VISITING MEMPHIS!

Traveling to Memphis!

This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee.   Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history!  While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe.  I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful.   If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.

 

MUST DO’s while in Memphis.

National Civil Rights Museum  450 Mulberry St  Memphis, TN 38103  http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/

In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit.  Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country.  Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.

Civil Rights MuseumIMG_0186

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL  www.staxmuseum.com

Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could.  From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned.  Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists.  It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between!  You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists.  The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor!  The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music.  Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that.  This museum is worth the short trip from downtown.  Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.

IMG_0250 Stax Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEALE STREET

Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip.   This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”.  W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale.  There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint!  He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!

EATING ON BEALE

Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN  (901) 526-3637  http://www.bluescitycafe.com/

The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe.  Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best.  Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love?  I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!

 

Blues City Dr. Feelgood Potts

 

The Rock N’ Soul Museum

Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)

This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good.  They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church.  They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA!  If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up!  It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.

 

WDIA  Ike Turner's Piano

 

Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum.  Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.

There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others.   Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service.  Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that.  Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made.   So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records.  The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it.  During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left.  However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.

Cotton Museum   Al Green's Church

 

Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis 

Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,

The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)

West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)

Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org.  Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened!  There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale.    If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale.  Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY.   There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here.  So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you.  Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river.  So see them while you can!

Happy travels!

 

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Merry Clayton: The Voice Behind the Hits

Merry Clayton

Late one night in 1969 singer Merry Clayton was just falling asleep when she received a call from record producer Jack Nitzsch.  Jack was in the middle of a late night studio session and was desperately looking for a female vocalist to add backing vocals on a track called “Gimmie Shelter”.  Very pregnant and not really in the mood to leave her warm bed, Merry listened while Jack tried to convince her that doing this session with a band called “The Rolling Stones” would be a great career move.  Merry finally agreed to do the session.  It didn’t matter that she’d never heard of the band and wasn’t familiar with their music,  Merry was a seasoned pro. This was just another session gig.  She went to the studio and nailed the track in three quick takes. Then, as quickly as she came in to the studio, she was out the door and gone in the night.  The song became a huge hit and has since become a staple of the Stone’s live show.  Even though it was her singing that took the song to the next level Merry couldn’t bring herself to listen to the track for many years. After her session with the Stones she had miscarriage and lost her baby.  It has been speculated that her vigorous singing on “Gimmie Shelter” contributed to the miscarriage.

Ever since her early performances in the Churches of New Orleans Merry has turned heads with her larger then life voice.  Her professional career started when she backed up Bobby Darin on some of his early recordings.  Form there it wasn’t long before she was selected to be a “Raelette” and sing backup for one of her main influences, Mr. Ray Charles.  Little did she know that singing backup for Ray was just the beginning.  In later years Merry would go on to sing backup for artists such as Joe Cocker, Neil Young, Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd and of course, The Rolling Stones.  Usually the most talented vocalist at whatever session she was working on, Merry signed with Lou Alder’s Ode Record label in the late 60’s. Working with music industry legend Lou Alder, Merry began what many thought would be a successful a solo career.  Unfortunately, her records didn’t sell and most of her solo recordings remain unknown and forgotten about by the general public. That is, until now…

Hopefully 2013 is the year the world will finally know Merry Clayton.  She is the subject of an excellent new documentary called 20 Feet From Stardom that follows the lives of some very talented backup singers.   In conjunction with the release 20 Feet From Stardom Sony/Ode Records has release a collection of Merry’s solo recordings called The Best Of Merry Clayton.  This collection covers most of Merry’s solo career and features soulful renditions of some popular classic rock songs.  One only needs to listen to a few minutes of Merry’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” (the album’s opening track) to know that listening to Merry sing is a religious experience.   Very different then the original version, Merry screams and shouts her way through 3 minutes of soulful-funk!  The song takes on a whole new life when Merry screams “…I heard screamin’, bullwhips crackin’, how long is it gonna last?”.   Other great tracks on this album are her versions of Bill Withers “Grandma’s Hands”,  James Taylor’s”Country Road”, and of course the Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” (her first Ode Records release).  In 17 great tracks you get to hear the voice that helped many artists take their songs to the next level.  Here’s hoping that someday soon Merry will reach the high level of stardom that she so rightly deserves.

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