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
I 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
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