Museums of Memphis / International Blues Challenge

Preface

It is hard to believe that even in 2015, whites in Memphis and the entire Delta area haven’t embraced the blacks for their wonderful spirit and joie de vivre.  Someone told me (I wish I could remember who) many years ago “we must embrace the differences that define us, not let them divide us.”  After attending the IBC, checking out the museums of Memphis, wandering Clarksdale and attending the First Baptist Church service, I say “vive la difference!”

International Blues Challenge

  Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

In December 2013, a few of Mikey’s Juke Joint groupies (including myself) decided to head to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC) to support the Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams, both of who would be representing southern Alberta at the January 2014 competition.  It was a truly amazing experience, not only did Williams win the competition as the best single/solo act and best guitarist, but I developed a whole new appreciation for the history of the blues and the culture of the south that produced it.

This year’s Challenge happens January 20 – 24 with Calgary’s Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams again representing southern Alberta.

The Museums

One of the great things about visiting Memphis is their trio of music museums – Stax Museum, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Sun Records.

The STAX Museum blew both Brenda (not so much a blues or music keener) and I away with its campus that includes not only the museum, but a charter school and extensive collection.  For anyone interested in the history of 20th century music in North America, this is the place to go. You will learn about the evolution and connections between numerous genres of music – blues, soul, jazz, Bebop, country, gospel, hillbilly, R&B, rock and Pop music.  What I particularly loved about the museum is there is its air of authenticity as much of the history actually happened in Memphis or in the immediate area.  

  STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

The museum starts with a wonderful 20-minute film, after which you wander at your own pace through hundreds of displays that tell the story of the music with lots of memorabilia.  The highlight was when I complemented an elderly, distinguished-looking man on his great tie.  He thanked me and we got chatting about the museum and how he was visiting with his grandchildren who “wanted to see where their grandfather was” in the museum.  Turns out I was talking to Harold “Scotty” Scott of the Temprees, whose gold record for “Dedicated to the one I love” and other band artifacts we on exhibit.

One take away message I got from this museum was how the pain and hardship deeply penetrated the African American culture of the south and how they sought comfort and solace in their music.

I would recommend anyone visiting the museum, also take an explore a few around the museum, it will reinforced the link between poverty, sense of place and blues music.  The predominately black neighbourhood of empty lots, abandon homes, homes with what looked like religious shrines on the porches and numerous churches looked like many of the images we saw in the museum.

In chatting with Andrew Mosker, CEO, National Music Centre (NMC), who is currently construction a new museum in Calgary, I was told they would be incorporating some of the lessons learned from STAX on how to engage, entertain and educate the public about music.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the NMC could match STAX museum’s authenticity as most of NMC’s artifacts will be imported from elsewhere. Also a big shiny new museum located in a glitzy new master planned urban community seems diametrically opposed to places that are the catalyst for artistic creativity. Time will tell.

  One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

  Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, created by the Smithsonian Institute and located downtown next to the arena provides an excellent overview of the history of Memphis area music from the 1930s to the city’s musical heyday of the ‘70s.  The museum’s digital audio guide offers up over 300 minutes of information including 100 songs that you can listen to while surrounded by artifacts of the time.  It is a total music immersion program not to be missed.

Sun Records, located just outside of the downtown, is easily accessible via the tram and a short walk to the historic building. Like the STAX museum, I think you get a better appreciation for the history and the environment that produced the music when you walk the streets around it.

The lobby of Sun Studio looks like a '50s diner.

What is great and unique about Sun Records is that you get a personal tour led by a local musician.  Sun Records, an American independent record label was founded in Memphis in 1952, by Sam Phillips and financed by Jim Bulliet.  It was here that Phillips discovered and first recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Phillips loved the music of African-Americans and wanted to bring that genre to a mass audience, which changed the world of music, but meant Sun Records struggled to be viable. 

The museum is full of artifacts and your tour guide has amazing stories to tell.  But the highlight of the tour is to stand on in the recording studio where Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and Johnny belted out your favourite songs. The building just oozes history - I am sure I heard Roy singing.

The modest entrance to Sun Studio.

One of  the many artifacts from the early days of Sun Studio.

The recording studio is still used today. It looks like a rec room from the '50s. It is hard to imagine that this is place where the legends of '50s and '60s music created their hits here.

Beale Street

Beale Street, truly one of North America’s iconic streets, is home to the International Blues Competition (IBC). The event utilizes 17 different venues along the street for the 250+ entries from around the world.  The street is hopping with music from noon to the wee hours of the morning. 

For me, the highlight of the Challenge were the midnight jams at the Daisy Theatre (every night various musicians from the competition and past winners put on an impromptu concert, the energy was electrifying).   There are certain art experiences that stand out in my life - seeing Baryshnikov dance from the front row of the Lincoln Centre (1984) and the Hermitage Show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1977) - and the IBC jams on Beale Street.

  Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

  The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

Clarksdale

No trip to Memphis for a blues lover is complete without a road trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi (90 minute drive), considered by some as “ground zero” for the blues. The entire city is a living museum complete with numerous historical plaques and a self-guided map. 

Clarksdale is home to the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 where legend has it iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.   You can also visit the McKinley Morganfield’s (aka Muddy Waters) cabin on Stovall Road. There are lots of tiny cabins still inhabited that serve as a reminder of the poverty that begat the blues.  

When in Clarksdale check out The Delta Blues Museum, WROX radio station on Main Street and all of the other historic sites around town, it will give you a whole new appreciation of how the blues was germinated.

Ground Zero Blues Club opened in 2001 in an old warehouse building with “manufactured authenticity” complements of an old couch and other bric-a-brac on the porch and the tradition of graffiti-like visitors writing of their names anywhere they can find space. names of people who have been there on the walls.  We arrived mid day (nothing was happening), but we did manage to get on stage and pretend we were performing.

In chatting with Holger Petersen (veteran CBC and CKUA blues broadcaster), after his talk about the history of the blues at NMC a few years back he told me Ground Zero was one of his favourite places to listen to the blues. You could easily spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Clarksdale, checking out the museum, eating dinner and listening to an act Ground Zero and maybe even book yourself a room at the Riverside Hotel, established in 1944, where the the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williams and Ike Turner had been guests.

It truly is a sacred place.

  Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Panels like these are located throughout the city, creating an informative self-guided walking tour. 

WROX radio
  Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the  Tennessee Williams historic district  of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Barry (another Mikey's groupie) and I on stage at Ground Zero Blues Club. 

Gospel Revelation

No trip to Memphis is complete without attending a Sunday morning Gospel Church service. While many trek to the well-publicized Al Green church service near Graceland, we were fortunate to notice during our wanderings that at the end of Beale Street is the First Baptist Church (built in 1880, it is believed to be the first brick-constructed, multi-story church built by African Americans).  We like authenticity so this seemed like the perfect choice.

So on Sunday morning, when many IBC revellers were still recovering from their Saturday night festivities, we headed to church.   Wanting to be respectful, we tried toquietly walk in and sit at the back, but that was not to be.  We were immediately welcomed like long lost family, hands were shaken, we were given a program, and by the end hugs were shared and we were part of “the family.”  I have never experienced a more friendly welcoming. 

At the beginning of the service, all-newcomers were welcomed by name and where they were visiting from.  We were asked to stand to be recognized and invited to say a few words. Then amateur singers and preachers started to perform building to a crescendo with a large female choir and professional passionate preacher that made both your body and soul shiver. I don’t think I have ever heard so many AMENs in my life. 

Initially planning to only stay for 30 minutes or so, we were mesmerized we stayed for the entire two-hour service.  We were even invited to join them for lunch afterwards.  It was a magical experience. Amen!

insidechurch

Sleeping Around In Memphis

By Richard White, March 3, 2014

One of the things we do when visiting a new city is to identify and stay at two or more hotels in the city centre so we can better appreciate the unique character of different districts.  Sometimes it can be quite amazing how contrasting a city can be depending on where you stay. This was never truer than our recent trip to Memphis where we chose the Peabody Hotel in the heart of the city centre and the River Inn of Harbor Town on its edge.

Peabody Hotel: The Downtown Mansion

The historic Peabody is best known for its ducks that spend the day in the hotel’s lobby fountain and the night on their rooftop patio.  The ducks draw huge crowds (young and old) twice a day as they “march” to and from the elevator. The duck parade dates back to the 1930s when then General Manager, Frank Shutt returned from a weekend hunting trip and thought it would be fun to leave three live English Call Duck decoys in the lobby’s fountain.  The guests loved it and now it has become legendary.  Lean more.

  The famous Peabody ducks parading from the fountain to the elevator where they will spend the night in their penthouse suite.  Talk about fun, funky and quirky; this is one of the quirkiest attractions we have seen. (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

The famous Peabody ducks parading from the fountain to the elevator where they will spend the night in their penthouse suite.  Talk about fun, funky and quirky; this is one of the quirkiest attractions we have seen. (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

The Peabody's rooftop patio is a great place for summer concerts and events. (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

The lobby of the Peabody has many historical collages; this one continues the duck story to its logical conclusion and also adds to the sense of fun. 

What we found most intriguing about the Peabody is that it is more than a hotel; it is like a mansion in the middle of downtown.  The lobby is the living room where people meet, lounge and enjoy a little food and drink as if they were at home - at least that was our experience.  It was January and cold so maybe the lobby buzz was a little magnified, but you definitely get the sense the Peabody’s lobby is like a big living room complete with comfy couches and chairs.  The hotel has several “dining rooms” (aka restaurants), a rooftop “patio” (aka back yard) and hundreds of “bedrooms” (aka guest rooms) just like a huge mansion. 

The Peabody's lobby bar is a great place to sit and watch the world go by. 

