“The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar. I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the civil war. I’m going to…Memphis, Tennessee”.
If you ‘love your music’ and wondered about life in the fifties and revolutionary sixties, Memphis will take you there. Understated, the city has a ‘heartbeat’ like no other.
Recently I felt that heartbeat while standing in the middle of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis – the room where Dr Martin Luther King Jr spent his final hours before his assassination on 4 April 1968. The motel is now America’s National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM), and chronicles the Civil Rights Movement throughout history with amazing exhibits, including Room 306.
Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, and while in the museum I met the great Reverend Samuel ‘Billy’ Kyles, Dr King’s close friend and surviving witness of the assassination on the balcony outside Room 306. He spent the last hour with Dr King before he died.
Reverend Kyles is featured in the Academy Award nominated documentary ‘The Witness’, a story about Dr King’s last hours. Just to see him, speak to him and shake his hand was my fate! A spiritual moment. It’s no surprise he continues the work of Dr King to this day, as an original disciple, and now as a board member of the NCRM.
This weekend, the NCRM honours the great icons of the Civil Rights Movement with their 20th Anniversary Freedom Award celebrations. And of course, Reverend Kyles is among them being honoured at a sold out event in Memphis.
And who killed Dr King? James Earl Ray allegedly fired the shot, yet some still say he wasn’t the real sniper. Only the day before his assassination, Dr King had delivered his famous ‘I’ve been to the mountain top’ speech. He ‘knew’ he had a date with fate…
Birthplace of a different ‘beat’
Not far from the Lorraine Motel is Beale Street, the main street of Memphis, with a ‘beat’ of a different kind – rock n’ roll and blues. Memphis is home to the Gibson guitar, and to Sun Studio and Sun Records, the sacred birthplace of rock n’ roll – the place where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison first launched their careers.
Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, was a brilliant entrepreneur and promoter of major musical talent. He was responsible for the launch of those careers and understood the brand power of signing Elvis and other big names to his studio.
It was Sam who set up the famous jam session at Sun Studio on 4 December 1956 known as the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’. When Jerry Lee Lewis played piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at the studio, Elvis Presley walked in unexpectedly. Not to miss an opportunity, Sam called in Johnny Cash, leading to an impromptu session featuring the four musicians. The session was captured with a famous photo of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ that now appears on the wall of Sun Studio. Priceless!
Sam Phillips had a major influence on American music culture, yet some say his best investment came a few years later, as the successful owner of the Holiday Inn chain. Sun Records went on to produce more rock n’ roll records than any other record label of its time, producing 226 singles.
And then, as if Paul Simon had written the script for me, “for reasons I cannot explain, there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland“.
I followed down that highway through the cradle of the civil war, and was blown away by the ‘floor to ceiling’ platinum and gold records, the Vegas outfits, the pink and blue cadillacs, and the humble beginnings and unsurpassed generosity of a twentieth century icon.
On a sleepy Monday morning in Memphis, people stood ‘three-deep’ in the pouring rain around the Elvis memorial at Graceland. An unforgettable sight, but this time the heartbeat was one of silence and respect for the man they call ‘the King’.
“Maybe I’ve a reason to believe, we all will be received, in Graceland!” (Video source: YouTube – TheBacMaster)
LHenderson is a communications specialist.
This post also appears on travel site Passing Thru as a related article under At the Crossroads of Blues and Rock’n’Roll.