Jim Mathis
10851 Mastin Suite 130
Overland Park, KS 66210

jim@MathisPhoto.net

Memphis, Tennessee Trip December 30, 2007 to January 3, 2008

Louise and I left Kansas City for Memphis Sunday, December 30, 2007. The intent was for a few days vacation, to get out of town and see some new things, but the trip turned out to be more of a pilgrimage.

We stopped in Mountain Grove, Missouri where my grandfather was born. Members of his family owned a wholesale grocery business, and it was there that he met my grandmother. We found the building and made a few photographs. It still says, “Mountain Grove Wholesale Grocery Co.” on the side of the building. It is still in use but is now a gun and pawn shop and payday loan business. The Mathis Furniture store that was next door is gone.

On New Year’s Eve 2007 we headed for Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. We were very impressed. It was not like we had heard. Graceland was built by a doctor in the 1920’s and bought by Elvis in 1957 when he was 22 years old. Graceland was the original name for the property. Elvis liked the name so he kept it. The decorations were a little over the top, but not unusual for the times. He redecorated a number of times over the years. The current version is pretty much how it was when he died in 1977. The seventies were an exuberant times and Graceland shows that style. If Graceland were dropped in the middle of Mission Hills or any of several neighborhoods in Johnson County, it would never be noticed.

We were particularly impressed by the trophy room which contained a long hall lined with gold and platinum records. It is estimated that Elvis has sold over one billion records, more than anyone else. We also saw his airplanes and cars. He had a 1958 passenger jet that he bought from Delta Airlines that was used mainly for touring and a Jestar business jet used by his agent, Colonel Parker.

The automobile museum was cool with Cadillacs, Stutz Blackhawks, Priscilla’s Mercedes, a Rolls, and several others. The only car that Elvis owned throughout most of his adult life was a pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood four-door sedan. He kept it because it was his mother’s favorite car. He called it “Gladys’s car” even though she didn’t drive.

We went to lunch at The Hard Rock Café, took a walk down Beale Street and headed down Union Ave to Sun Studio.

The Sun Studio was “Ground zero” for the birth of rock and roll. Sam Phillips started the “Memphis Recording Service” with a mission of recording the black blues artists he heard on Beale Street and the nearby Mississippi Delta area. He recorded Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and many others. Of course, Sun became famous for discovering and recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and others.

The Sun Studio was in a small rented building. The equipment was modest even for the time. Sam used a single-track Ampex tape recorder and a Shure Model 55 microphone for about everything, (The Model 55 was a good, solid, everyday microphone like the Shure SM-58 is today.) yet history was made and the face of music was changed forever. The lesson here is that it is people and their abilities that make a difference, not the equipment or special effects.

“Rocket 88” is considered the first rock and roll record ever recorded and it was recorded right there at 706 Union Ave. One of the band’s amps fell off the roof-rack of the car on the way up Hwy 61 from Clarksdale, Mississippi and the speaker broke. They stuffed newspapers in the back but it didn’t help much. Sam like the distorted sound and left it in. Rock guitarist have been trying to duplicate that sound ever since.

Other’s say that rock and roll was born when Elvis Presley recorded the blues song, “That’s All Right” with the flip side “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a country song. That marriage of blues and country had a baby called rock and roll.

We had dinner at a dumpy little local place called the “Catfish Cabin.” White people are a minority in Memphis and we were certainly the minority at the Catfish Cabin. We celebrated New Year’s Eve in our motel room.

On New Year’s Day, 2008, we went downtown to The Peabody to watch the parade of the ducks and have lunch. The tradition of the ducks began in the 1930’s when the manager brought some ducks in from a hunting trip and let them swim in the lobby fountain. These days, the ducks live in a penthouse suite and take the elevator down each day, following a red carpet to the fountain in the lobby. The penthouse suite is actually a big cage on the roof. We went up and took a look. They get new ducks every three months, so they don’t get too bored with the “suite” life.

I think it says a lot about Memphis when you realize that Danny Thomas Blvd and Rufus Thomas Ave are very close together. We’ve heard a lot more people talking about Rufus Thomas than Danny Thomas.

 

On Wednesday, January 2, we went to the Gibson guitar factory for a tour. Gibson has three guitar factories. Acoustic guitars are made in Bozeman, Montana; solid body electrics in Nashville; and semi-hollow bodies here in Memphis. The semi-hollow bodies include guitars like the legendary ES-335. A few solid body guitars are made here, mainly white Les Pauls and white double necks because this is where the white paint booth is. This was a very interesting tour. Gibson guitars are all made by hand in small batches. There are power tools like band saws, routers, and polishers, but they are still basically hand-made.

After the Gibson tour, we walked across the street to the Rock and Soul Museum. We spent several hours there studying all the exhibits, listening to historical recordings, and trying to fit our lives into the history of rock music and the civil rights movement. Music (along with sports) led the way for integration. Sam Phillips, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and all the people at Stax Records probably did as much to promote civil rights and bring about integration as anybody.

After lunch at Alfred’s on Beale Street, we headed to the Kappa Delta National Headquarters on the east side of town. Louise was there when the building was dedicated in 1993 so it was a wonderful visit.

After dinner we went downtown to have dinner and listen to some blues at B.B. King’s Blues Club. We heard a great band. The names I caught were Cory Osborn guitar and vocals, and a wonderful bass player who sat in on two sings – Big Daddy John Williams. The keyboards, drummer and regular bass player were also top notch.

On Thursday we headed home. I think we did Memphis pretty well for three days.