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Memphis, Tennessee

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Did You Know … ?

  • W.C. Handy wrote and published the first blues song, “Memphis Blues,” around 1909; he later wrote “Beale Street Blues.”
  • A quarter of the stars in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame originated within 100 miles of Memphis.
  • Andrew Jackson (later president) was one of the founders of Memphis, in 1819.
  • Ike Turner’s band is credited with recording the first rock ‘n’ roll song, “Rocket 88,” in Memphis (1951).
  • Elvis Presley recorded his first single — and first hit, “That’s All Right, Mama,” at Sun Records in 1954.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s birthplace

Memphis, a middling-sized city on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, in 1850 was the world’s largest inland cotton market. Even now, nearly half the U.S. cotton crop moves through Memphis, but the city has other claims to fame that excite visitors more: For them, it’s about the music.

Memphis with reason calls itself the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. The first songs of the genre were recorded in the early 1950s in a Memphis studio, with recording impresario Sam Phillips as the catalyst. Not long after, Elvis Presley’s first records appeared under Phillips’ Sun Records label.

In the ensuing years, Phillips’ studio and others reeled in a list of luminaries, including Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Otis Redding and Conway Twitty. Their music encompassed blues, country and soul, as well as rock ‘n’ roll.

Memphis also bills itself as the home of the blues. This genre originated with African-Americans who traveled upriver from the Mississippi Delta more than a century ago. It landed in the legendary — and still vibrant — Beale Street entertainment district.

These events translate into tourist attractions that include the Sun Records facility, the Gibson Guitar Factory, two homes — Presley’s at Graceland and that of W.C. Handy (the father of the blues), plus museums and the Center for Southern Folklore. Hitting the clubs on Beale Street rounds out an itinerary nicely, and, if the timing is right, music festivals add another dimension.

As if the music were not enough, Memphis immodestly brags it is the pork barbecue capital of the world. To reinforce that notoriety, Memphis hosts the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest each May. Memphis’ famed barbecue shacks uphold the city’s reputation the rest of the year.

Finally, part of the civil rights movement played out here. When in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Today, the murder site is part of the National Civil Rights Museum. Also of interest, the boyhood home of Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” is up the road a piece, in Hennings, and is a museum, too.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Overnight at the Lauderdale Courts apartment, which was part of a low-income housing project where Elvis Presley lived when a teenager. Or, overnight at the Heartbreak Hotel.
  • Attend a two-day basic blacksmithing class at the National Ornamental Metal Museum. If metalworking is not your forte, visit the museum to watch others demonstrate the craft of using metal to create art.
  • At the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in May, taste the goods offered by concessionaires. But, you also can join the People’s Choice Contest. For a few dollars, you will judge which is the best of five samples provided, and you can judge as often as you like. Also, hop on the Cooker’s Caravan for a guided tour to the competing teams to hear their secrets to grilling the best barbecue.
  • For a real sense of this musical city, dance to the bands that perform in open-air Handy Park. Also, make your way to a few of the clubs on Beale Street to hear the blues. This three-block concentration of clubs, restaurants and shopping is now a designated historic district.
  • Head to Mud Island River Park for canoeing, kayaking or cycling. Or stick around town and go jogging or cycling in Tom Lee Park which parallels the river.
  • Make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to Sun Records, which looks much the same as it did when the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins recorded there.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Celebrate everything Memphis at the Memphis in May International Festival. The event, staged in the riverfront Tom Lee Park, encompasses a range of activities, appealing to varied interests, including the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
  • It is a bit of a drive, but if you are a train lover, head over to Jackson to see the Casey Jones Museum.
  • Remember Martin Luther King, Jr. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built around the Lorraine Motel room where he was assassinated. Complement that visit with an excursion to see the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, which reveals an escape route for slaves.
  • Celebrate Elvis Presley’s music and legacy at the weeklong Elvis Week in August. The agenda includes music, dance, sports and social events.
  • Take a tour at the Gibson Guitar factory to see how these instruments are made. If a public event is scheduled, you can attend music performances at the facility, too.
  • Come to town in time for the Choctaw Heritage Festival, in August. Or come for Native American Days in October.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Realize a dream; Tour Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home.
  • For serious music fans, there are museums as well as entertainment venues. See the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
  • Eat barbecued pork in Memphis, the Tennessee town best known for its barbecue.
  • For those who like early Americana, consider a visit to Collierville to shop in the Collierville Historic Town Square and see the town’s historic train depot and stagecoach stop.
  • For factory outlets, drive to the Lakeland Factory Outlet Mall.
  • Ride through downtown on the Main Street Trolley. Also, do some sightseeing on a Mississippi riverboat tour.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.memphistravel.com