Groovin’ in Memphis—Insider Hotspots and Traditional Passions
By Linda Milks
Memphis is a city of both traditional tourist sights and restaurants as well as new hotspots which only a local knows and can share. Music, history, and barbecue are at the heart of this much loved city where I was fortunate enough to be hosted for several days along with a fellow writer.
Get ready! I am going to take you on a walk of both the well-known spots that a tourist must see, and delve a little deeper into a few unknown places that locals urged me to explore.
Of course no trip to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland ,the new Entertainment Complex and the Guest House at Graceland. I was awed with what was housed in the huge new Entertainment Complex. There are a plethora of jumpsuits Elvis wore as well as the one from his last performance. I loved seeing his collection of cars, including the pink Cadillac he bought for his mother, Gladys.
We learned when visiting his home, Graceland that both of his parents lived there with Elvis, Priscilla, and Lisa. Other relatives also lived there at times. He was a most generous and talented man. His home sits on 13+ acres and was purchased for around $100,000 in 1957. A full day could be spent at the Entertainment Complex which includes several restaurants.
If you plan to spend a lot of time at the complex, I recommend you stay at the Guest House at Graceland. It is a newly built large and beautiful hotel with several restaurants inside. Priscilla Presley chose the lobby furniture to reflect Elvis as well as two of the suites that are named after Elvis’ parents. The hotel has the feel of richness and glamour without being too ostentatious.
Be sure to take a tour of Memphis is Sun Studios, home of rock ‘n roll. This is where country and blues came together to make rock ‘n roll. Even Elvis used this studio for his music. He started singing the blues and the guitar and bass players played country and somehow it became rock ‘n roll. Other greats recording here were Johnny Cash, (originally an appliance salesman), Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis who along with Elvis were known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Strangely enough, there is a malt shop inside this small icon. I’ve heard they are the best milkshakes in town.
The National Civil Rights Museum, a complex of museums and historic buildings, is another place that can take you at least a half day to visit. It is chock full of memorabilia about the story of our country–one of slavery, assassinations, separate but equal, boycotts, and Black power. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King plays a big part in this history. The museum complex was enlarged and reopened in 2014. It was built around the former Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated in 1968. Two large cars—a white 1959 Dodge Royal with lime green fins and a white 1968 Cadillac sit in front of the Lorraine Motel creating a time warp for visitors.
An interesting fact is since the motel was located near Beale Street and Stax Records. Black musicians would stay there or go there just to cool off in the middle of the day by the pool. Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole were all guests.
When you think of Memphis, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music leaps to the forefront of important places to see. Stax welcomed such greats as Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers. It started as a back-street garage in 1957 and became a multi-million-dollar organization. Stax was the home of racial integration located in the middle of a deeply segregated city. Black and White musicians played together at the Stax in total harmony. Upon seeing some of those old albums I remembered records like “Walking the Dog” and “Do The Funky Chicken,” a flashback to my youth. Isaac Hayes gold plated Cadillac car sits with its doors open on a rotating base for all to see. What an amazing vehicle!
The Blues Hall of Fame Museum should be next on your list. It’s the home to such greats as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan as well as U2 and BB King. This is a smaller museum. What is unique to it is that you can walk to 10 individualized galleries with interactive touchscreen displays. You can also hear the music, watch videos, and read the stories of each of the inductees. Each gallery houses one-of-a-kind memorabilia. I found this museum staffed by incredibly helpful volunteers who not only showed me around but shared their favorite and little-known Memphis hotspots.
Just for kicks and when you are tired of museums, head to the historic Peabody Hotel at either 11 a.m. to watch a parade of five mallard ducks, led by an official Duckmaster making its way from the roof of the hotel down to the lobby while enjoying a relaxing cocktail in the lobby along the red carpet where these ducks parade to swim in the lobby fountain. At 5 p.m., this procession is reversed so that the ducks can sleep for the night on the roof.
I was told that after having a meal at The Beauty Shop, home to things like Watermelon and Wings and where Priscilla Presley came for her curl and dye, I should then head next door to the Bar DKDC which stands for “Don’t Know, Don’t Care” where they have soul music every night. With a name like that, it has to be fun.
Both of these places are located in the Cooper-Young District in Midtown. The name comes from the intersection of Cooper Street and Young Street. The neighborhood is known for its eclectic mix of shops, bars and restaurants.
The locals say Wednesday night is a slow night for music because traditionally Wednesday is church night. B.B. King’s on Beale Street is a place where you can always find music. When Memphis Jones plays, it’s a good time to head there. Check the website for performance times.
Another group to look for if they are in Memphis is the North Mississippi Allstars.
All up and down Beale Street you can hear music, some even in the alleys during the day. Other areas for music are Overton Square where you will find Lafayette’s Music Room where Billy Joel and KISS got started, and South Main is a restored and established arts district just one block off Beale Street.
Memphis is home to some great dive bars as well. One night ended our evening by having a Soul Burger at Earnestine & Hazel’s. The building started out as a pharmacy where the owner, Abe Plough, created a product that could straighten hair and later invented Coppertone suntan lotion. He later gave the building to two hair stylists, Earnestine and Hazel. The two sisters turned the building into a cafe. Next door was Club Paradise, which hosted legends like B.B. King, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Motown, and Ray Charles. After performing, these musicians walked from Club Paradise to Earnestine and Hazel’s each night so they could get food, tell stories, and find action from women upstairs. This is what makes Earnestine & Hazel’s so unique. The jukebox and that special Soul Sauce on the Soul Burger is another reason.
Small breweries have become popular in Memphis. The one we were lucky enough to visit is Wiseacre Brewing Co. I would highly recommend a tour of the brewery that takes place most Saturdays. This was one of the most informative tours of a brewery I have ever taken and well worth the money (and free beer.) Tiny Bomb Pilsner was one of our favorites.
An interesting new and upcoming area is Crosstown Concourse. Originally a Sears, Roebuck & Co distribution center and retail store built in 1927, the building now contains 1,500,000 sq. ft. of floor space. It is a true multi-use building with apartments, galleries, and restaurants. The interior of the mammoth building is fascinating with the center area open as an atrium and great architectural lines created by the stairs.
Where to Eat
When you think of food and Memphis, bar-b-que jumps out at you. However, Memphis is so much more than that these days. It has become a restaurant mecca. To learn about where to eat in Memphis, read my article at: https://www.tripatini.com/profiles/blogs/memphis-a-rising-restaurant-mecca?xg_source=msg_appr_blogpost
Where to Stay
The perfect place to stay during your trip to Memphis is the Hotel Napoleon, a small boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. In addition to its central location to everything you will want to experience in Memphis. I have never had such a warm and welcome greeting and stay, including warm cookies every day. The rooms are contemporary and comfortable with plush beds. The Luna Restaurant & Bar serves both breakfast and dinner. Both Uber and Lyft are readily available to take you for a day of sightseeing.
AUTHORS NOTE: As is customary in this industry, I was hosted by the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau but the remarks are from the love I developed of this charming city.