After a couple fun-filled days in Chattanooga, it was time for Jane and me to cover the 345 miles from Chattanooga to get to the Memphis region. I say “region” because our hotel was actually just across the state line in Horn Lake, Mississipi. In our quick strike on Memphis, our go-to’s were the famous Beale Street, the luxurious Peabody Hotel and its famous ducks and a walk along the Mighty Mississippi.
After check-in, it was an easy 20-minute drive into Memphis to get to Beale. Once arriving in the downtown area, I found parking easy and relatively inexpensive in an open lot by the nearby famous Orpheum Theater, which first opened in 1928. The one-time venue for vaudeville shows and later movies now is home to live theater and concerts.
Above the entry to Beale Street, there’s a large archway with the street name in light blue letters. Although Beale is 1.8 miles in its entirety, it’s the two-block pedestrian portion that’s indeed where the heart of the blues beats. And, if you don’t believe the archway signage, validation comes quickly as soon as you see the late great B.B King’s club on the corner, 143 Beale.
As soon as I saw the club and heard the live music from within, I thought of my chance meeting with the great bluesman while waiting for a flight in Las Vegas some 20 years ago. I recognized him, partly because of the lapel pin on his sport jacket, a jeweled pin of a miniature Gibson guitar he nicknamed Lucille, the guitar that seemed to come alive in his hands.
The funny moment after some pleasant conversation occurred when it was time to board the plane. While the members of King’s entourage, all wearing shiny black satin midriff jackets with “B.B. King Blues Revue” scripted on the back, continued to coach with me, B.B. stopped in first class, proving yet again, it’s indeed good to be the King… and not just in surname!
As for scratching that historical itch that always needs attention when I travel, well, there are plenty of historical signs in the district that enlighten as to how the area became famous, both in terms of music and in the struggle for civil rights for people of color.
Beale’s musical tradition goes all the way back to the 1860s when Black traveling musicians played here. By 1903, it was a trumpet player named W.C. Handy, who relocated from Clarksville, Mississippi, to Memphis, and is credited with starting the blues movement on Beale. It wasn’t long before other blues musicians followed, such as Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters.
Following our enjoyable time on Beale, it was time to head down Union Street a couple blocks to the famous Peabody Hotel, where the Peabody Ducks are headquartered. When the four hens and drake aren’t in their roof-top marble-and-glass abode, allegedly costing more than $200 grand, they’re swimming in the fountain inside in the large seating area off the lobby, where hotel patrons relax in some pretty opulent surroundings. The ducks make a theatrical entrance from the elevator on a red carpet each day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Every three months the ducks are changed out for a new cast.
As for the back story on the ducks, back in the 1930s, back in a time when hunters used live ducks as decoys, the general manager, Frank Shutt, returned from an Arkansas hunting trip with a friend. Well, perhaps after some over-imbibing, Shutt decided to leave his ducks in the fountain when he went to bed. The next day, hotel patrons loved it, and the tradition began.
Following our Peabody time, Jane and I headed for the river. While I enjoyed my sights of the rolling Mississippi and conjured up my own thoughts of what the river must have looked like in the young Samuel Clemens steamboat pre-Civil War years during our stroll, I’ll admit I was bothered by the abundance of litter I saw. My, the banks of that river had so much trash along it, including so many discarded face masks.
Early the next morning, we had time for a quick stop at Graceland before heading to Nashville for our final stop. We wanted some photos of the outside of the mansion and surrounding estate and also an opportunity to sign the stone wall as thousands of Elvis fans have done before, and then it was off for our final two days of fun, in Music City, and the subject of next week’s final of our Tennessee Three-Step.
I did have one final thought on Graceland. We spoke to some nice ladies from Kentucky outside the estate also taking some final photos. They’d purchased tickets the day before to tour Graceland. I asked what the tickets were price-wise and was astonished that they were $75 per ducat. Somehow, Elvis, who grew up in rather humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and certainly valued his fans who didn’t have much, I think, somewhere is pretty disappointed at that kind of gouging.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest.