In the Dust #21: New Orleans, I’ll Be There – The Wandering Travelogue of Two Blues-obsessed Inebriates – Part II – Making Memphis
See Also: Part I
After spending most of our first day on the road, we stay put for a day, climbing out from underneath the residual haze of heavy Beale Street carousing, and take in Memphis, one piece of holy ground at a time.
10:30 AM: Wake up, goddamn it, and feel good. It’s 68°. Hot coffee is downstairs. There is no time to feel like this. Memphis is outside.
I slug down some coffee, grab a couple bananas from the hotel breakfast bar and we take to the truck, eyes deeply set behind gas station sunglasses.
11:45 AM: Sun fucking Records. Originally known as Memphis Recording Service. We walk up to the original storefront, nothing more than a receiving room, studio, and control room, now connected to a modernish annex into which enter. It’s a rockabilly café/gift shop, complete with embroidered, diner-style bar stools bearing names like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and a number of other Sun legends.
We order black coffee, of course, and peruse the overwhelming amount of photographs, documents, and general memorabilia on the walls. The woman behind the counter complains of being short-staffed and how, if some of us tourists lived ‘round here, we might be in for a job. Don’t tempt me, I think as I look over Elvis’s paystub, Howlin’ Wolf 45s, vintage consoles and boards, on which Sam Perkins, Sun founder, cut some of the greatest rock-and-roll music ever heard, nearly floating and desperately trying to rationalize trading in every morsel of my old life for a shot slinging Sun shirts and Moon Pies in Memphis.
12:30 AM: The Tour. A so-goddamn-perky tour guide collects us and takes us upstairs and guides us through an impressive collection of more memorabilia and hardware: recording consoles, record presses and mobile plate etchers, Elvis’s guitar (THE guitar, with the leather sheath stamped with his name, you know the one), a 45 of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston (widely regarded as the first rock-and-roll song ever), Elvis’s Social Security card, draft documents, other assorted gear.
It’s cool, but honestly, nobody is that interested, only because we all know what comes next: the studio. We head downstairs, past more photos of Sam Phillips and the boys, and around the corner to the receiving room, where Marion Keisker, assistant to Sam Phillips at Sun Records and the first person to ever record Elvis Presley worked. Then, into the live room.
There is a strange air in the room, stranger still with each moment one spends in it. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The sides of your stomach contract, pulling your torso into a tight ball.
Holy shit, this is where rock-and-roll happened.
The room is lined with guitars, amps, pianos, organs, drums, microphones and other gear of random provenance, some new, some gifts, some authentic and unmoved.
The floor is still marked with X’s, used for positioning around a central microphone. These X’s are where Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, among many other artists, once stood to record songs like “Cry, Cry, Cry”, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hey Porter”. Near one X sits an original vocal mic from the earliest days of Sun Studios, ours for mugging with and photo-opting and general ooh-ing and ahh-ing. We all take turns.
And just like that it’s over. It’s time to go. Our tour guide spritely and politely asks for tips, and we exit, through the gift shop, of course, leaving behind one of the most important musical landmarks in Memphis, and the world.
From there, it’s straight to Soulsville, USA.
On our way, we pass a billboard for the law firm of Johnnie Cochran. His giant face looks pensively upon the horizon, as he apparently fights denial of disability claims from beyond the grave.
2:35 PM: Stax Museum, site of Stax Records. Unlike Sun Records, Stax is not authentic. Poorly preserved, it fell into such disrepair after closing that in the Eighties it was bought at auction for $10. No, I did not forget several zeros. Ten dollars American.
Now, the marquee and front façade are artfully reconstructed to the exact specifications of the glory days. The only difference: nothing inside is the same. We walk into a very museum-like lobby, polished, with fancy, high-tech signage and a gift shop. Not very Stax, but it is what it is.
Spoiled from Sun, or just expecting more, I admittedly do not have the highest hopes.
We take the tour. It begins with a stellar, albeit, totally unfocused intro video that puts Stax in an incredibly expansive social context. From there, we proceed to the exhibits.
We wind down a long series of hallways covered in various paraphernalia and long, detailed text blocks regarding The Memphis Horns, Otis Redding, Rufus & Carla Thomas, and others. Eventually we reach the replicated control and live rooms, complete with slanted floor (as Stax was originally a movie theatre and Jerry Wexler found leveling it too expensive), in which Booker T. & The MG’s gear is featured. Then, Isaac Hayes’ batshit crazy, funkadelic Cadillac, along with several velvet paintings of him, the most prominent being a depiction of Hayes’ choking a bald woman with a length of chain. He’s a bad mother…
We wind our way through more text and paraphernalia- 45s, trap cases, etc., and exit, of course, through the gift shop.
