View of Beale Street, Memphis, TN


Memphis, for me, first and foremost emerges as neon signs either created in the 1950s or made to look so. Certain ones stand out as iconic: the Peabody Hotel spelled out in big red letters on its roof; Poplar Tunes with its arrow-head-tipped musical staff of notes; Leonard’s Pit Barbeque’s top-hatted, cane-twirling pig. But mostly all those twisted glass tubes of glowing light, with their colors balanced on a razor edge of cool and warm, emerge like a grand Dale Chihuly sculpture, redolent of Memphis’s heyist of heydays, when Elvis Presley was living and breathing and at any moment walking down Beale Street decked out in pink, cream, and black, his sleeves rolled up. Meanwhile, only blocks away Johnny Cash was moaning his halting way through a new record, Wanda Jackson was shimmying in her oh-so-tight fringed dress while nitroglycerin-growling her cute voice, Carl Perkins was hacking his way around a new run on his home-rigged electric guitar, or the brilliant and maybe deranged genius Jerry Lee Lewis was banging away on the piano after arguing religion with Sam Phillips in tiny Sun Studio.

Memphis, Tennessee, USA at Hernando de Soto Bridge.

All this was happening, and for a moment Memphis, Tennessee, was the center of the universe.

This personal impression derives from foundational memories, including old 9 mm footage of my mother’s family vacationing at Holiday Inn, founded in Memphis by Kemmons Wilson in 1952. This film was made not long after that date, and in it the family has gathered at the pool. My great uncle—a football and basketball star who later coached a team to the Mississippi high school basketball championship—leaps and dives in a graceful pose into the hotel swimming pool. My mother, skinny and colt-like, her ubiquitous smile familiar to me in a form years before my birth, follows. Then comes my grandfather, a big man with a Lyndon B. Johnson profile, whose banker father was once held up by another Memphis native, Machine Gun Kelly. In this footage, my grandfather (or Papaw, as I called him) steps deliberately on the board, runs a few steps and does a swan dive into water that manages to look like a bear dive into honey. When he hits the surface, half the pool splashes out on various cousins and my grandmother, who loved the idea of a pool but had a deathly fear of water. (She would always let people know she had gone to Humes High School not that long before Elvis did, when she was living in Memphis before moving back to Tippah County, Mississippi.) The film shows my grandmother fussing a little at Papaw, but somehow it does not seem so bad, especially in the shade of the metal red and white umbrellas. Sadness lives around the world, to be sure, but in that moment the only thing really to worry about was the next dive.

Of course Memphis has meant and continues to mean much to so many. Long before this place glared with fanciful artificial light, it was simply a bluff where people lived whom scientists call Mississippians. These people built tremendous mounds and other structures and established an elaborate and extensive civilization. Various indigenous tribes descended from these people, including the Chickasaws and Choctaws. If you want to see and learn about them you can visit the C. H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, the name given to an archeological site there.

I find it appropriate to think of Memphis being categorized as originally part of Mississippian culture, for many folks in the present day state of Mississippi consider Memphis one of their biggest cities instead of Tennessee’s. William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize winning author from nearby Oxford, Mississippi, whose life was deeply entwined with Memphis, wrote that “Mississippi begins in the lobby of a Memphis, Tennessee, hotel and extends south to the Gulf of Mexico.” What he meant was that Memphis was the center of the cotton industry of the Mississippi Delta that stretched down along the river. Faulkner may have been writing about the Gayoso Hotel, named for Don Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorí, who built the Spanish Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas on the site of the present-day city in 1795 (he represented the Spanish but was himself Portuguese, educated in England, and actually based in Natchez, San Fernando being only one of many forts he constructed).

