Sunday 18 February 2018

Tennessee: The Kings and I

Peter Carvosso expected his trip to Tennessee to be dominated by Elvis. But it was the legacy of a very different king that became his holiday highlight

Beale Street in
Memphis comes alive at night.
Beale Street in Memphis comes alive at night.
a wreath marks the balcony where Martin Luther King was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel.

Peter Carvosso

For me it was the drama event of 2009 -- better than any theatre, cinema, or concert. Television? No programme last year came remotely near.

The venue was the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, built into the motel where Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968, and the star was a young African-American called Kenon Walker.

He was our guide for 90 minutes of almost unbearable emotion. If you didn't feel intense anger or turn away from his gaze to hide your tears, you probably had a white hood hidden in your bag.

Even without the remarkable Mr Walker, the museum would have been outstanding -- a model of how to present history with flair and feeling. It tells the story of black struggle from the first slave revolts in the early part of the 17th century, through the Civil War to events in the '50s such as the battle for integrated education at Little Rock and finally the slaying of King.

It's done with pictures, full-size cut-outs of leading characters, graphics and voice-overs. The big set pieces include replicas of a prison cell where King used toilet paper to write his inspirational speeches.

You can walk through the bus where, in 1955, Rosa Parks ignored the city's segregation laws and sat in the white section.

And Kenon Walker invites you to take a stool at a whites-only diner and pretend to be one of the black protesters who defied the mob as they bravely asked for a simple cup of tea. That was when I had to adopt the mid-distance stare in case he caught my moist eyes.

Finally, there is the actual room where Martin Luther King was staying and the balcony where his dream came to an end. A blood-stained slab has been kept as a grisly reminder of that tragic day. On the other side of the road is the seedy boarding house and bathroom from where James Earl Ray pulled the trigger.

Kenon Walker brings all this to life with brilliant panache. He had the tour party laughing, cheering, angry and, at times, deathly quiet. He told me afterwards that he is an actor, which explains the technique. The passion comes from another place entirely.

We hadn't planned to visit this museum when we mapped out our Memphis trip. A different King was on the agenda. As we drove from North Carolina, Paul Simon set the mood: "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National Guitar and we were going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee."

I love Elvis, but loathed almost everything after His Latest Flame. I used to get hate mail from his fans when I was reviewing his ghastly movies in the '60s. So this wasn't a pilgrimage; more a curiosity.

The white-columned mansion where he lived until his death in 1977 lies about seven miles south of downtown on a busy thoroughfare dotted with fast-food cafés and cheap hotels.

Elvis's motto in his latter, fatter years was TCB: Taking Care of Business. And that's what this tour is all about. First you go to an Elvis Shopping Mall by a massive parking lot, then you're coached to the King's Palace -- after sufficient souvenir time, of course.

By today's rock star standards, it's a modest enough pad, but you can imagine Presley's pride when he showed it for the first time to Gladys.

"Is this alright, Mama?"

"It sure is, son."

With its shag carpets, wood-panelled rooms and leopard-print furniture, it's set in '70s aspic like a re-run of a 40-year-old commercial. The TV room that looks like Mission Control, where Elvis could watch three programmes at the same time on three different screens; the curtain-covered (yes, even on the ceiling) pool room; the mausoleum-like piano room with its strange stained-glass windows where he played the morning of his death; the round-the-clock kitchen which once stored vats of banana pudding.

Upstairs is out of bounds, so you don't get to see the bathroom where his life came to an undignified end on August 16.

Outside there are the stables, daddy Vernon's offices and a surprisingly small kidney-shaped pool. Then at the end of the tour, you get a jolt as you gaze at the graves of his beloved mum, Elvis himself, Vernon and a fourth one that I wasn't expecting. Minnie Mae Presley -- born June 17, 1890, died May 8, 1980.

You wonder what she made of her grandson, who rose from the humblest of beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, to become the most famous man in the world before dying in such splendid squalor.

There's also a grave marker here for Jesse Garon, Elvis's stillborn twin brother, whose body is buried some 100 miles away in Tupelo.

And you wonder again: had he lived, could he have helped save his brother?

Sun Studio is a different story altogether. No glitz, nothing tawdry, just a wonderful encyclopaedia of rock history. It was here in 1953 that a 18-year-old country boy dropped by and paid a couple of dollars to make a demo disc for his mama -- My Happiness. That day, when he was asked who he sounded most like, he uttered the immortal words: "I don't sound like nobody."

After showing us exactly where he stood when he made the recording (there's an X on the floor) and producing the big old microphone that he used, they played that first scratchy track.

The cheesy side was the photo-opportunity to sing into the microphone. Did I say cheesy? I never felt cooler ...

Next stop, the piano Elvis played and a picture of him at it with Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash; then the actual guitar Scotty Moore used on those very first Sun sessions. I saw him in Dublin a few years back -- the best '90s gig of all.

Later that night, we went to the legendary Beale Street to see whether today's rockers and bluesmen were as good as the old lot. The first open-air set we stopped at was fantastic and half the street was dancing, but thirst dictated we go into a nearby club, which turned out to be BB King's place.

The atmosphere was lively but the club is commercial down to its little finger. There was this rocking band doing Honky Tonk Woman with a black singer imitating Mick Jagger imitating a black singer. Next up was a litany of tribute songs to Michael Jackson. Sadly we didn't have time to explore anything more purist, but we went home smiling.

On Sunday mornings, you can have Memphis all to yourself. Here in the heart of the Bible belt, it's a day for church and family and the city streets are empty. We started off with breakfast in the Blue Plate Café, just a short stroll from our base at the Peabody Hotel, where the crispest waffles and freshest omelettes are served to order. Go southern and try the corn grits and sausage with biscuits (crumpets) and gravy.

Not for the faint-stomached.

We walked it off with a stroll along the Mississippi, which looks as though it's about a mile wide and hopping with catfish half-a-mile long.

A monorail and elevated walkway takes you to Mud Island River Park and the Mississippi River Museum, a fascinating insight into the history and legends of America's most famous waterway where Mark Twain might as well be your companion.

On your way, take some shots of the skyline with its dramatic 32 storey, stainless-steel Pyramid Arena, a controversial architectural structure that most Memphians have come to live with.

A walk down the river works up an appetite for one of the other quintessential Memphis tourist treats -- ribs at The Rendezvous. This place, which was opened by a chap called Charlie Vergos in 1948, is so popular that you have to book in and hang out for a good hour (at least the night we were there) in the enormous bar.

They call out your name on a loudspeaker and then, for $17.75, you get a plate of spicy charbroiled ribs so enormous you'd swear they're the full complement from one cow. With these come the tastiest baked beans you've ever had and coleslaw -- which everyone just calls 'slaw'.

It's a fairly primal experience but, then again, this is Memphis. You just have to mellow out, roll up your sleeves and dig in. Nobody will mind.

Irish Independent

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