Next stop, the King’s castle.
3:28 PM- Graceland. We pull up and the first thing I see is two enormous airplanes, both with tails emblazoned “TCB”, a single lightning bolt descending beneath the “C”. We later learn that this stands for “takin’ care of business in a flash”, Elvis’s personal motto for most of the 70’s.
We park the truck in an absolutely massive parking lot across the street from the mansion, gabbing to each other about the sheer expanse of the grounds, the rigmarole and ritual of the whole thing, and the innumerable busloads of Asian tourists. For several minutes, it seems every other word is “pilgrimage”.
And this is just the parking lot. The line for the shuttle is exponential by comparison. Dense crowds of tourists, Asian and otherwise, labyrinthine souvenir and refreshment complexes, and a Disney-style line that seems to recycle and replenish every few minutes. This is a money machine.
We reach the front of the line, have our picture snapped in front of a fake Graceland, a part of the process I don’t understand as we will be in front of the genuine article in t-minus 2 minutes, and board the bus, self-guided audio tours a-rollin’.
Our bus driver welcomes us to “Graithsland”, his lisp supplying welcome human charm to the surreal experience, as he ushers us across the street, through the musical-note-and-Elvis-silhouette embellished gates and up the serpentine front drive to the house.
The house is much smaller than one would imagine, but in size only. While modest from the outside, it is bursting over with kitsch awfulness from one of America’s gaudiest decades: the 70’s. Strange pattern after strange pattern and even stranger fabrics and exercises in pseudo-futurist modernism abound, from an almost completely mirrored dining room to a jungle-themed leisure room (waterfall and all). No one is allowed to go upstairs, but the main floor is enough. From there, we venture to his father’s office, the shooting range, the racquetball court (which has been converted into a silver-and-glitterbomb shrine to the King) and on to the pool and, finally, the cemetery, where Elvis, his parents, and his stillborn twin, Jessie, are buried.
Afterwards, we tour his planes (comparably wacky), his car collection, have a beer at his café and, of course, exit through the gift shop.
It’s about now that our big day out and our big night out are adding up. We take a rest back at the hotel in preparation for an evening of thorough cheeseburgering, 40-ounce-drinking, jazz-sponging, and death-defying revelry.
9:20 PM- Wild Bill’s. We read about Wild Bill’s in the truck on our way down. It’s the place. A true local joint with good jazz, great blues, and better burgers, not to mention they only serve beer, and only 40 ounces, two plastic cups tossed over the open mouth.
It’s outside the downtown area, so we take a little drive. As we pull up, we quickly ask ourselves if this is, perhaps, too local. Completely outlandish hoopties skrrrt in and out and against the front facade some flat-out mean-looking motherfuckers smoke cloves on the lean above other equally mean-looking motherfuckers rolling dice. We sit for a while in the truck, analyzing Yelp review after Yelp review from fresh-faced 21-year-old girls who couldn’t possibly have actually dared enter, could they?
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” my Dad says, the subtext of which I deduce to be “I hope I don’t regret this” and exits the truck. I let out a sigh of relief to know that we’ve ixnayed a potentially racist cop-out, but also in reaction to what, no matter who’s who, appears to be the very real possibility of not just a tense and anxious future, but serious fucking trouble.
We walk into an empty bar, literally, save the staff and band, both already cooking, and doing it well. We order two cheeseburgers, two 40’s of Bud and chow, stuffing down and drowning all preconceived notions and latent concern with a nearly perfect burger and the king of beers.
Gale, the unceasingly sweet hostess/waitress/cashier/pretty much only person working there asks us how everything is. We tell her it’s great, because it is. She asks us what we’re doing here, as she sits down and we proceed to swap tales and belly laughs over Bud after Bud and the great blues-funk fusion of the Intermission jazz band.
Our sense of time and vision both expertly altered, and feeling not just in love with Gale and Wild Bill’s but completely invincible, at home in our city, we weave our way through town back to Beale for some good old Big Ass Beers, hearty hollering and infectious, melodious Memphis music to round out our last night in “the home of the blues”, “the birthplace of rock and roll”.
