We did have a bit of a wait since we hit the Arcade at high brunch on a Saturday. Ned and Penn discovered a print shop next door that was devoted solely to sci-fi and fantasy. I discovered a bookstore that also sold some locally made jewelry and picked up earrings that perfectly matched my outfit. Yay! The Arcade has weathered the neighborhood’s ups and downs through the decades; it’s now in a resurgence, with old buildings boasting new storefronts and condos. The bookstore opened just three years ago.
We got a text (v 21st C, Arcade!) that our table was ready. While text-friendly, the Arcade still relies on box and ceiling fans to cool its interior. Our glasses sweated pools on the 50s formica table top. Perfect! We highly recommend the sweet potato pancakes, french toast, and southwestern pizza. Seriously, I ordered the last, and it was amazing!
The radio tower above is a nod to WDIA a Memphis radio station that became the first in the country to adopt a blues, jazz, and gospel format and to hire all black disc jockeys. The admixture of these formats would develop into soul. The chilling line in the description below, which may be hard to read in the photo, is that when the struggling WDIA switched format from easy listening, it achieved immediate commercial success, tempered only by the “requisite racist bomb threats.” Sigh. Soon, other stations were copying the station’s playlists. We learned later at the Rock and Soul museum that WDIA reached out to audience members with a series of “goodwill” bulletins that asked listeners to do everything from help find missing false teeth and cows to engage in community service projects. The station also had a teen service corps to promote high school success. It eventually established a Goodwill Fund to support community efforts. Another piece of history that we never knew.
The museum does a great job of showing how the collision of various musical genres produced soul music, and how STAX–both by vision and accident–wound up in the middle. It also doesn’t pull punches about how the lack of business savvy of the label’s founders and successors led to STAX’s downfall, which was exacerbated by growing racial tensions among employees following the assassination of Dr. King.
It’s fair to say the kids and I took far less time in this museum than Ned. They kept running reconnaissance missions back to find him and report in: “Dad hasn’t even made it to the studio.” “Dad still hasn’t gotten to Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac.” We were happy to move along as a trio, sit in the lobby, rest our feet, and groove to the Prince records playing loudly from the gift shop. No worries.
STAX even brings it in the restroom!
We exited through the gift shop and followed the mighty Mississipp’ back to Beale Street for a quick trip to the A. Schwab soda fountain and a midday break before the Gibson Factory.
The boys set off for the Gibson factory around the block, and then we got a sad text: “Tours sold out for the day.” Quickly followed by, “We’re in the factory store.” And, that’s where we found them.
Neither Harper nor I could convince him to buy anything, but they did play several in the store while we got to sit in big cushy chairs. Good enough.
The kids opted out of the Rock and Soul Museum to rest at the hotel, and I booked through it. While stocked full of artifacts, it really told a story I had already heard at STAX and anticipated hearing at Sun Studio. The highlight for me was listening to a recording of B.B. King describing Beale Street as a “community college” where he saw all the stars he had heard on the radio out on the street and everyone took time to teach him and never condescended to him. Yes! I replayed that clip three times. Love you, B.B.!
For a music history lover (aka Ned Davis) it was heaven. He was rolling slower than the Mississippi, so I left him to it.
After some time, the rest of us got a text that it was time to head to Sun Studio–our last music stop of the day.
But, when we walked in, Ned said, “Something’s up.” The energy in the room was not good, and we soon learned why. The last tour of the day was sold out. Perhaps it was the disappointment from the Gibson tour, but Ned was not hearing that. He turned on his charm and talked us into the tour; if that weren’t enough, the guide made sure our 11 year old “children” got the reduced rate. We love you, Sun!
The tour is really just the floor above the studio, which has been converted with exhibit cases, the studio itself and a small gift shop/cafe (featuring counter stools with the names of Sun artists, like Johnny Cash, above)–very small. As with Nashville’s RCA Studio B, though, the musical history here fills volumes and charts.
Remember when I said the conversion of the Chicsa Hotel would come back? Well, here it is. Memphis’s highly influential DJ Dewey Phillips operated out of the WHBQ studio located in the “Magazine” (aka mezzanine) of the Chicsa Hotel. The idiosyncratic Phillips played a wide mix of records on his show, literally breaking those he didn’t like on the floor on air. He loved Elvis, playing his first song over and over during a three hour show. When the Chicsa was converting into condos, the by-now dilapidated and unused studio was going to the trash heap until enterprising Sun Studio workers, including our tour guide, ran over and moved it piece by piece to Sun, reconstructing it as below, including a few broken records.
The cases on the second floor are crowded together and trace the history of Sun from an idea in the mind of Sam Phillips through the birth of rock and roll–so much of which seemed to be happenstance and accident. The first rock guitar distortion occurred because Ike Turner dropped his amp just before a show, and to keep it together internally, he stuffed it with newspaper, which created a fuzzy distortion that everyone loved. Phillips’ secretary, Marion Keisker, championed Elvis and got her boss to give him a try out as the vocalist of a new band; he sang easy listening ballads that Phillips hated and was about to be fired when Phillips heard Elvis goofing around on “That’s All Right” and history was made. Johnny Cash wanted a drummer but that wasn’t in the budget, so Phillips showed him how to weave paper in and out of his guitar strings to make a drum-like sound, which became the signature Cash sound. It goes on and on. Amazing!
Our guide and hero!
The studio is basically unchanged since Phillips’s era, a claim which the state of the acoustic tiles in this photo validates
It still records artists; one was coming in that night. But, for a time, we got to hang out where Elvis and Johnny and Jerry Lee and Carl and so many others made musical history. We even got to pretend-sing into one of their mics!
I got to be Marion, “Have a seat, Mr. Presley. I’ll make sure Mr. Phillips records you.” (Yes, that’s right, America, a secretary discovered Elvis Presley. #You’reWelcome #WhoRunsTheWorld)
A few gift shop purchases later, it was time for one last Memphis meal. I had the BBQ Shop on my list–a real Memphis, non-touristy place out in the suburbs, which meant we got to see lots of the city on our way. Would the drive be worth it? Well, the BBQ Shop serves BBQ spaghetti, so um, hell yes!
We got Ned to re-enact the face he made when he first grabbed the slice of coconut pie at Gus’s before it fell to the ground. The joy that made the sadness when he then dropped it all the sadder. It turned out that the BBQ shop–which had unbelievably delicious glazed ribs, brisket, pork, Texas toast, and fries–lacked in the dessert department. So, to recreate this happy face …
we went in search of some delicious Memphis donuts. Ta-dah, Gibson’s Donuts!
We filled our box with red velvet, coconut, maple, maple bacon, USA sprinkled, and cinnamon sugar. So, so good. The red velvet was the clear winner!
Then, stuffed with BBQ and donuts, we started packing our bags for the morning flight home.
Like all of our trips, this one held as many surprise delights as planned adventures. From prehistoric caves to painful history, from roller coasters to art-filled walks, from country to soul, from highways to curvy back roads, from biscuits to bbq, we had a magical time in Tennessee. Thanks, y’all!