It is more likely, though, that Faulkner was referring to the Peabody, the most iconic of the old hotels still standing downtown. It was not the most impressive one when built in 1869, but some very important people stayed there, including Presidents Andrew Johnson and William McKinley. When it was demolished and rebuilt down the street in 1923 it was designed by Walter Ahlschlager in an Italian style. If you have seen The Firm, based on John Grisham’s novel of the same name, then you have seen this beautiful old hotel. Its truly great feature is the wonderful lobby, full of the kind of brave grace peculiar to Memphis, which in turn models the grandeur of the Old South, when cotton brokers and plantation owners ruled the roost. The marble pillars rising above the patterned green carpet over which hangs a gleaming chandelier all hint at Memphis’s original prosperity. Strangely, though, even this grandiose locale features a homey element, for every day a man dressed in a uniform of red coat and black pants escorts a flock of mallards down an elevator to play in the large fountain in the lobby. These are the famous Peabody ducks, and their fearless uniformed human leader bears the title of Duck Master. It is all a mock formal affair now, but it started much less so during the Great Depression when the manager, Frank Schutt, came home from a hunting trip over in Arkansas and thought it would be funny to drop decoys into the fountain.

The Peabody is a fine place to stay and explore this city. You might just find yourself unable to leave that lobby, striking up conversations with strangers within its circumambience of grace and luxury quietly punctuated by the plash of the ducks. The airy atmosphere can be enervating, as in fact the entire city can be, and if you are inclined to be imaginative you might just begin to see yourself as a magnate come here from the Cotton Exchange down the street (now the Cotton Museum) to continue working out deals while steamboats puff up and down the Mississippi river outside. This culture gave birth to the Cotton Carnival, Memphis’s version of Mardi Gras, in which was crowned each year an official king and queen. Even on this high societal level, Memphis’s garish, riverboaty style shows through, and that style has lingered to this day and is perhaps best captured in contrast with the state’s more haute city, Nashville, in Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Summons to Memphis

In fact, old-cotton-days Memphis and 1950s Memphis come together in an icon now housed right there in the hotel—Lansky Brothers. Originally located on Beale Street, this clothing store was run for years by Bernard Lansky, who had a jive fashion eye to go with his jive talk. This is where Elvis shopped. Jerry Lee too. And also legend-in-his-own-time B. B. King. Lansky’s then and now is not afraid to define cool, and the store is worth visiting as a kind of art gallery full of surprising fashions of the texture and color of the fifties. And the tailoring of the clothes blend styles that cross racial lines.

The racial divide is a large issue in Memphis, having been carefully policed historically. Long beyond the days of slavery, most labor options available to African Americans were still of the strenuous and low-paying kind, and black males especially were often accused of crossing the color line and lynched in horrifying spectacles. One of the great Memphians in history, Ida B. Wells, wrote powerfully against lynching in a newspaper called Memphis Free Speech. Later the dark shadows of racism roared in the gunfire of James Earl Ray when he assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. Despite the end of legal segregation, many parts of the city remain divided by race, and vestiges of the Confederacy, including a park named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, lasted well into the contemporary era to much controversy.

The thing about the racial divide, however, is that people, items, and culture have all crossed it constantly. This is a difficult dynamic to describe: there is no denying racism and violence in Memphis’s past and present, but there is also no denying the ways that cultures have mixed and the pride that has come with that blending. The city’s leadership no longer excludes people of color, and it is the distinct blending of white, black, and other ethnic cultures that gives Memphis its peculiar flavor. Rock and roll is the ultimate example of this blending, which was promoted most successfully back in the 1950s by two men named Phillips, related only in spirit: the flamboyant Dewey, who played black and black-sounding musicians’ records for a huge audience in his “Red, Hot, and Blue” radio show, and Sam, who founded Sun Records at 706 Union Avenue and recorded not just Presley, Cash, and other white rockers but also black performers such as Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and Roscoe Gordon.

