Memphis in the meantime
Last summer, in advance of his keynote appearance at the annual “Elvis Seminar,” critic Greil Marcus told a Memphis newspaper that the town is “remarkably ugly-looking.” This was a compliment. While Nashville, in his estimation, is “a very stolid” city, a “company town” where everyone, “insiders and outsiders alike, knows what the rules are and plays by them,” Memphis is a city where “people don’t care what the place looks like [because its] life is in the people.” Memphis, “with its confusing, violent, heroic past,” Marcus concluded, is “the ugliest fascinating city in the world.”
No doubt many Memphians felt Mr. Marcus could use a tour guide. If beauty’s the desire, the city’s residents could point downtown to its brand-new, old-school baseball stadium, AutoZone Park (home to the AAA Redbirds, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate), or to Mud Island Park, where visitors, a la Paul Bunyan, can stride beside a five-block long model of the Mississippi River, even as the real Mississippi just keeps rollin’ along only yards away.
In Midtown Memphis (“Midtown IS Memphis,” claim neighborhood banners), block after block is lined either with gorgeous carport bungalows or stone and brick mansions. And out east, Memphis boasts many roomy, groovy, and well-maintained ranch homes, including one at 1034 Audubon Drive that was the first house Elvis Presley bought when the money started rolling in. I could go on, but the point is simply that many parts of Memphis are beautiful.
But Marcus was on to something, even so. And not just because, aesthetically speaking, Memphis has more than its share of weedy lots and ratty tire mountains, razor-wire fences, dilapidated storefronts, belching smokestacks, and trash. Rather, it’s because there is something instantly inviting and down-to-earth about the place — something that goes deeper, and matters more, than its dull, untidy surfaces. And this is a feeling that is equally palpable and attractive whether you’re gazing at a front lawn that looks like a putting green or at a hand-lettered sign advertising pig knuckles.
Much of this is due to the city’s usable, human scale. Chicago, Manhattan and Los Angeles thrill with their size and bustle but can also overwhelm; they remain larger-than-life even after many visits. But Memphis, especially for devotees of southern food and southern music, feels like home almost instantly. Indeed, while Memphis is most definitely a car town, it can fool you into thinking it’s just one particularly spacious neighborhood.
The Lauderdale Courts, for instance, the housing project that was the first Memphis address of Elvis, Vernon and Gladys Presley, is practically right around the corner from Sun Studios, where Sam Phillips cut sides on not just Elvis but Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and B. B. King. From there, it’s a pleasant walk to Beale Street, where the young Hillbilly Cat shopped for shiny pink shirts and blousy slacks at Lansky Brothers, and where W.C. Handy once helped popularize the blues. Only four or five blocks beyond Beale is the site of the Loraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and which now houses the emotionally gripping and text-dense National Civil Rights Museum.
From there, it’s but a short drive to the part of southeast Memphis that gave the world Stax Records — an origin story so humble, so street-level, that it may be the quintessential Memphis tale. Two white bank clerks, a little brother and big sister named Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, start Satellite Records in their garage; the plan is to record country music. But in 1960, when the siblings switch the label’s name to Stax and relocate to an abandoned theater at 926 E. McLemore Avenue in the heart of Memphis’ burgeoning black ghetto, the plan changes.
Turns out folks from the neighborhood, including keyboardist Booker T. Jones and drummer Al Jackson Jr., and a couple of white kids from across town, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn, are drawn to Estelle’s record shop but stick around to make records. For the next decade, these four men, known collectively as Booker T. & the MG’s, were the rhythm section on many of the best soul records ever made, backing everyone from William Bell and Carla Thomas to Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave.
Stax was shut down in 1976, the studio demolished in 1988. Now, though, a new memorial — Soulsville: The Stax Museum of American Soul Music — has opened on the site. It includes a replica of the old studio, right down to the sloping floors and lush floor-to-ceiling drapes of the original theater space.
As its name suggests, the new museum honors not just Stax but soul music generally. The first installation is a nearly century-old black church, Hooper’s Chapel, the former home of a small African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Duncan, Mississippi, south of Memphis on Highway 61. The museum devotes time to other soul music hitmakers, too, including Stax’s hometown rivals American Sound Studios (where the Box Tops’ cut “The Letter”, Elvis cut “Suspicious Minds”, and Dusty Springfield cut “Son Of A Preacher Man”) and Hi Records (home to all of Al Green’s biggest hits).