MEMPHIS — Casual daytime clothes? Check. Fancy evening wear? Check. Essential pair of forgiving stretchy pants in the event of dessert overindulgence? Double check. I was fully packed and ready for a Mississippi River cruise.
But there’s one thing I couldn’t pack or prepare for: the Mississippi’s unprecedented low water levels. As a result of an ongoing drought, the riverboat cruise I boarded last month in New Orleans was unable to dock in several ports along the river. The levels were too shallow in essential destinations such as Vicksburg and Memphis. Life had given me lemons, so I made lemon meringue pie. Instead of moping on the boat over missed ports, I jumped ship in Natchez, rented a car, and started driving north to Memphis. Stretchy pants and all.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Memphis was originally a blip on my itinerary. A quick jaunt to Graceland at the end of the cruise, and that was it. But now the city would be mine — at least for three days. As a pop music nerd, I was ready to absorb it all. I pulled into Memphis on Saturday night and quickly made my first tactical error: I went to Beale Street.
I had heard complaints about the bars, restaurants, and clubs that pack the historic strip. It’s oft described as too touristy, tacky, and corporate. Beale was a historically Black street where blues and jazz legends once played before the area fell victim to the disastrous concept of urban renewal in the 1960s. Now? The best way to describe Beale Street is touristy, tacky, and corporate. I played pedestrian hopscotch through inebriated crowds as I passed a Hard Rock Cafe, Coyote Ugly, and plenty of other clubs loudly competing for well-lubricated customers. The sole remaining business from Beale Street’s halcyon days, a general store called A. Schwab, was closed for the night.
I was visiting Graceland the following day and decided to salvage the night by watching director Sofia Coppola’s movie “Priscilla” while in Memphis. This was also a mistake. If you have plans to visit Graceland, it’s best not to see a film that makes Elvis look like a monster. The evening wasn’t an entire disaster. My hotel, called Arrive, was fantastic. Located in a former warehouse building, it’s now an affordable, fun, hipster boutique hotel in the arts district. Both the hotel’s coffee shop and bar were always buzzing.
I made the Beale Street mistake (let’s not discuss it any further) and decided that I needed to cleanse my palate. The best way to do that was by gazing upon Isaac Hayes’s wondrous, tricked-out 1972 Cadillac at the Stax Museum of American Soul. Stax was the record label that released albums from Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and Hayes. The record company’s original building was razed after it fell into decay. The new building was constructed with the same facade. The museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and it’s a must-see. There are thousands of pieces of ephemera and displays of everything from Tina Turner’s dresses to instruments played by some of the studio’s greats.
Stax, plus several other record labels, defined a genre called Memphis soul in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a buttery smooth version of the pop that was coming out of Detroit at Motown. Memphis soul married gospel, rock, soul, and the blues, all of which were percolating in the city. Even if you claim you don’t know Memphis soul, you do. Think Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” and anything from Hayes, Carla Thomas, or Rufus Thomas.
Or, step back to the late 1960s when Dusty Springfield came to the United States to record her seminal “Dusty in Memphis” album. “Son of a Preacher Man,” was lifted directly from the Memphis soul playbook. Springfield, who had introduced Motown artists to the United Kingdom, knew a good thing when she heard it. Sure, she recorded her vocals in New York, and the album was a flop when it was released in 1969 (save for “Preacher Man”), but it went on to be a classic.
The Stax Museum carefully lays out the trajectory of the genre, beginning with the interior of a 1906 Mississippi Delta church that was taken apart and reconstructed here. It follows through to the highly experiential Express Yourself dance floor. For a brief moment, I had the dance floor to myself and decided to pigeon-neck my way through Chaka Khan and Rufus’s performance of “Tell Me Something Good” on “Soul Train.” How did I do? Only the security camera knows for certain.
In just three days, I didn’t have time to explore Memphis essentials such as blues music and barbecue. Please don’t judge too harshly. I needed to leave some activities for my next visit. But no matter where you go in the city, all genres are inescapable. One night I was having dinner at a former 1940s beauty parlor that was converted into a restaurant. Fittingly called the Beauty Shop, the original hair dryers are still here, and are used as restaurant seating. This is also the place where Priscilla Presley came to get her hair teased to the heavens and dyed coal black. The restaurant is more than a gimmick. The food is an innovative take on southern cuisine.
After dinner and strawberry cake at the Beauty Shop, I meandered across the street, and there was a life-size bronze statue of Johnny Cash in front of the venue where he had his first public performance. This wasn’t a planned visit. Johnny was just ... there. At least I think he was. I had a few cocktails with dinner.
Before we take a deep dive into the world of Elvis (you knew it was coming), there’s another important stop you should make, and that’s the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. The museum offers a comprehensive look at the Black experience in the United States. Plan for at least two hours here, but I recommend more. The museum ends in the Lorraine Hotel, where visitors can see the two rooms where Martin Luther King Jr. and his entourage were staying when the civil rights leader was assassinated while he was in the city to lend his support to striking sanitation workers.
The proper warm-up for Graceland is a trip to Sun Studio. It’s your stretch before the Elvis marathon. This is where Sam Phillips set up the recording studio that captured Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ song “Rocket 88.″ It’s regarded as the first rock ‘n’ roll single, although I suspect fans of Sister Rosetta Tharpe might disagree with that assessment.
Sun Studio may be small, but it packs a lot of history. The major architects of rockabilly and rock recorded here, including Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s just a sampling. Did I mention B.B. King recorded here as well? The highlight is stepping into the recording studio where all the greats laid down their tracks. You can even hold the mic that Elvis used when he recorded at Sun. (I’m not sure if I believed the microphone story, but the charming tour guide did an effective job at selling the myth.)
I was finally ready for Graceland, at least I thought I was. I signed up for the Ultimate VIP tour, which ran just shy of four hours and cost $195. My reasoning was that if I was going to do Graceland, I should do it right. After “Priscilla” and director Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film “Elvis,” I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. As you may have guessed, I didn’t know much. Cut to me holding Elvis’s Department of Justice badge in white gloves. When you sign up to be an ultimate VIP, you’re afforded such luxuries. It’s the badge that Richard Nixon gave to him at the White House in 1970. Naturally, I almost dropped it.
When you visit Graceland, you see more than the mansion that Elvis purchased in 1957 and now remains frozen in its kitschy mid-1970s glory. The treasure trove is across the street at the 200,000-square-foot Elvis entertainment complex. Here you’ll see Elvis’s collection of cars, hundreds of stage outfits, gold and platinum records galore, and his airplanes. There are also temporary exhibits. My tour guide was hoarse and practically whispering by the end of the tour. But when an artist sells a billion records worldwide, stars in 31 films, and has enough money to buy two airplanes, there’s a lot to discuss.
For my final night in Memphis, I stayed at the Guest House at Graceland. The 450-room hotel opened in 2016 and is part of the Presley empire. It’s not as campy as I thought, or hoped, it would be. It’s a solid hotel that averages around $200 a night. There’s a 400-plus-seat theater that shows Elvis movies, concerts, and television specials every night. I got to watch Elvis’s 1968 comeback special.
By this point in my trip, I had my fill of Elvis. So much so that I even skipped the all-you-can-eat buffet of peanut butter and banana sandwiches that is served each night at 9 p.m. at the hotel. I suspect if I had indulged, I would have needed those stretchy pants after all.