The wonderful world of Nashville was like a warm-up act for the great superstar, Memphis. Center stage is Beale Street, which is cordoned off on the weekends, making the three block long corridor feel like one giant block party. Where Nashville is mainly Country, Memphis is Blues and Rock and Roll.
We were planning to eat a late lunch before launching into the music scene, but were quickly lured by some great Motown sounds coming from B.B. King’s place at the corner of Beale and 2nd. Since it was only Friday afternoon, we got front row seats at the bar and for the price of a beer, we were treated to the sweet sound of a group of Stax Academy alumni, the next generation of music greats.
When we arrived, a handsome French tourist was on stage dancing animatedly with one of the singers, a look of complete contentment on his face. About our age, he and a few friends were on a music odyssey similar to ours. He confided that he felt like he was a character in one of his own dreams, so thrilled to be living his fantasy. I knew just what he meant. Music truly is the great equalizer, the world’s common denominator.
By 3:00 the mug of Blue Moon on an empty stomach made me a little tipsy, so we headed for The Blues City Café across the street, where they vow to “Put Some South in Your Mouth”. The place was empty when we arrived, and we had our pick of dozens of booths or tables. (Apparently, we got a lucky break, because by 7:00, there was a line snaking around the corner.)
We still hadn’t tried catfish —fried, of course— and we had heard that this was the place! The menu promised Simmons Brothers farm-raised catfish, hand battered in a special cornmeal and spice blend, then pan fried to perfection.
Three huge filets arrived accompanied by a substantial portion of steamed red potatoes (a nod to health) and homemade coleslaw. It was moist, not greasy and surprisingly delicious, without the fishy flavor I expected of catfish.
(BTW, the next night we tried another local “institution”, the Rendezvous Restaurant, known for their ribs.Their website boasts that several thousand people walk down their steps on a Saturday night. That must be why the ribs and service were cold and lackluster. We should have stuck to our tried and true Blues City Cafe.)
We left the restaurant just in time to head over to the Peabody Hotel to witness the “must see” duck walk. It seems that in the 1930’s the general manager and a friend returned from a hunting trip, got a little tanked, and placed some live duck decoys in the Hotel’s fountain. The antic was so well received that it has since become a tradition. Five ducks who live like royalty on the hotel’s roof are marched down daily at 11:00 AM by the Peabody Duckmaster —the only position of its kind anywhere. They swim all day in the central fountain, and return to the elevator via a red carpet lined with spectators promptly at 5:00 PM. We fought throngs of people, endured digging elbows, crushed toes, and crying children, but we held firmly to our prime spot right by the elevator doors. Trip Advisor gives it a 19 out of 84 attractions. We’d call it number 85.
We extricated ourselves from the maddening crowd and joined the festivities on Beale St. Reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, drinking on the street is allowed, and we passed many a grinning tourist carrying unusually large cocktails in outrageous containers, from long necked glasses to large plastic fish bowls.
We walked carefree up and down the three blocks with music ringing from every bar and even on the street, where we bumped into our old friends from Clarksdale, Sean “Bad” Apple and Martin “Big Boy” Grant of All Night Long Blues Band, who were plying the crowd with their infectious sound.
Attracted by the sound of Black Magic Woman, we ambled into an open air beer garden. John McConnell, a California octogenarian, has a wonderful “joie de vivre’ and when he asked me to dance, I was happy to “cut a rug” with him! He’s got more energy than a teenager and more enthusiasm than most people half his age.
A “mean” harmonica called to us and we entered the world of Rum Boogie Cafe’s Blues Hall, where Vince Johnson and His Plantation All Stars were just getting started playing some soulful tunes. When we crossed the threshold, we entered a juke joint of the distant past with its small stage, smoky atmosphere, peeling paint and faded posters touting long ago events. One of the best harmonica players we have ever heard, Vince really got the growing crowd going, and soon that juke joint was charged with energy.
We left the Blues Hall and didn’t walk more than a couple of blocks before a lively Rock and Roll Band caught our attention. As we sauntered over to the huge Fedex outdoor arena, my eyes couldn’t believe what my ears were hearing.
A six-piece band decked out in Navy dress whites were giving a perfect Michael Jackson rendition, as the two good-looking lead singers mesmerized the crowd with their swinging hips and sexy style. They were fantastic: great moves, a great stage presence, and a great sound. I thought for sure these guys were like the Village People, dressed in sailor costumes for effect. Then I saw their banner: the Mid-South Navy Band. If the Navy would like more women to enlist, they should send this group on tour to every recruiting office in the entire USA!
She got the place cranked up with 70’s and 80’s tunes, and my disco queen days came flooding back to me and I just couldn’t sit down.
The partying continued at the Rum Boogie Café, decorated with a collection of famous guitars, hanging all over the bar. A place is more than the band on stage and that night was no exception as a group of fun-loving, energetic tourists got everybody up and dancing.
I also took the opportunity to try fried-green tomatoes, another Southern specialty made famous by the movie of the same name starring Kathy Bates. My conclusion: fried pickles win, hands down.
Next stop, the famous Jerry Lee Lewis Café and Honky Tonk, opened May 2013 and filled with Lewis memorabilia from his costumes to his motorcycle. At 78 years old, Jerry Lee Lewis is the last man standing of the four great Sun Studio artists seen in the photo now called “The Million Dollar Quartet”: Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
According to Curry, our Sun Studio tour guide, Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame was there that December day in 1956 to record some new material. Sam Phillips had called the little known, recently-signed Jerry Lee Lewis to play the piano for Carl. Johnny Cash showed up to hear the session and Elvis just happened to pop in. And what happens when musicians get together? They start jamming. The sound engineer, Jack Clement, decided it was too great an opportunity to miss and cleverly set up a single mike to record the session. Sam Phillips called the press and that is how a famous photo, a great recording (now out on CD) and a musical (presently touring the US) were born.
We took a seat at the bar and after a few minutes, we understood why the club was almost filled to capacity. Jason James channels Jerry Lee Lewis, wildly pounding out chords and imitating his frenzied piano playing style. The crowd waited anxiously for the famous “Great Balls of Fire” and sat in awe as Jason actually set his piano aflame. An amazing performance to end a perfect evening.
If you happen to be in Memphis on a Sunday, a visit to Reverend Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle may help you repent from any sins you have committed on wild Beale Street. We thought we would be among the few white people in the congregation, but apparently word has gotten out, since the church was half full with visitors. Al certainly didn’t mind as he gleefully inquired where each person came from when he cajoled the entire congregation to file up to the pulpit to hand over our tithing.
When the music began, I thought I was at a Blues Club in Heaven. The piano player swayed in his seat, eyes closed, while the bongos, organ, guitar and bass offered divine inspiration as they accompanied the celestial choir. A tiny, robust, female soloist came forward and brought the house down when she belted out a reverent tune, clearly moved by the holy spirit. Almost everyone in the church was up on their feet, dancing in place, clapping their hands, electrified by her mighty zeal. This was exactly what I imagined a gospel choir would feel like: a truly heavenly experience.
After all that positive, motivating energy, Reverend Al’s sermon was a real letdown. He seemed to lack focus or theme, offering no homilies or lessons to live by. He spewed only admonishments and fire and brimstone warnings. After two hours of gloom and doom, we decided we had been saved—at least from another hour of his fiery rhetoric.
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