201du2014and back downtown, where I drop her off with a promise to meet later for dinner. I consider going back to see those pandas, but decide instead to walk off my multistop brunch along the river. Itu2019s just a short stroll down the hill to the Mississippi, the east bank of which is lined with pretty parks, each filled with people enjoying the late afternoon sun. I pause briefly before a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davisu2014another ghost of Memphisu2019 pastu2014then turn my attention once more to the perfect, cloudless blue sky.
The Delta humidity has done its job, so I head back to the Peabody for a quick shower, then stroll up the Main Street pedestrian mall to Felicia Suzanneu2019s, where Willett, seeing that her first attempt to kill me with culinary kindness was unsuccessful, tries again. I work through a smoked salmon deviled egg; a bite-size BLFGT (bacon, lettuce and fried green tomato) sandwich; fried gulf oysters over grits with Louisiana barbecue sauce; short ribs with gnocchi and bourbon cream sauce; and a white chocolate coconut bread pudding with buttermilk brown sugar ice cream. If I gotta go, Iu2019d be hard-pressed to do better for a last meal.
After dinner, I pop around the corner to the Madison Hotel and take an elevator up to the rooftop bar, the Twilight Sky Terrace, where a young and chatty crowd takes in the sweeping view of the Mighty Mississip. As the sun sinks in the west, the M-shaped arches of the Hernando de Soto Bridge light up, and I head out into the night, the words of the Tom T. Hall classic in my head: u201cYou go where your heart wants to go. Thatu2019s how I got to Memphis.u201d
Hemispheres managing editor and house guitarist Justin Goldman has only one Memphis regret: He didnu2019t have time to take the Gibson factory tour.