- 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.
My 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."
As 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.
And 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.
"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."
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