Memphis – A Quick Visit
For the 2023 holiday season, Alison and I opted to hope in the car and drive down to Alabama to play some golf on the RTJ Golf Trail. It would be a quick trip down with one exception, we wanted to spend a few days in Memphis. I had been there years ago on our annual football trip when the newly relocated Houston Oilers played their first and only season in the Liberty Bowl. Back then I had no problem staying up until the wee hours and we enjoyed the Beale Street scene immensely. I also recalled the great food, especially the dry rub ribs at Corky’s. Lastly we had a very memorable visit to Graceland. Alison had experienced none of these things (not that she would miss going to a football game), but she definitely wanted to see Graceland. So join us as in this first of two posts from Memphis. In this one we’ll recommend a place to stay, where to eat and what to see other than Graceland. In the second post we’ll visit Elvis’ iconic home.
The Peabody Hotel, Memphis
I had no doubt where we would be staying in Memphis; The Peabody Hotel is one of the most historic hostelries in the United States. Originally opened in 1869 and rebuilt and refurbished a number of times since, it is a Memphis icon and anyone who is anyone has stayed here while in town including seven Presidents, dozens of rock and roll and blues singers, Hollywood actors by the score and even Margaret Thatcher. It played a pivotal role in John Grisham’s breakout novel The Firm and Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman stayed here while making the film.
Aside from the glitterati who have made The Peadody their Memphis home, it is even more famous for its legendary ducks who twice a day make their way from their rooftop palace to the fountain that is in the middle of the vast lobby. Led by the Duckmaster it is a very odd spectacle that as dumb as it sounds, is something I’ve always wanted to see.
Arriving at The Peabody you can’t help but be impressed by the massive lobby with bars, restaurants and shops running off to the sides. In two days I was still discovering new places including a run in with Jack Daniel at the Corner Bar which receives an annual special edition bourbon made especially for this bar.
You’ll also find the Lansky Bros. clothing store here. Although not originally at this location, it was from the Lansky’s that Elvis bought his regular clothes, along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Since then it has used the motto ‘ Dress like a Rock Star’ and countless others from Carlos Santana to Drake have followed in the Memphis singers’ footsteps. Who knows who you might run into here?
Coming here during the holiday season is quite special with a giant, and I mean giant, Christmas tree on one side of the lobby.
There’s also a substantial Christmas village featuring Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory which had to have a permanent guardian to prevent the little children from starting to eat parts of it.
The Peabody offers free coffee to its guests in the pastry shop which I’m sure is a great loss leader as the pastries on offer are almost irresistible – white chocolate duck anyone?
The duck theme continues to the rooms which have super comfortable linens and pillows and mini-bars of soap in the shape of a duck.
And yes we got to see the ducks march in from the balcony on the mezzanine. This is the Duckmaster shepherding the ducks to the fountain after their arrival in the lobby from the elevators.
All told there was nothing I would change about our stay at The Peabody, it lived up to our expectations in every respect and given the time of year was not nearly as expensive as I thought it would be.
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous Restaurant
If Memphis is famous for one food it is definitely BBQ and within that genre, dry rub ribs. I had them years ago at Corky’s and loved them, but if you are staying at The Peabody then Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous is the place to go. It’s literally almost across the street and very popular not just with tourists but locals as well. The place is huge with a lot of interesting memorabilia to scout out, but it’s food people are here for, especially the dry rub ribs. We ordered a full slab for two which coms with two sides.
Now this is a thing of beauty. You can put bbq sauce on it, but that would really be sacrilege.
And it tastes as good as it looks.
Another place we tried was Pollard’s BBQ just after visiting Graceland and had no idea beforehand that it was owned and run by Dallas Cowboy’s running back Tony Pollard’s parents and grandparents. However, as soon as we got to the door that was apparent.
Inside they were just getting ready to close for the holidays so their menu was not complete, but they recommended the beef sandwich. These were a sloppy mixture of pure deliciousness.
Beale Street, Memphis
As I mentioned earlier, on my first visit to Memphis my pals and I spent time in the blues and rock and roll bars for which Beale Street is justly famous, particularly B.B.King’s and the Rum Boogie Cafe where we met and shared a plate of fries with Bo Diddley. No shit!
That was many years ago and Alison and I are not night hawks anymore, so we visited Beale Street in the early morning when there was nobody around, but the atmosphere of the place brought back fond memories. That’s W.C.Handy above, the Father of the Blues as he is known, not for inventing the blues, but for starting to write songs that became blues classic. His first hit was ‘Memphis Blues’ which he played in the clubs on Beale Street that were already established by 1909 when Handy moved to Memphis.
Aside from blues, Beale Street saw some of the first rock and roll stars perform there and it definitely was a major influence on Elvis who hung out in the clubs there before hitting the big time. Jerry Lee Lewis was another early Beale Street performer and his is commemorated along with dozens of other greats on Beale Street’s Walk of Fame.
The pedestrianized portion of Beale Street doubles as ‘Neon Row’ and even without the lights on its worth a stroll as this gallery attests.
And make sure you get a picture with B.B.King’s giant Gibson guitar.
There are two other places that are must visits in Memphis before heading to Graceland.
There would be no Graceland and possibly no Elvis, but for this spot, Sun Studio. The number of future stars who were first recorded by Sam Phillips at this tiny studio is astonishing. While Elvis is the most well known, others include Ike Turner who in turn brought in other Delta blues legends Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Little Milton among others. However, it is the discovery of not just Elvis, but Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison that garnered its moniker, Birthplace of Rock & Roll.
Not all is sweetness and light on the Memphis tourism scene. It was also the site of one of the most horrific events of the 20th century, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in April, 1968.
Today the hotel is integrated into the modern National Civil Rights Museum, but even if it isn’t open, as it wasn’t when we visited, you can stand very close the spot where the assassination took place and think back to where you were on that fateful day – at least if you as old as I am.
MLK was in Memphis along with other civil rights icons Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young to add their support to 1,300 striking sanitation workers who were overwhelmingly black. He chose the Lorraine Hotel because it was one of the few black owned establishments in Memphis and was featured in the Green Book that black travellers used to find places where they could safely stay and eat, particularly in the South. Previous guests included Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and the Dodger great Roy Campanella.
Standing on the spot and looking away from the hotel you can see the boarded up window from where the assassin fired the fatal shot. Although James Earl Ray was convicted of the deed, there is very strong evidence that he was framed and that the shooter might have been a Memphis police officer. Regardless of who killed MLK, it had the opposite effect of that intended as it galvanized public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Act that had been passed in 1964, but until this event had not gained much traction among white voters. MLK’s death turned him into an American martyr and helped him accomplish in death, much of what he failed to do during his lifetime. Sometimes evil deeds have unintended good consequences and that’s how I’ll wrap up this first post from Memphis.
In the next post we’ll get into the Christmas spirit at Graceland. Join us as we tour Elvis’ famous home.