The Peabody’s lobby is also home to four Lansky Brothers (better known as Lansky’s) stores (aka closet) – women’s fashions, men’s fashions, souvenirs and women’s accessories.  It is best known as “the clothier to The King,” and yes you can get your own sequined shirt, even a whole outfit if you desire.  The Peabody lobby is simply the best place for shopping in downtown Memphis.

A quintessential Memphis experience is to cozy up in the lobby with friends and order a Jack Daniel’s. The Peabody actually goes to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg TN to personally select barrels of whiskey for the hotel’s Peabody Select.  A whole section of the lobby bar’s menu is dedicated to Jack Daniel’s.

The guest rooms have the same comfort and charm but with wonderful views of the city and Mississippi River.  Our junior suite had a comfy chair with good light for reading (always a bonus) and a desk for writing (much appreciated); the bathroom was spacious and included a bathtub, which, unfortunately for bath lovers, seems to be getting rarer.

But the best thing about our room were the reading lights on the bed’s headboard. We didn’t find them until the last night, as they are so sleek and subtle we mistook them for mere decoration.  A simple chrome rectangle about 8” long and 2”wide that pops out to become a light you can direct to exactly where you need it.  Ingenious. We want two for our home. 

This photo of our room shows the headboard lights, which as you can see can easily be missed given there are lamps on the bedside tables (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

River Inn: The Downtown Cottage

If the Peabody is Memphis’ downtown mansion, then the River Inn is its cottage.  Located on Mud Island, it is a short cab ride, a pleasant 20-minute walk or a 5-minute walk, then a 5-minute streetcar ride to Beale Street.  The River Inn is the gateway to Harbor Town, a master-planned community that looks and feels more like a cottage town than an urban village. While most North American cities have been creating high-rise urban villages in their city centers, Memphis has created an upscale cottage town on the 132-acre sandbar called Mud Island.  Rumour has it that it is home to several players and coaches of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team.

The River Inn is a quaint 28-rooom boutique hotel that also includes one of Tennessee’s top fine dining restaurants (Paulette’s) and the Terrace, a rooftop bar and “small plates” restaurant.  The Inn also serves as the gateway to Harbor Town’s high street with its pub, restaurants, shops, café and Miss Cordelia’s, a quaint, but well stocked urban grocery. The little Café Eclectic is a hidden gem where you can hang out with the local arts community (the staff are all musicians) and sip on your favourite hot beverage and some great food – love the soups.

The charming River Inn welcomes you as you enter Harbour Town on Mud Island. 

The view from our room of the mighty Mississippi and the bridge to West Memphis in Arkansas. 

The breakfasts in Paulette's were always a highlight of our day.  Brenda loved the blueberry pancakes with Tennessee bacon.  The fresh squeezed Orange Juice was the best we've ever had.  We alway took the muffins for later.  Paulette's serves up a ginger crusted Scottish Salmon and the Roquefort Scallop Potatoes are yummy.  The K-Pie for dessert is big, bold and beautiful.  

The cozy lobby fireplace is a great spot to relax, read a newspaper or magazine. It is just like home.

The River Inn has the “best little lobby on the Mississippi.”  As well as being the entrance to Paulette’s, a grand piano takes center stage in the fireplace-equipped sitting area and the cozy “Little Bar” tucked away to the side. One night when we came home, a symphony of sounds greeted us - chatter from Paulette’s, soft music from the piano player and laughter echoing from the Little Bar’s (yes, it is little, really no more than a hallway from the lobby to Paulette’s)- eight seats.

The staff at the River Inn is, in a word - awesome. When we had a problem with a reservation at another hotel (I told you we like to sleep around), they said “leave it with us go have your breakfast” and while we were enjoying breakfast, they returned saying they were able to accommodate us in our room for the remainder of our stay.  Quickly, quietly and professionally our problem was solved. We were delighted to stay an extra two nights!

There was always a friendly smile at the front desk to greet us when we came home (and, it did feel like home), even at 2 am after coming back from the midnight jam at the International Blues Challenge on Beale Street. 

You could easily stay a weekend at the River Inn in Harbor Town and never leave Mud Island. The hearty breakfasts alone are worth staying there, but add in fine dining at Paulette’s, a happy hour cocktail at the Little Bar, an evening on the Terrace and a walk or jog along the mighty Mississippi or in the town site and you have the makings of a wonderful getaway.  The River Inn is a unique urban experience. 

  The little Cafe Eclectic is just a block from the River Inn. 

The little Cafe Eclectic is just a block from the River Inn. 

Harbor Town is a wonderful place to stroll with lots of ponds and trails like this one.  There is a sense of peace and tranquility about the place. 

Last Word

Sleeping around – whether in Memphis or elsewhere – does have its benefits.  We would never have discovered Memphis’ Harbor Town if we hadn’t stayed at the River Inn. It changed our perception of Memphis as a place to visit in a really good way.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtowns need to be fun 

Streetwalking in Portland 

Cruising in Chicago

FFQing in Tri-Cities Washington