The Curmdgeon: Memphis' Music Museums

Music Features Memphis
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Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. Ever since, huge crowds have traveled to Memphis to mark the anniversary. Local tourism promoters call it “Elvis Week”; nearly everyone else calls it “Death Week,” and this year the dates are August 10-17. There are Elvis impersonator concerts, “Kid Karaoke,” field trips to Presley’s birthplace and high school, movie screenings, Q&A sessions with people who worked with Presley and the candlelight vigil from the Graceland gate.

But any week of the year is a good week to visit Memphis if you’re a music lover, because this town on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River offers better connections to the musical past than any other American city—better than Cleveland, Seattle, Nashville, New York, New Orleans or San Francisco. Believe me; I’ve been to them all.

Why do those of us who love music travel so far to explore its past? Why do we go to the trouble of airplane tickets, interstate driving and motel reservations when we can see almost any image, hear almost any song and read almost any text with a few clicks on the internet?

Because a true love of music is not a virtual experience; it’s a physical experience. If you’ve ever squished in near the stage sardine-style, if you’ve ever danced to a live band in a sweaty hole-in-the-wall, if you’ve ever lost your virginity while your favorite record was playing, a .jpeg file or .mp3 file on a website is not going to deepen your experience. What’s going to deepen your experience is to stand in the places where your favorite musicians lived and worked, to be in the same room with their instruments and clothes.

In 2008, when I visited Memphis’s Sun Studio where Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins made their earliest and most important recordings, I ran into a 28-year-old woman named Rachel Krampfner. I asked her why she had come all the way from the West Coast to visit the home and studio of a man who had died before she was born.

“I do this thing in my head,” she answered, “to make myself think, ‘This is where he stood. He touched this mic.’ That makes it so cool. I wouldn’t care so much if it were Britney Spears’ mic, but here something happened that had never been done before. I felt the same thing when I visited Liverpool. I’d always liked Elvis, but now I want to go home and put his pictures on my bedroom walls.

“In Seattle, where I live, we have the Experience Music Project, which has a lot of videos and multi-media. But, you know, I can see videos at home. When I go to a music museum, I want to see 50,000 jumpsuits. I want to have my picture taken with Elvis’s mic.”

Any music museum—any kind of museum, really—that thinks it’s going to it’s going to pull in the kids with a lot of touch screens and film clips is making a tragic mistake. You don’t compete with the internet by offering what can be found on any computer, only with less choice. You compete by providing what cyberspace can never deliver: one-of-a-kind artifacts with a physical connection to the people and the moments we’re interested in.

This became crystal clear that same afternoon at Sun Studio. The climax of the guided tour is the surprisingly small room where the famous recordings were actually made. A black-and-white photo on the wall showed Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins gathered around the piano in that very room, with the wall of white, perforated acoustic tiles behind them. If you glanced to the side of the photo, those same tiles were still there. You can’t love this music and not go “whoa!” at a moment like that.

Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” was playing over the speakers as I looked at the photo, then the room, the photo, then the room. Standing next to me was Nicola Roussin, a tattoo artist from France, who also kept swiveling his head as if following a tennis match. He struggled with his English to explain how much the moment meant.

“I hear that song many times at home,” said the short, skinny man with the trademarks of his profession on his arms, “and it’s a fun song, woo-woo. But the song was made here. You hear it and see the photo and the floor and the walls; it’s a very special experience. I’m almost in the room with them.”

Like so many music tourists who come to Memphis, Mr. Roussin wasn’t satisfied with just Sun Studio. He also made trips to Graceland, to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and to Beale Street. If he had wanted, he could have added the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Southern Folklore Center, Gibson Guitar, W.C. Handy’s home and Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. Any one of those is a worthy destination for the true hardcore music fan, but one of them is the locomotive that pulls the rest of the train behind it.

“Let’s face it,” John Doyle, the executive director of the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, told me in 2008, “Graceland is the mother ship. Even as we’re speaking, Japanese are getting on airplanes to come to Memphis to see Graceland. They’re coming here for a music experience, and we hope they’ll see the other attractions while they’re here. But Graceland is the main attraction, and it will still be pulling people in long after the rest of us are gone.”

Something more than nostalgia is driving this phenomenon. Presley didn’t create rock ’n’ roll, but through his charisma and talent he became its inevitable personification. Many people need to put a single face on a historical moment; thus King became the face of the Civil Rights Movement and Presley became the face of rock ’n’ roll. It doesn’t matter that hundreds of other people made crucial contributions to each historical moment, nor does it matter that each man is far more complicated and contradictory than his myth would have it.

Nor have the crowds been dwindling as the baby-boomers age out; they’re being replaced by their own children. Even if you were born after the deaths of Mr. Presley and Dr. King, rock ’n’ roll and the Civil Rights movement might still resonate in your life; you might identify those upheavals with these two individuals, and you might want to visit the rooms they inhabited: Sun Studio, Graceland or the Lorraine Motel—the site of King’s assassination and now the core of the National Civil Rights Museum, also in Memphis. A terrific museum, it also has a strong musical connection through the anthems of the Civil Rights movement.

People travel to Memphis for the same reason they distill a complex historical upheaval to one person—to make the abstract physical, to make the impersonal personal. When you stand before the actual 1955 pink Cadillac that Mr. Presley bought for his mother, the gleaming manifestation of all his early success, the car that inspired songs by Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin, there’s a connection that no DVD or computer file can match.

“Compared to the White House or the Biltmore,” argued Graceland’s director of public relations, Kevin Kern, in 2008, “you really feel like you’re in a house when you visit Graceland. The same door Elvis carried Priscilla through after they got married is still here. The same TV they watched and the same sofas they watched it from are still here.”

It’s the physical artifacts that matter, and Memphis has them. Graceland may not have 50,000 jumpsuits, but it has dozens plus the costumes he wore in his movies and the U.S. army uniform he wore in Germany. Sun Studios has the amplifier filled up with crumpled newspapers that made possible the distorted guitar sound on Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” arguably the first rock ’n’ roll record. The Rock ’n’ Soul Museum has the brown upright piano on which Ike Turner wrote 1951’s “Rocket 88”—and it has an innovative audio guide that allows you to punch a number and hear the song while contemplating the piano.

Like Sun Studios, the Stax Museum has preserved the room where many historic recordings were made. Stax Records set up shop in the abandoned Capitol movie theater in 1960. They tore out the seats and hung sound dampening curtains, but the sloping floor remained, and you still stand on that slope today. In each corner of the room where organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn once accompanied Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers, their positions are marked by their actual instruments. Nearby is the bathroom where Isaac Hayes shouted at his songwriter partner to hurry up, and David Porter shouted back, “Hold on, I’m coming,” thus supplying the title to one of Sam & Dave’s biggest hits.

“This is the biggest music shrine in the world,” said Slim Wallace, a Sun Studios tour guide. “You go anywhere in the world and people know Memphis is the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. I’ve seen grown men walk through these doors, fall on their knees and cry, saying they’d been waiting all their lives to come here.”