Written by Ben Brundage
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In the Dust #21: New Orleans, I’ll Be There – The Wandering Travelogue of Two Blues-obsessed Inebriates – Part I – South to Memphis
I don’t know how it started. It just did. After many trips home, and many beers with our feet on the brass at MacNiven’s, my Dad must’ve grown tired of hearing me harp on about Louis Armstrong, that Dixie sound, W.C. Handy, the residents of Dockery Plantation, Charlie Patton and his party tricks. I must’ve grown tired of his waxing poetic about the almost viral charm of the Crescent City, how the streets lead to the place you’re meant to be, and how, if you’re not back in three weeks, you must trust someone to bring you back, likely against your will and what the scent of crawfish and pastis has made of your “better judgment”.
So, somehow, it congealed. We would put our money where our mouths are. We would go to New Orleans and we would go the hard way: drinking ourselves down the blues highway, Highway 61, subsisting on glove box power bars, gas station coffee, and the best damn barbecue we could find.
For me, it started on a Tuesday. I had a show the night before with my band, Woodrow Hart & The Haymaker (shameless plug). Things went late. What follows are my notes from beginning to end, scribbled in haste during rare moments of rest and transcribed verbatim, along with my attempt to recount and reconstruct, as I now type, fragment by fragment the many less-than-clear, half-remembered moments that fill the gaps in a narrative of what I will recall to friends for many years as a life-changing week.
7 AM: Wake up. 2 hrs sleep. I pack up and get coffee. “Yesterday came late. Today came early,” she says and hands me my joe. Yes. Yes, it did. I drive to Indianapolis with a jug of coffee and the Hooker box locked and loaded.
11:45 AM: Indy – Pep talk with my Dad over yet more coffee (we are both hopelessly addicted). We discuss voodoo, topography, cotton fields, the French Quarter, survival, and a general overview of our trip: Memphis, Clarksdale, Dockery Plantation, Tutwiler, Holly Ridge Cemetery, Vicksburg, New Orleans. We pack the truck.
12:07 PM: We set off for Memphis. Jazz Is Dead on the stereo.
1:25 PM: We stop at a Putnamville truckers’ hub for food, gas etc. A nice young girl has the Subway Sandwich Artist make her what she insists is a healthy sandwich. She is on a diet. It is a grilled chicken, on which the sandwich artist, at the girl’s behest, nearly empties an entire bottle of ranch. I peruse the DVDs.
4:50 PM: First crossing of the Mississippi River. It is muddy, wide, and commanding. There is a single barge floating slowly with the current. This is truly beautiful.
7:01 PM: Memphis. Passing once again over the Mississippi, gleaming in the sunlight, we enter. Trolley cars, horse-drawn carriages ala Cinderella, streetlamps, it is an old city made new.
7:23 PM: We check into our hotel and journey in search of barbecue.
7:45 PM: Good God, do we find it! Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous. We walk down a darkened alley, the air thick with rub and smoke, and enter through the front door, about half a block from any notion of a street. The place is like a southern fried beer hall, all pine and long communal tables, conducive to the kind of drunken feast two starving, road-weary travelers most desire. We order and are quickly served two pitchers, one each, of Ghost River Golden Ale when we hear a commotion. Naturally, we explore. On the other side of a red gingham divider, an Elvis impersonator writhes desperately on the floor, singing a heartfelt but stomach-turning “Heartbreak Hotel”. Over the loudspeaker the hostess calls, “the Acuff party”. We are in Memphis.
Finally, after two more pitchers and innumerable attempts to escape “Elvis” we are seated. A menu at the table reads, “Not since Adam has a rib been this famous.” We each order a full rack and do not speak until it is gone, beans, coleslaw, cornbread and all. It is unanimously declared the best barbecue of our lives. We lean back in our seats, sip the dregs of two more pitchers and decide, against the best wishes of our truck-mangled bodies, that we, with our 3-pitcher-and-full-rack distended guts, are ready for Beale Street.
It is at this point that, for a number reasons, I cease to recognize or record the time for the remainder of the evening, so for the sake of continuity, let’s just call it-
NIGHT: On our way, we stumble on the Peabody Hotel, famous for its peculiar guests: a family of ducks that lives on the roof and commutes, every morning, to a perpetually flowing pond in the hotel’s beautiful, heavily wooded and ornately carved central lobby. We don’t see the ducks. The lobby pianist plays, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It is already the third time since arriving in Memphis that we have heard this song.
We leave, walk further down the street and turn the corner onto a sea of neon. It is Beale Street. We wander past a bronze statue of W.C. Handy numerous signs claiming Beale Street, and Memphis, as “the home of the blues and birthplace of rock and roll.” This, of course, is not fact, but also neither here nor there. We grab two “Beale Street Big Ass Beers” and continue walking, peeking into club after of club of loud, passionate blues, country, and rock music. It is a Tuesday night and the entire place is alive, pulsating with the bump of bass drums and practically flooding the grates with beer, bourbon, and fruity mixed concoctions we will begin to see much more of, but wisely avoid.
