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THE TRAVELING LIFE: Walking-and dancing and dreaming-in Memphis

September 29, 2008

In past columns, I have written about travel to far away places, but there are plenty of discoveries to be made and interesting sights to be seen in cities closer to home. Our recent four-day trip to Memphis is a case in point.

We made the obligatory stop at Graceland, where the tagline on all their brochures and ads says, "Where Elvis lives." Interesting, but we were more intrigued by Sun Studios, where the story really began.

That's where the 18-year-old Elvis showed up one day and was asked by Sam Phillips, the owner, what he wanted. Elvis said he wanted to audition. Phillips said he was very busy but asked Elvis who he sounded like. With sincerity, Elvis said, "I don't sound like nobody." Phillips, to his eternal credit, said he had time to listen to one song. Elvis sang "That's All Right" like nobody ever had, and the rest is history. The place looks as it did then, complete with the standing microphone that Elvis used.

We also toured Stax Records, where the blues, soul and gospel music came together to start a whole new sound. Their brochure says, "Nothing against the Louvre. But you can't dance to DaVinci." Sometimes I have nothing but admiration for copywriters.

The National Civil Rights Museum includes the balcony of the Loraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. The room where he and Reverend Abernathy stayed is the same as it was when he walked out the door that fateful day. The same two vintage cars that were parked in the lot below his motel door on that day are still there. When you visit a place so ingrained in your memory from television news and history books, the impact is profound.

But Memphis isn't just about the past. Beale Street, the nightlife hub, is much like New Orleans' Bourbon Street, but with a style and feel of its own. The threeblock pedestrian walk was crowded on the Friday and Saturday nights we were there. Katrina drank a mint julep from Pat O'Brien's as we strolled along Beale Street, just as she does while walking along Bourbon Street. There's shopping, too, including A. Schwab's Dry Goods Store, which was established in 1836 and has a sign boasting, "If you can't find it at Schwab's, you're better off without it."

In a town famous for its BBQ, we enjoyed the great ribs at the Rendezvous. Another lesser known restaurant, but also very good, was the Flying Fish, which specializes in Cajun food. We had dinner, listened to the blues and danced at Ground Zero, owned by Morgan Freeman, who lives a few miles south of Memphis in the Mississippi Delta, where the blues originated. We drove through the area along highway 61 on our way to the tiny town of Tunica, which has the third largest number of casinos, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

We danced at a free concert in W. C. Handy Park while Willie Nelson appeared at nearby AutoZone Park. There is music (and Elvis) everywhere in this city, including the airport. Appropriately, this is also the home of Gibson Guitar, also just off Beale.

On Saturday evening we had a cappuccino and peach cobbler at the Center for Southern Folklore and Cafe, a not-forprofit organization whose mission is to preserve southern folklore. Blind Mississippi Morris sang and played the harmonica and the guitar. He's an amazing talent.

There are oddities, too. The 32-story Pyramid Arena, which seats 21,000, is located on the banks of the Mississippi River and is the third largest pyramid in the world. It now sits empty as the city attempts to sell it. The scenic Memphis-Arkansas Bridge across the Mississippi is known by the locals as the Dolly Parton Bridge for a couple of obvious reasons. And at the historic Peabody Hotel, we saw the march of the fabled ducks from the elevator to the duck pool in the lobby.

To get around, we made frequent use of a trolley that runs along Main Street and through all the primary attractions of the greater downtown area for a buck a ride. In addition to being good, handy, cheap transportation, it provided an excellent opportunity to observe the locals.

On our last ride late Saturday night, we suspected that the trolley conductor had a bit too much to drink based upon his rowdy remarks and sudden jerky stops, as he transported the usual tourists, locals making their way home, and a couple of apparently down and out people, who were friendly and colorful. Perhaps they once had the potential for musical fame but were less lucky than Elvis.

Filled with interesting sights, sounds and people and permeated by the memories of both Elvis "The King" Presley and Martin Luther King, Memphis is about both dreams achieved and dreams shattered, dreams deferred and dreams still unclear. It's a fascinating city, well worth exploring.



Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there?s a fifth Monday in the month. The next one will appear Dec. 29. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.
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