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Road trip attractions: Memphis blues

BealestIf, like me, you're a fan of the blues, it's hard to jam everything into a couple days in Memphis. There are the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Sun Studio, Stax Museum, the Gibson Guitar factory, Graceland and Beale Street, which echoes with the sound of the blues in daylight as well as at night.

I was in Memphis at the end of last week for the christening of the American Queen steamboat. Since I had only two days to see the town, I decided to focus on music and save the National Civil Rights Museum (which friends who visited it say is terrific) and other landmarks for another trip. I also opted out of Graceland, since I'd been there before.

I managed to squeeze the rest into my own two-day musical celebration (not to mention a celebration of smoked-pork sandwiches). I'm defining the blues broadly here and including music and performers who were simply influenced by the blues.


Beale Street
stretches for almost two miles east from the Mississippi River, but its heart is a three-block section jammed with clubs, BBQ joints and shops selling all manner of music-related T-shirts and kitsch. The street is barricaded at night, when it becomes a pedestrian mall with music coming from every direction, people drinking beer and cocktails from to-go cups, and athletic young men known as Beale Street flippers performing a sort of combination hand-spring/back-flip through the crowd for tips.

I was with a group of eight, and we couldn’t find even a couple seats in the first club we tried, Mr. Handy's Blues Hall — this was on a weeknight! — but we managed to round up enough chairs for our group next door at Rum Boogie Café, and happily settled in to talk and listen.

RobtcrayguitarIn the daytime, I toured the museums. My favorite: the Stax Music of American Soul, which has a broad scope that includes soul, blues and other music. My least favorite: Gibson Guitar, where factory noise drowned out most of the tour guide's words. But the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which also has broad scope, and Sun Studio, which recorded some of the biggest names in early rock 'n roll (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Johnny Cash) are also well worth seeing.

In addition to music, most also deal with other institutions and behaviors that influenced music of the '50s and '60s, including churches, sharecropping, segregation and civil rights. The exhibits are humbling.

Photo: Robert Cray's guitar at the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum

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Photo: Sun Studio, which recorded Elvis Presley, B.B. King and others, began life as the Memphis Recording Service.

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