January 2010 Archives

A visit to Memphis wouldn't be complete without dropping in to see the only original shop left on Beale Street. It was opened in 1876 by one Abraham Schwab, and is still owned by the family. The slogan runs: "If you can't find it at A.Schwab's, you're probably better off without it." This can be disputed - I'm not totally convinced that you might not be better off without a few of the items it does stock. A viking helmet, or the world's largest collection of ornamental pigs, for instance. However, the world would be a poorer place without Schwab's, and it's an amazing place to drop in and eyeball. You can pick up some amazing souvenirs to take home, and the mezzanine level between sales floors - the "Beale Street Museum" - is full of a fantastic collection of old junk. My favourite thing is the machine that tells your fortune and your weight simultaneously. I like to think it ties the two together, for instance - "You weigh 350lb. Today you will get out of breath climbing the stairs."

Memphis - Sounding good

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Lucky old Memphisians. In London, buskers tend to consist of fragrant chaps with dogs and penny whistles, sub-X Factor try-hards with transatlantic accents and earnest, bearded men blowing fiendishly into oboes. Not so in the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll. i was walking back to my hotel from downtown when I bumped into Tony and the Titans busking in the pavilion on Court Square. I stopped to listen for a few songs, and I was pretty impressed. See what you think...

The live music in the clubs is pretty darn good too. I went to BB King's blues club on Beale Street and heard the Preston Shannon band play live. There are a number of things I love about this - one, Preston's jaunty solo. Two, the large guy on bass. That's a proper bass player. And three, the oldest swinger in town doing his one dance move, namely a sort of locomotion-esque choo-choo train impression, over, and over, and over again. Way to go, grandad.

Oh, and did I mention? Order the deep fried dill pickles. Sounds gross, tastes good.

Memphis - A shining example

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One of the highlights of my trip to Memphis has been my visit to Sun Studio, founded by record promoter Sam Phillips. It's smaller than the more famous Stax Records and a less slick operation, but it's really brought to life by the quality of the guiding. Visitors are escorted round in small groups, and it's a really memorable experience.

IMG_5069.JPGStanding right in the small studio where countless big names recorded, we listen to the first radio broadcast of an Elvis Presley song, 'That's alright Mama'.

Then our guide shows us the first microphone Elvis ever recorded with - yes, you can pose for photos with it - and tells us about the 'Million Dollar Quartet'. One day, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all happened to be in the studio at the same time, and they started to jam. Sam Phillips recorded the results, but couldn't actually release them for many years because each of the stars were tied to binding contracts.

IMG_5061.JPGSun Studio is really atmospheric - it hardly seems to have changed since those four famous faces were recording there. I like to think they got their Pepsi from this machine.


Memphis - Going quackers

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There are a number of things one expects to find in the lobbies of luxury hotels. Most of them can be seen in the historic Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Marble pillars, check. Chandeliers, check. Dark wood, thick carpets, check.

However, in this hotel, there's something extra too. Ducks, swimming in the fountain. Yes, every day, the Duckmaster - oh, didn't I mention? Yes, they have a specially employed Duckmaster. Step forward Mr Jason Sensat. Well, anyway, at 11am Mr Jason Sensat collects the ducks from their home on the roof and leads them into the lift. They emerge, triumphant, and parade through the lobby on a red carpet to the fountain, where they climb in splash around until 5pm, when the journey happens in reverse. Get there early - it's a popular sight.

This strange tradition started in 1933, when the hotel's general manager came back from a long weekend of hunting in Arkansas. After a long night's friendship with the whiskey bottle, he and a few chums thought it would be hilarious to put their live decoy ducks in the fountain. The hotel bellman, a former circus animal trainer, taught the ducks their march. The rest is history, and a well-developed line in souvenirs.
Duck toys in the Peabody Hotel, MemphisIt seems that ducks aren't the end of it. Somehow I wonder if the crowds of children would be allowed so close to the red carpet if they were still doing the thing with baby alligators...

Peabody ducks - the plaque.

Memphis - A state of grace

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I defy anyone to find a more fitting way to prepare for a visit to Graceland than a visit to Arcade. This wonderfully kitsch diner was a cherished haunt of the King, and it serves his favourite - and in large quantities, perhaps ultimately deadly - dish, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I opted instead for the sweet potato pancakes with eggs, syrup and grits. Delicious, though equally calorie-laden. I sat with Alicia and Brandy from Memphis CVB in Elvis's favourite booth. He would sit in my seat, with his back to the door, but where he could see who came in by looking in the mirror opposite.

Arcade diner - MemphisThen it's off to Graceland. It's quite endearing really, full of shagpile and chandeliers, and with TVs in every room. There's a bar in the TV room, and even in the squash courts. My favourite was the infamous 'jungle room', which really ups the ante in terms of random impracticality. There are exhibits of Elvis's cars, his private jet, his platinum discs and costumes and a rundown of his film career. Just about the only thing you can't see is the infamous toilet...