Recollections of a Journey Through the Deep South
Part V - "Rocking The Cradle of The Blues In Memphis, Tennessee"

copyright 1995 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue#22 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Oct '95


Monte in Sun StudioI boarded the train they call "The City Of New Orleans" late in the afternoon, saying goodbye to the Crescent City. This was a fast rattler, picking up speed as we snaked over the Lake Ponchartrain bridge and just an hour later we entered Mississippi. Our route ran roughly parallel to Highway 55 cutting north through the heart of the state.

Through backyards, backwaters and the rustic poverty of rural Mississippi the train kept a rollin', stopping from time to time for passengers. This was The Delta. Home of the real down home bluesmen, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Chester Burnett and McKinley Morganfield. Birthplace of the civil rights movement, freedom riders and the klan. The turmoil and strife of the 50's and 60's is an indelible memory. Somewhere along the line I was joined by a gentle old woman who was traveling north to St. Louis to visit with family. We spoke but a little, our communication was more of a trancendent nature. I can still feel her serenity in retrospect.

Night was falling as the train rumbled into Shelby County, Tennessee and to the city of my destination, Memphis. I caught a cab to my hotel on Union Avenue. A light rain was falling, adding a dreamlike mist over the Peabody Hotel with its bold neon rooftop sign shining in the night. I checked into my room across the street from this landmark and immediately hit the pavement, making my way to the entertainment district.

Monte outside Sun Studio The first sight to come to my eyes was "B.B.King's Blues Bar" on Beale Street which boasts a collection of promising nightclubs. More neon-signs flashing names instilled with the essence of the blues. The Rum Boogie Cafe, W.C. Handy's Blues Hall, The Band Box, The Blues City Cafe, the King's Palace Cafe, The Jerry Lee Lewis Club and the Beale Street B.B.Q. all stood there in two city blocks. I was hungry for some soul food so chose to grab a bite at The Band Box. This was a location used in the movie, "The Firm" which was written by a native Memphian, John Grisham. I had a catfish burger and fries then drifted over to catch a set at B.B.'s club across the street. The venue is new and decorated with a hard rock cafe motif. Rare guitars reside in glass cases, some of them preowned by stars and enshrined with historical memorabilia. I grabbed a seat on the balcony, got a beer and listened to a set of blues by a competent quartet. It was Monday night and the crowd was light. I decided to drift along. Outside, a shoeshine boy was dancing, trying to drum up a customer. A derelict oldtimer squawked along on a harp and the light rain continued to fall.

I made my way down one side of Beale and up the other, ending up back at The Band Box. This is a much funkier club with cheap draft and a more robust crowd. A band was gearing up for a set as I grabbed a table by a window with last week's Mose Allison poster on it.

Much to my consternation a "Stevie Ray" clone appeared and led a set of unimaginative retreads. I stuck it out fortunately, because a guest showed up and was invited to plug in. He wasn't even introduced when he started into a blistering blues line bringing cheers from the room. I asked my waitress who the young man was and she said, "that's Little Jimmy King' playin' there, he's Albert King's protege, and some say his nephew too". Well, he raised the temperature in the club, invoking the spirit of Albert who had just passed on three months earlier (there's a cameo appearance of Little Jimmy playing a street musician in "The Firm"). I left the club satisfied and made my way back to my room to rest up for the next day's full slate of activities.

The next morning I did a little shopping and sightseeing before breakfast. I stopped into the "Memphis Music and Blues Museum" to check out an extensive collection of vintage guitars and amps, browsing through a truly fine selection of rare and classic vinyl. I picked up a guitar steel and cruised on to "Abe Schwabb's Dry Goods Store". This store has been operating for over 115 years and some of their stock appears to be original. I picked up a clerical collar and some $1 ties for Billy and the Beaumonts back home. (I later presented the ties to the boys with the admonishment that there'd be a $5 fine to anyone caught wearing it on stage). There were some rather untypical dry goods in the back. I got my mojo working with a rabbit's foot, some good luck soap (wash with this, it'll bring you money), Little John The Conqueroo incense and assorted mojo trinkets and fetishes.

After all this I was getting hungry so I ambled over to drop off my purchases and went round the alley to the "Rendezvous" to check out their world famous b.b.q. but much to my disappointment they were closed for renovations. I crossed over to The Peabody and had a coffee in the lobby lounge. The "Peabody Ducks" were frolicking in the fountain. These ducks live in the hotel and every day they come down to the lobby in the elevator and spend the afternoon splashing about. Then at supper they all hop out and head to the elevator. Quacking away, they return to their room en parade.

I just had time to catch a city bus to Graceland across from the single men's hostel on a rough corner of town and soon was rumbling my way into some neighbourhoods that haven't changed since Elvis was a teenager. The long bus ride ended across "Elvis Presley Boulevard" from the mansion of the boy from Tupelo.

