Memphis has been the inspiration for many a music maker. In fact, there have been more songs written about Memphis than any other city in the US. This four-day tour touches on the “must-see” sights for music lovers. For a good choice of hotels with discount prices, visit Hotel in Memphis for more information.
Day 1, Friday
10:00 AM: Start your day at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music at the former location of Stax Recording Studio. This museum is a monument to the genre that flourished in the ’60s and ’70s. Stax was an oasis of racial harmony and launched the careers of legends such as Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. You’ll learn how soul music came to be and see interesting artifacts from the era including clothing, instruments, and original Stax recording equipment.
1:00 PM: Visit the historic Arcade Restaurant for a late lunch. This little diner has been the scene of many films, and was also an Elvis favorite. If you’re lucky enough to find it unoccupied, you may even get the chance to sit in the King’s booth.
2:00 PM: Start the afternoon with a 45-minute tour of Gibson Guitars. Even if you’re not a guitarist, it’s fascinating to learn about the guitar building process.
3:00 PM: When you exit Gibson, go for a daylight stroll in the Beale Street Historic District, birthplace of the blues, and you’ll see things you may not notice at night, including the home of W.C. Handy.
6:00 PM: When you’re ready for dinner, take a short walk (15 minutes) down South Main Street (off of Beale) to Ernestine & Hazels. This “dive” is full of character and famous for its Soul Burger. It’s rumored to have one of the best jukeboxes in Memphis, and also features live music later in the evening. If you are brave, venture upstairs to visit the haunted former brothel. Afterward, stick around for the music or head back to Beale Street for more blues.
Day 2, Saturday
10:00 AM: Start your day with an informative visit to Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, conveniently located in the FedEx Forum, across from Beale Street. You’ll learn how the genres of music in Memphis—gospel, blues, and soul—morphed into rock ‘n’ roll. There are many listening stations and hundreds of tunes to sample, so it could take hours to visit.
1:00 PM: Walk down Beale to the Blues City Café to enjoy some local cuisine: BBQ ribs, Southern fried catfish, tamales or broiled steaks. In the evening they also serve up live music in their Band Box located next door.
2:30 PM: Experience Backbeat’s Memphis Mojo Tour—a high-energy, 1.5-hour bus tour directed by a real Memphis musician. Your tour guide will entertain you while he enlightens you about the musical history of Memphis. (You are welcome to bring your own instrument and play along!) Sights in the drive by Mojo Tour include Beale Street, Sun Studio, Stax Records, the Lorraine Motel, movie locations, and more. Other tours are available from Backbeat, so check
backbeattours.com and prebook as this tour fills up fast. Tours leave from Blues City Café.
4:00 PM: Head to the original B.B. King’s on Beale Street to refresh with a couple drinks before dinner. When you’ve gathered your appetite, head upstairs for dinner at Itta Bena. This restaurant, fashioned after the speakeasies of the 1920s, has a special ambience and live piano music on the weekends.
After Dinner: Take a five-minute walk to the Center for Southern Folklore. This facility features live local musicians most Saturday nights at 8 PM, including local favorite bluesman “Daddy” Mack Orr.
Day 3, Sunday
10:00 AM Head out to a Sunday music-filled brunch such as the one at Owen Brennan’s New Orleans Style Restaurant or Bosco’s Squared, which feature live jazz. Also, you may want to consider traveling just outside of town for Al Green’s Sunday Gospel Service at 11:30 AM.
12:30 PM: Visit historic Sun Studio. Called the birthplace of rock and roll, this small studio and its quirky one-hour tour are a Memphis must. It’s the backdrop of the “Million Dollar Quartet” that brought together Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash for a one-time chance recording. Though it’s a National Historic Landmark, Sun is still a working recording studio at night. You can even schedule your own recording session here. Services range from quick karaoke-style recordings to professional recordings on the studio’s vintage ribbon mikes and analog tube gear, modern digital equipment, or a combination of the two. Sun Studio has its own café so enjoy a quick lunch here.
2:00 PM: Take a free shuttle from Sun Studio to Graceland. It will take a couple hours to get through the whole complex. With all that real estate—the main house, trophy room, memorial, and automobile and airplane museums—you’re bound to learn something new about the King.
Dinner and After: Grab a cab and visit Hi-Tone Café. They have a menu of typical bar foods and pizza, and feature live music starting as early as 4:00 PM on Sundays. Music ranges from indie singer-songwriters, to blues rock, surfer rock, heavy metal—practically any genre. Checkwww.hitonememphis.com for times and a calendar of musicians.
Day 4, Monday
11:00 AM Tour St. Blues Guitars and learn the story of these special handmade guitars. St. Blues also makes and sells unique cigar box and candy box guitars that make wonderful souvenirs.
12:00 PM: You’ll need to drive or take a taxi, but no tour of Memphis would be complete without a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. This is a truly emotional site, and puts the whole civil rights movement into context with the development of American music genres.
1:30 PM: Many people consider Central BBQ to be the best barbecue joint in the city of Memphis, if not the entire state. Though not musical, its Central Avenue location is only a 10-minute walk from Memphis Drum Shop.
2:00 PM: Don’t dismiss Memphis Drum Shop as just another drum store. People arrive from around the globe just to visit this facility that contains all imaginable types of percussion and accessories, plus vintage kits, and the world’s largest cymbal inventory. Its stage frequently hosts clinics, demos, and benefits featuring well-known and local artists. The latest addition to the facility is its Gong Room. On the last Saturday of each month you can book a sonic massage—a sensual experience you won’t soon forget.
4:00 PM: Take a five-minute walk to Goner Records. This Memphis landmark sells all types of overlooked music in LP, CD, 45, and 78 formats, plus posters. Goner is also its own record label and hosts a Goner music festival every September.
5:30 PM: When you’ve had enough of shopping, head back to Beale Street for your last night at the heart of the Memphis music scene.
This article is from our July-August 2012 issue. Click to order!