Sequestered in Memphis

  • Jon Kelly
  • 28 Sep 08, 02:47 AM GMT

If you're going to see Memphis, you might as well do it from a 1955 cream Cadillac. The city's most famous son, Elvis Aaron Presley, drove a pink version of the same car - but then he was the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and I'm just a pasty Scottish blogger, so I suppose there's no point trying to compete.

This is the stop I've been most looking forward to on my tour across the States. Like millions of others, my introduction to America came through its music. And here's where so much of the modern USA's sound was created.

The King and BB King, Sun Studios and Stax Records - depending on whom you listen to, this is the Home of the Blues, Soulsville USA, or the birthplace of rock. As a sufferer of musical OCD, I couldn't wait to hit the record stores.

Tad PiersonMy driver was Tad Pierson, a 56-year-old Kansas native who moved here because of his love of blues, and now runs American Dream Safari tours. So much American music had been born of interplay between black and white, he told me, and Memphis, with its proximity to the Mississippi Delta, had been perfectly positioned to exploit this.

Take Elvis himself, for instance. Tad drove me to the home in which the future megastar lived from 12 to 16 - a nondescript apartment in a housing project on the north side of the city.

Under segregation, this had been an all-white area, and Presley had attended an all-white school. Isaac Hayes's classes were held at another black-only institution a few hundred yards away.

"But obviously there was interaction between the black and white families round here," Tad argued.

"Elvis borrowed heavily from black culture - musically, stylistically. He'd go to black churches, not so much to worship, but to listen to the music."

The Stax building, MemphisAs a result, after Elvis recorded That's All Right (Mama) at Sun Studios in 1954, listeners initially assumed he was black. But, Tad believed, it was Elvis's ability to sell such songs to white audiences, as well as bring traditionally white influences into the mix, that made rock 'n' roll so potent.

And then in 1957 you had Stax founded on the other side of town. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the soul label released a string of fantastic records by mostly African-American artists - Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, and Hayes among them.

But, as Tad pointed out, "Stax was integrated at a time when, unbelievably, that wasn't accepted". The label's founders were white, as were half the members of the house band, Booker T and the MG's.

And Memphis's history was not, sadly, all about harmony and tolerance. Tad drove me to the church where Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered his prophetic "I've been to the mountain top" speech. The following day he was assassinated at the city's Lorraine Motel, preserved today as part of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Blues club, MemphisAnd although these communities could boast a rich musical history, poverty was clearly still a huge problem here. We cruised through neighbourhoods filled with boarded-up commercial properties and crumbling houses.

For Tad, though, the lack of conspicuous consumption was a bonus. It was the shabby yet brightly-coloured juke joints, blues clubs and soul food cafes that brought him here in the first place.

"They're depressed landscapes - business that aren't in existence, old beat-up signs, decay," he admitted.

"But the landscape has a memory. When I go new suburbs it's all brand-new shopping malls - that's when I get depressed. I come away thinking that I need a nap."

Suddenly, Tad spotted someone he knew. "Hey, Pee-Wee," he called to an elderly black man across the street. "Come meet my friend."

Charles "Pee-Wee" Mason, a cheerful 72-year-old, gripped my hand. Business was booming, he told me. As well as his own butcher's, he rented out a modest strip of stores - a fish market, a burger bar and a cheque-cashing service.

To boost trade, he would invite blues bands to play on the forecourt on Friday and Saturday nights to entice customers.

Charles 'Pee-Wee' Mason"No tickets," he said. "They just come. Hopefully they spend some money.

"I've been here since 1969. It's been good to me.

"It's a very tight economy, but we're surviving."

This neighbourhood seemed an inauspicious location to find optimism amid headlines proclaiming financial gloom.

But Tad left me with his theory that his countrymen and women's view of prosperity could be encapsulated by its most celebrated resident.

"Elvis graduated High School in 1953 age 16," Tad told me. "Four years later he paid cash for Graceland. It's an American dream story.

"But the end of his life, excess and success destroyed him. The American dream - it's starting to fray around the edges."


  • Comment number 1.

    I've lived all over the US but Memphis has been my home for the past 12 years. This city has its problems, but the people are down-to-earth, informal, friendly and generally all clases and races share this common bond with the music (blues, soul, rock-n-roll). Over the years, musicians have come here for find the roots of the music that they enjoy. On the surface, Memphis doesn't look all that attactive, but after you spend some time here, you can't help but enjoy it's gritty character. Because that gritty character is what makes the music authentic.....and in Memphis, it's all about the music.