The tour starts in the gift shop which is somehow appropriate. Cheesy trinkets abound. Perfect! I bought some of the new Elvis stamps. I passed on the car collection since his pink cadillac was right out front and also nixxed the tour of the jet named after his daughter, Lisa Marie. All of this stuff is shown in the brochures. There are so many people doing the tour that they schedule shuttle buses to maintain crowd control. Soon a dozen of us were riding through the gates of Graceland up to the mansion.

We were asked to be respectful of the place, especially since Elvis' aunt still lives upstairs and occasionally makes an appearance. The upper floor is off-limits. The rooms are smaller than I imagined and the decor is definitely nouveau riche in its accoutrements. Did I say tacky? Perhaps, but if you remember Elvis' humble beginning it is somehow magnificent. The tour leads us through the garish living and dining rooms, TV den and pool room. The most impressive room is the so-called jungle room with its fountain wall and south seas decor. Elvis preferred to rehearse and sometimes record here with the Jordanaires and his band. No doubt the fountain drove the engineers crazy. I noticed that Ray Charles' LP "Crying' Time Again" was next to the turntable. We moved along to the gallery with walls and walls of gold records and displays of his costumes, posters and his favorite guns. These are some of the weapons that he and the boys would target practice with at a nearby shed on the property (or at an annoying television).

The tour ends at the graveside shrine adorned with flowers and cards from adoring fans. It is a surprisingly emotional experience to stand here and contemplate the breadth and depth of Elvis Presley's influence on our modern culture and to see the man's home in which he was eventually besieged.

James Lott / Sun Studio I bussed back down to my hotel, got my guitar and hailed a cab to the legendary Sun Studio. During the day, tourists are brought through but at night it is operated as a fully functioning recording facility. I had booked time a couple months earlier and they were expecting me. I grabbed some supper in the "Sun Cafe" while the last tour was finishing. I met some guys from Chicago who'd also just been at Graceland. They were looking in a pack of smokes and whistling appreciatively. I looked and saw some pebbles and dirt? A pinch was offered, accepted and added to my mojo bag. Wow!

The cafe closed as the last tour left and I was greeted by James Lott, the head engineer of the studio. We grabbed a couple brews and went inside. Talk about emotion! He told me that when Dylan first entered the studio he kissed the floor. I can understand why. History drips from the walls. Sam Philips turned this old radiator shop into the Memphis recording service back in the early 50's and started recording black blues men and white hillbilly singers. Somewhere along the way the lines blurred and something fresh occurred. From Howling Wolf's earliest sides to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and their nascent rock a billy recordings, this was the place it all happened. James set me up for an acoustic demo session and the house producer, Gary Hardy came in and gave me the lowdown on the gear. Tape rolled and I went somewhere deep inside and let the music flow. Two hours later we were dubbing copies and exchanging anecdotes. I took my master copies and precious memories and caught a ride back downtown.

The session at Sun Studio had seriously depleted my funds, to the point where I could either get a cheap room for the night or catch the 3:am bus to Nashville, where I could do some banking. Even then I'd have to wait for the West Coast Banks to open for business. My luggage was in a locker so I went to B.B.'s one more time to decide. A hot singer named Ruby Wilson was wailing in front of a crack R&B ensemble as I settled in. I flipped a coin. It was Nashville or bust. I closed down B.B.'s and The Band Box, then got my gear and caught that late night greyhound to "Music City".

Best bets: - Memphis City Guide c/o Print Productions, ($15 US for subscription) 323 Beale St. Suite 2000, Memphis, Tenn. USA. 38103 (901) 529-8488 - "Crossroads" a cross cultural music exposition held yearly in April- call (901) 526-4280 for info

SUN STUDIO PRICELIST (1993):
4 hours or less $85 per hr
5 hours or more $80 per hr
BLOCK Rates:
6pm til, 1 to 3 days $700 p/day
6pm til, 4 or more days $650 p/day
3pm til, 1 to 3 days $750 p/day
3pm til, 4 or more days $700 p/day
10am til, 1 to 3 days $1000 day
10am til, 4 or more" $850 p/day
Ampex 2" Tape $200
Ampex $45 DAT $20
Film & video rights add $1200 per day.

Included in Rental:
Hammond B3 & Leslie
Wurtlitzer Spinnet Piano
2 Fender DeLuxe vintage amps
2 Gibson Amps vintage
7-pc Ludwig kit
Fender Super amp
Soundcraft Prod series 1600 console 24x2x24
Soundcraft 24 track recorder
Studer A-80 1/4" recorder
Panasonic SV-3500 DAT
Panasonic SV-250 Pt DAT
Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb
Yamaha SPX Dig Reverb
Korg & Roland delays, 15 types of mics, etc, etc


Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at: nordstro@islandnet.com

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