There's something about living in Memphis that turns everyone into a tour guide. For a week's worth of evacuation, my boyfriend, his dog and I stayed with hosts in Memphis. Every drive we took together was soundtracked by a running commentary on Memphian points of interest, mostly musical: Elvis' high school, Willie Mitchell's studio, Alex Chilton's old apartment. A drive through downtown Memphis, which almost always looks creepily deserted, was accompanied by a brief history of the area's decline after the Civil Rights riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Awareness of Memphis' rich cultural history permeates everything in the Bluff City, from Graceland to Stax.
Memphis was home to some of the most influential labels, studios and personalities in American music from the "50s through the "70s, and for a city that in parts looks much bleaker than New Orleans, amazing work has been done to pay tribute to that. At the former Stax offices and studio on McLemore Avenue and College Street, the original structure has been rebuilt as a museum of soul music that houses everything from original contracts for artists like Otis Redding to vintage tape machines to Johnnie Taylor's platform loafers and Isaac Hayes' leisure suit.
While in Memphis, I worked on a project that included interviews with legendary session guitarist Teenie Hodges and trumpeter Ben Cauley, the only member of Redding's band to survive the 1967 plane crash that took Redding's life. (At the museum, it was odd to see the stocky 60-year-old on video from the early "70s, hot-stepping with the horn section in a leather vest.) Both artists work steadily in Memphis and make a great living. Most recently, Hodges played on indie-goddess Cat Power's 2008 release Jukebox. The museum lauds the two like the kings of the sound that they are.
Our hosts of the tour-guide mentality were hardly lifelong Memphians. They were Lakeview residents whose rental home was destroyed after Katrina, and although their awareness of the city's many stories was based on personal interest, it was buoyed by the obvious pride Memphis has in its own history. In the weirdly empty downtown, the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was shot, is now a stellar Civil Rights museum that does its part to heal the wound that emptied the neighborhood in the first place. Sam Phillips' and Willie Mitchell's studios still function and let tourists take a peek at history. The rebuilt Stax is a one-of-a-kind tribute to the history of American soul music, and Phillips' old Memphis Recording Service is pristinely preserved. Tourists not just music geeks, but regular folks with shorts and Nikons flock there and pump cash into the economy. The Recording Academy's southern base is in Memphis, a few blocks from the Lorraine. The Stax facility hosts a NOCCA-like music academy for kids, who learn the ropes alongside a monument to Memphis' musical history, absorbing what makes their city important.
It's hard not to compare Memphis' preservation efforts to New Orleans. Here, Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios where integrated bands recorded years before Booker T. and the MGs or the Memphis Horns busted the color line, and Fats Domino and Little Richard laid down tracks without which there would have been no Elvis is a laundromat. Jelly Roll Morton's house has a plaque but not much else.
Since Katrina, some stellar organizations have done fabulous work cleaning up the mess and taking care of the musical community that is so essential to New Orleans' identity and to our tourism draw. But we're still way behind the solidly branded home of the blues in terms of celebrating (and leveraging) our rich musical heritage. The tours we got from our evacu-hosts came from their being part of a city that celebrates awareness of and pride in its history pride that translates into real, brick-and-mortar institutions that in turn generate tourist dollars.
The next time I drive a visitor past Hollygrove, I'll mention former residents Allen Toussaint and Lil Wayne. If enough of us start to think like that, maybe in a few years all that energy could generate the will to create a New Orleans Museum of Rock "n' Roll, or a rhythm-and-blues museum. Then I can look at Ernie K-Doe's shoes behind glass.
- Alison Fensterstock
- Memphis continually celebrates its musical legacy.