We duck into W.C. Handy’s Blues Hall Juke Joint for The Bluesbreakers, whom we agreed was the most promising on the block. They did not disappoint, whipping the crowd into an almost immediate frenzy. Borrowing their name from John Mayall, the band paid tribute to tradition, reverently and selectively. “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Stand By Me”, “Green Onions”, and again, “Dock of the Bay”. At intermission, thoroughly cocked on “Big Ass Beers”, we take the opportunity to look around. The bar is old, seemingly untouched. The only advertisement is for Red Bull, a drink most at home in a place as rowdy as this, where a crowd, as my Dad describes, like “a buncha buttons that fell off a coat and got together.” Mississippi John Hurt wafts down from the stereo, attempting to establish a restful air in the time between what was, and surely will be, a ruckus. We order more “Big Ass Beers”, my Dad tries to dance with some strange, trashy lady and is shot down, and the night fades to black as we look deeply into the PBR for the bottom of our massive plastic cups.
Written by Ben Brundage
**Look out for further detail of Ben’s adventure later this week.
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
Enough said, right? If you’re still reading at this point, let me say that this is not the bloated, bacon-banana-peanut-butter-fried-donut sandwich King that the name draws to mind. This is Elvis Aaron Presley, an aspiring young singer from Memphis, Tennessee, moonlighting as a truck driver just to keep his head above water.
Presley, at the age of 13, moved with his family to Memphis where he immediately immersed himself in the music scene, absorbing country, honky-tonk, western swing and, most notably, R&B and the blues. Throughout high school, Presley was berated and discouraged by music teachers claiming that he had no aptitude for music, but by the time Presley graduated he was determined to pursue a career in music regardless. With blind confidence, he scrapped up $3.98 and went to Sun Records to record two sides. This is the point in the story where, for other artists, one would say “and the rest was history,” but that’s not the case.
On July 18th, 1953, Presley recorded his first two sides, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, upon Presley’s arrival, asked him what he sang. He said “all kinds.” “I don’t sing like nobody,” he continued. After recording his sides, Keisker recorded his name on the acetate and added, “Good Ballad Singer. Hold.” Presley received one copy of the recording, which he gave to his mother, who, at the time, did not even own a record player.
Early the next year, on January 4th, 1954, Presley recorded two more sides, “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way,” and “It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You”. These, much like the first two sides, were flops. It appeared that no one was interested in Elvis Aaron Presley the ballad singer.
After several failed auditions as a vocalist for local bands, Presley told his father, “They told me I couldn’t sing,” echoing the words of his old teachers. It is then Presley got a job big-rigging at the Crown Electric Company. He continued to try out for other local groups but was rejected every time, bandleaders citing that Presley should stick to being a truck driver “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.”
Sam Phillips, Sun Records President, saw what he believed to be a hole in the market, but could not find the right man to fill it. Keisker remembers, “Over and over…Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips had acquired a copy of “Without You”, and he could not identify the vocalist. Keisker reminded Phillips of the young truck driver, the one from Memphis, the good ballad singer, and Phillips invited Presley back to Sun Records for a tryout of sorts.
On May 26th, 1954, Presley returned to Sun Records. In his audition, he failed to do the recording justice. Phillips asked Presley to run through a few other songs in his repertoire. Phillips was less than enthused, but Presley expressed a spirited interest in finding a back-up band and Phillips obliged. He contacted two Memphis, western swing musicians, Winfield “Scotty” Moore, guitar, and Bill Black, slap bass. It is at this point in the story where, for other artists, one would say “and the rest was history,” but that is again not the case.
Presley was set for another audition, one with Moore and Black, at Moore’s house. Again, like Phillips, Moore and Black were less than enthused, but Elvis expressed a spirited interest in a recording session with the two, and they obliged. The session was held on July 5th and lasted late into the night. With exception of what was then considered a mediocre country ballad, “I Love You Because,” the session was largely felt to be unsuccessful. That is until Moore and Black were packing to leave. Elvis struck into Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama,” and started “acting the fool”.
“All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.”
And the rest was history.
Phillips had found the sound he was looking for, and frantically began checking levels and taping. “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town,” Black remarked. Phillips did just that.
It premiered three days later on a local radio show to such a response that the DJ played it repeatedly for the last two hours of the show and later had Elvis himself in for an interview, in which he asked him to identify his high school so listeners could identify his color. Sun Records received over 6,000 advanced requests for the record, with a pop, 4/4, rock and roll version of slow waltz, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to be pressed as the b-side.
So began the career of Elvis Aaron Presley, some would say with an act of minstrelsy, others would say with pure dumb luck and raw, unrefined genius.
Presley recorded more than twenty songs between 1953 and late 1956 for Sun Records. Of them, 18 “Elvis Presley” sides survive, two are lost, and the rest are billed to The Million Dollar Quartet, of recent Broadway fame. Of the songs credited solely to Presley (with Moore and Black), several the author believes to be among the finest of his career. It is no surprise, when listening to these recordings, that so many have had such issue with Presley’s singing. It is unique, ahead of his time in many senses, and strangely contemporary in others.
“That’s All Right,” Presley’s first hit, a slippery, top-down, walking-bass country blues bears moments of clear attraction to a young Roy Orbison (later to record with Sun Records), Presley’s silky vibrato wafting above of the slap-clang pound of the bass and thin, lick-heavy guitar, which, when taking the two together, appear to inspire the unrestrained grunge-wop, western rock and roll of a “Maybelline” era Chuck Berry to-come. When taken as a whole, the effect is a sound reminiscent of Johnny Cash in his days with the Tennessee Two (also later to record with Sun Records). “That’s all right, mama,” Presley sings, foreshadowing his own breaking stardom, overarching influences and legions of followers and imitators, “I’m leavin’ town, baby / I’m leavin’ town for sure / Well, I didn’t want you to be a-bothered with me a-hangin’ ‘round your door / Well, that’s all right / Well, that’s all right now, mama,” the acetate a fitting gift for his mother, a gesture of reassurance that he will make it, and a prescient stiff-arm to those who come after, inviting them to play in his wake, because he’ll be watching from the top, shaking his head, knowing they can’t do it like the King.
In 1955, a young Buddy Holly saw Presley perform in Lubbock, Texas. This left a sizable impression on Holly, as he then began to incorporate the country, rockabilly for which much of his music with The Crickets is known. Chances are very good that Holly’s attention was most closely drawn by, “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine,” a song that sounds as if it could’ve been recorded by Holly himself and simply mislabeled as Presley. “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine” exhibits the archetypal, up-and-down slap-bass of the Sun Records sound, coupled with bright, cutting guitar chords, occasional finger-picking and well-bent, Holly-esque solos of classic rock and roll simplicity. Presley rarely visits his lower register, singing of love for his baby in a high, dizzying vibrato akin to Holly’s performance of “Modern Don Juan”, bridging the gap between Presley’s newfound fame as a young, pop sensation and his earlier ballad-driven sensibilities, ostensibly eliminating doubts of his ability to adapt “all kinds” of music for the current market, simply because he “don’t sound like nobody else,” yet.
The song previously felt to be mediocre and difficult to market, “I Love You Because,” shows a particular interesting side of the “good ballad singer”. Elvis adopts a languid, melancholy croon that would later be heard issuing over audiences at the Copa Cabana and all over Vegas, Atlantic City, and other destination hot spots from the microphone of Dean Martin. Presley’s delicate, sliding vocal line is complemented by the striking, metallic and swinging jazz-cum-reverberated rock fingerpicking of Moore. Presley, in a sense, lets it all hang out, expanding to fill the sonic space, and putting his own unusual styling so strongly in the forefront that when he warbles, “No matter what the world may say about me / I know your love will always see me through / I love you for the way you never doubt me / But most of all I love you because you’re you,” it is distinctly as if he is in conversation with himself, echoing the same blind confidence that he first took with him to Sun Records, refuting the opinion of countless music teachers and bandleaders and even Phillips himself, continuing that, “No matter what the style or season / I know you’re heart will always be true.”
Over the course of the Sun Recordings, Presley successfully tackles a multitude of genres from sentimental ballad, to western swing, to country and country blues, to rockabilly, to even bluegrass waltz and blues standards like “Milk Cow Blues”, reworked into the boogie-woogie “Milkcow Blues Boogie”. With each song we hear a different, but equally poised and unyielding Elvis, singing unlike no one else in his day. It is apparent that Elvis is still finding his voice, but he is in no hurry. He is making everything his own, and as he does so cycles through vocal performances that will inspire countless singers for decades. Many have claimed Buddy Holly to be the single most influential figure in rock and roll. Others have said Roy Orbison or Chuck Berry. Perhaps, those with that claim did not go back far enough.