From its perch on the Mississippi River, Memphis has had a front-row seat to the wonders and ravages of the 20th century. From glorious highs like the rise of rock n’ roll to tragic lows like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the city has borne witness to events that shaped America.
Memphis is well known for its place as a cornerstone of music history, and the neon haunts and revived performance spaces of Beale Street still inspire musical pilgrimage from around the world. But this town is about more than just music. Once a thriving turn-of-the-century river port dealing in cotton and lumber, Memphis struggled in later decades, enduring the crash of cotton, the fight for desegregation and the explosion of the suburbs. Still, Memphis has earned a reputation as a scrappy city that boasts a wealth of historic hotels, theaters and houses dating back to grander days.
The king has left the building: Graceland
Set back from the road behind an unremarkable stretch of gas stations, fast food joints and cash-checking agencies, Graceland is something of an American Versailles. A freshly famous Elvis Presley bought the columned mansion in 1957 at the age of 22 and he went on to spend some of the best times of his life here, riding golf carts around the property, setting off bottle rockets with his ‘Memphis Mafia’ of buddies, watching TV and eating his famous fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He died here in 1977 at the age of 42, a victim of bloated excess, and was buried beside the kidney-shaped swimming pool along with his mother and grandmother.
Displays in Graceland’s various outbuildings trace the King’s rise from a poor schoolboy watching black blues musicians jam on Beale Street to the hefty, sweating ‘Vegas Elvis’ in his rhinestone jumpsuit. The house itself is a time capsule of unfortunate 1970s interior design – velvet draperies, pea green shag carpet, garish crystal chandeliers. Additional buildings include artifacts from Elvis’s music and movie career.
Visiting Graceland involves some planning – book tickets ahead online during the busy season, and decide whether you want to see just the house (self-guided audio tour about 1.5 hours) or the various on-site collections.
From blues to soul to rock and roll: Memphis’s historic music studios and museums
It’s not much to look at from the outside, but some of the most influential blues and rock n’ roll music of the 20th century was recorded behind Sun Studio’s modest brick walls. Starting in the 1950s, Sun owner Sam Phillips recorded artists like Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Johnny Cash, and, of course, Elvis, forever changing the landscape of American music. Forty-minute studio tours feature engaging guides (many of them young local musicians) and a wealth of artifacts. The studio is just outside downtown Memphis.
While the building currently housing the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a reconstruction, the artifacts within – Isaac Hayes’s 1972 Superfly Cadillac, the dance floor from the Soul Train TV set – are very real. Once a studio that recorded breakout soul artists like Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs, Stax is now the centerpiece in Memphis’s slowly reviving Soulsville neighborhood.
At the corner of Beale and 4th, a humble blue shotgun shack was once home to WC Handy, considered the ‘Father of the Blues.’ Now the WC Handy House Museum, the building is filled with photos and other memorabilia of the bandleader’s early days as a traveling musician and his later nationwide fame.
We shall overcome: The National Civil Rights Museum
On April 4, 1968, a sniper shot the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. King, who had been visiting Memphis in support of a strike of black sanitation workers, was declared dead just over an hour later.
Today the turquoise, 1950s-style Lorraine Motel is the centerpiece of the deeply moving National Civil Rights Museum, a multimedia exploration of the ongoing battle for racial equality in America. There are photographs, listening stations and immersive sensory experiences (feel what it’s like to be heckled when you step onto a public bus) to guide visitors through the trajectory of the Civil Rights movement, from the slavery of pre-Civil War times to the sit-ins and boycotts of the 1950s and 60s to the Black Power movement of the 1970s. King’s motel room has been kept much as it was on that day in 1968, as if the Reverend will be returning any minute.
Just for fun: The Peabody Ducks and A Schwab’s
Every morning at 11am, a strange thing happens in the grand lobby of downtown Memphis’s storied Peabody Hotel. An elevator opens and five ducks file out. They waddle across the floor towards the hotel’s marble lobby fountain, hop into the water, and settle in for a day of splashing. At 5pm the same thing happens, in reverse, with the ducks departing for their penthouse apartment for the night. This oddball ritual has been going on since the 1930s, when the hotel’s drunken general manager thought it would be fun to stick some ducks in the fountain after a hunting trip. Get there early to get a front row seat to the action.
The only remaining original business on the main stretch of Beale Street, A. Schwab’s dry goods store, was opened by Jewish immigrant Abraham Schwab in 1876. Today it’s a family favorite for its three overstuffed floors of penny candies, magic tricks, lotions and potions, Elvis memorabilia, and old-fashioned soda fountain.