  • Comment number 2.

    Halberstam, in his book the Fifties, writes that when Elvis was first interviewed on the radio, by Dewey Phillips, he was asked where he had gone to high school, which was a coded way of telling the listening audience that he was white.

  • Comment number 3.

    Jon, in Memphis, did you drink Tennessee whiskey or Scotch (whisky)? A popular way to drink "Jack" in the United States is with "Coke," which I've always thought an indication that Americans don't take whisk(e)y very seriously.

  • Comment number 4.

    Don't leave Memphis without chowing down on those 'dry-rub' ribs!

    Eating a big 'mess' of catfish and hush puppies.

    And you simply must visit Bellevue Baptist Church, 25,000 something membership--one of the epicenters of the Southern Baptist mega-church movement. You can't miss it, right beside the huge cross eastbound on I-40. It's too strange to describe, you must see for yourself(grin!!). It has its own marching band--no kidding!!

    Memphis(or as we say 'Maeowhmfus') is a world unto itself.

    Welcome to Tennessee, and I hope you come to love it as much as we Tennesseans do.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    #5, you read my mind.

  • Comment number 7.

    "...Booker T and the MG's."

    Jon, MG stands for "Memphis Group".

  • Comment number 8.

    The American dream is NOT fraying around the edges, the beautiful thing is that, the edges have always been "frayed."
    It is a dirty mix, and its immigrants a tattered frock by their nature.
    America is a muckity muck of great artistic accomplishment through its suffering and its'
    cultural freeedom. As an American, I find that aspect the most endearing quality of my nation and I think foreigners feel that too.

  • Comment number 9.

    This sounds like framiliar SOS trite Roman Catholic classism, prejudice, and racism, to foster antiAmerican guilt---not a travel log. RACE, RACE, RACE. Yes, America does have a special problem about race, but you shouldn't keep pointing the finger at white people alone, most of us never had anything to do with slavery and conditions here now, they are more the result of CHOICES made by individuals in groups, blacks are as much to blame. We have had 50 years of FORCED racism in America and it has created many of todays problems. Pointing out all the past problems does not help either, why not glory in the music created by all people? Besides this, NONE of you coming to America, EVER seem to mention the great harm and injustices done to whites, and there are many---just feel the pain of this economic blow out and ask yourselves WHY it ever happened. I am also sick to death of this foolish, prejudiced attitude about music and race. There would still be all kinds of great, beautiful, wonderful music if there had never been a Black person born on Earth...they did not invent music!

  • Comment number 10.

    You seem to be implying that Elvis was born in Memphis but his birthplace was actually Tupelo, Mississippi.

  • Comment number 11.

    rwbennett, I think that you're taking Jon Kelly's
    post the wrong way. The South is a completely
    different place now than it was in the 50's, and
    Jon was describing conditions under which
    culture functioned in that era.

    No one can debate that things are completely
    different now than they were then, but the culture
    and achievements of that era showed how
    Americans of every background overcame their
    circumstances to excel in their fields.

  • Comment number 12.

    On the matter of the post title:

    "Subpoenaed in Texas, Sequestered in Memphis... I'm getting pretty sick of this interview."

    Jon – have you been listening to "Hold Steady, Stay Positive"? Great song, but I hope you’re not getting sick of your interviews yet. You’re posts are far too much fun.

    On the matter of Elvis:

    I had thought all Elvis Impersonators were dead... until I took the kids to a weekly free concert in the park only to be surrounded by dancing gray haired ladies being swooned by an older gentleman in a black wig and sequined bell-bottoms.

    We stayed at the show with our sons. It was a valuable learning experience.

    On the matter of the American Dream:

    We have awoken and smelled the Starbucks... or the Dunkin' Doughnuts... depending upon your political position.

  • Comment number 13.


    I work next to a 63 year old black man who grew up in Arkansas with segregated schools until he was 13 (It's only been 50 years since schools there were segregated). He lived through REAL legally enforced racism, as did many other Americans that are still alive today. Racism in America isn't as far in the past as you'd like to convince yourself.


    If you do end up sending me that IRN BRU I requested earlier could you please throw in a crunchie bar too? :P


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