Graceland, former home of Elvis Presley

The Blues Capital of the World

14th February 2014

John Carter, long-time presenter of both ITV's Wish You Were Here and the BBC’s Holiday programmes, dusts off his blue suede shoes and savours the many tantalising delights of Memphis and its musical heritage

There are bound to be some extra high jinks in Memphis, Tennessee, this year, as locals and tourists alike celebrate the 60th anniversary of a musical milestone. It was here, on 5 July, 1954, that Elvis Presley recorded That's All Right (Mama) at Sun Studio in Union Avenue, after which, as they say, nothing would ever be the same again.

In fact, Elvis had already recorded at Sun Studio a couple of times previously, but had paid for the privilege, saying the discs were presents for his mother. The monumental musical breakthrough came about quite by accident. Sun's proprietor, Sam Phillips, had arranged for the young unknown to sing a couple of songs with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. The results were, apparently, far from satisfactory, and they were on the point of packing in when Elvis started to fool around with his guitar and sang That's All Right (Mama) for the sheer fun of it. When Moore and Black joined in, Phillips burst into the studio, yelling at them to ‘back up’ so that he could start recording.

With Graceland, Presley's former home, being Memphis’s major tourist attraction (and, in fact, second only to the White House as the most visited property in the USA), it’s a destination that is inevitably dominated by The King. But there’s far more to this great city than the story of a single performer.

Amongst the temptations with which it tempts its visitors are fabulous fairs and festivals, exhibitions and events, as well as a much wider musical legacy, of which more later.

The year-round programme of festivals includes, for example, Memphis in May, covering the city’s customs, cultures and heritage. May sees Greek and Italian food festivals, too, along with the mammoth World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

The American Queen at Beale Street Landing

There’s also been huge investment in the city in recent years. The prestigious National Civil Rights Museum, at 450 Mulberry Street, has just completed a massive renovation. In the spring of this year the Beale Street Landing project, designed to revitalise the waterfront, is to open. It promises a dramatic prospect for riverfront activities for walkers, joggers, cyclists and casual river watchers; it will have a performance space along with a children's play area with water features, and the famous Memphis river boats will arrive and depart from its dock.

One of the more unusual attractions is to be found in Mud Island River Park: an exact scale model representing nearly a thousand miles of the mighty Mississippi River. Particularly fascinating is that the water level in the model is constantly changed, to mirror that of the real river running alongside.

Memphis has a Carnival, too, which – although not as well-known as the Mardi Gras of New Orleans – is a great excuse to party. The 41st Annual Silky Sullivan St Patrick's Parade is on 15 March this year: Carnival Memphis Krewes (historic ‘secret societies’) and their floats make up the backbone of the parade, along with marching bands, local charities and maybe even a goat-on-a-leash.

The Parade takes place in Beale Street, a National Historic Landmark that has been declared the ‘Home of the Blues’ by an act of Congress… which brings us neatly back to the city's musical heritage (the annual Beale Street Music Festival takes place in May) and to W.C. Handy. While not as well-known as Elvis Presley, Handy had just as great an impact on the music scene. It was he who ‘invented’ contemporary blues, shortly after moving to Memphis in 1909. Memphis Blues and Beale Street Blues are two of his many compositions.

He played in the Beale Street clubs, as did B.B. King (one of the clubs bears his name), and a young Elvis Presley learned his craft by watching the acts in those very same establishments.

There will, of course, be extra events and attractions at Graceland in this 60th anniversary year, but to get the most and the best out of Memphis, don't overlook its other attractions, and the outstanding talents that the city claims as its own. Stroll into W.C. Handy Park and seek out the statue of the great man himself. And pay a visit to his home too. While not as famous as Graceland, it has an equally important place in musical history.

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