The abstractness of music enables the crossing of lines, racial or otherwise, and while Nashville might be called Music City, Memphis’s musical past and present are crucial in American culture, most obviously in the blues. The heart of the blues is Beale Street, which is now a tourist spot blocked off for pedestrians but was once a vibrant center of black culture. The man now recognized as the “Father of the Blues” was W. C. Handy, who has his own statue there on Beale Street, trumpet in hand, although his music probably does not sound very bluesy to the contemporary ear as it dashes along in a spirited march. In our time, the word “blues” conjures up a raw, guitar-note-bending, piano-tinkling, harmonica moaning, lone-voice singing style filled with sardonic lyrics that repeat two lines and follow up with a third that finishes the thought in a way that captures sadness and tragedy but with an ironical and even humorous distance. The great blues players have names such as “Memphis Slim” and Bobby “Blue” Bland, both based in Memphis and regulars on the chitlin’ circuit of mostly black juke joints throughout the South, especially the Delta.

But blues has drawn audiences of all races, and surely the greatest ambassador of this music was Riley “B. B.” King, who, like Elvis, was born in Mississippi and who managed to become so iconic while still living it was hard to imagine him as an entity of the present but rather a figure out of a tall tale, like Paul Bunyan. When you saw him in concert—when you were in the same room with him—you realized he was every bit as big as his image, name, and sound—bigger, even. When I was a student at the University of Mississippi, the university awarded him a Professorship in Southern Studies (he had given his incredible record collection to the library years before). I remember sitting only a few feet from him, watching as one of my professors gave him a plaque. Mr. King wore glasses and a dark suit, preacher-like. I thought about what must have been going through his mind, this man who had grown up poor and black now being named a professor at the institution of his home state’s aristocracy, the scions of the old planter class. Later, he gave a concert at the newly-built Ford Center on campus. I had to give a paper the next morning at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky, which was six hours away (actually seven, since it lies in a different time zone), but I could not miss the concert. Morgan Freeman, who spends much time in the area, made a surprise appearance to introduce Mr. King. Then out came the man—old as time itself, mountainous with gravitas, clothed in shining purple-gold, sans glasses, a true colossus. The notes of his guitar, Lucille, licked out like silver ribbons curling through the theater with grand proclamations of triumph incarnate. Those strains shimmered in my head like tinsel through the whole drive that night.

Memphis also played a major role in the development of soul music. The recently-departed Aretha Franklin was born there, and the city was home to two major soul recording studios: Stax—original recorder of the likes of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes—and Hi, which recorded Al Green, who now preaches at a Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church there in Memphis, one of many such churches in this Bible-Belt city (religion could take up an entirely different essay). Speaking of preachers and soul, the white, British soul singer, Dusty Springfield, recorded “Son of a Preacher Man” for her album Dust in Memphis at American Studios in Memphis in 1968.

I want to talk about some people mostly known only in Memphis. On Elvis Presley Boulevard can be found Champion’s RX and Herbs, owned by Dr. Charles Champion, a legendary pharmacist and herbalist who refers to himself as a “Biblical Apothecarian,” by which he means he uses herbs, plants, flowers, and trees identified in the Bible to create his medicines. This little spot, to my mind, displays that cultural blending in Memphis’s essence—the kind of place that could only exist in this city. Here you can find old patent medicines such as Camphor Oil, Sloan’s Liniment, Tiger Balm, Father John’s Cold Medicine, and Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap along with Dr. Champion’s own line of hand-selected and mixed Treatment Kits. Part of this place is a museum about Dr. Champion himself as a pioneering African American pharmacist and his own role in the civil rights efforts of Memphis. The walls are lined with the people who have stopped in here, including B. B. King and Bill Clinton.

My mother’s Boomer generation grew up with Happy Hal, a fellow clean cut as only men in the 1950s could be. He wrote, produced, and starred in a long-running television show for kids on the Memphis station, WHBQ. Eventually, he opened up a store called Happy Hal’s Toy Town, and my mother still remembers it fondly as a stopping place to get a toy when her parents loaded the family up to drive over and visit kinfolks in Arkansas.

Then there was Sivad . . . Los Angeles may have had Vampira to introduce B Horror films on late night television; WHBQ had Sivad. His real name was Watson Davis; “Sivad” is “Davis” spelled backward. He was the spokesman and introducer of “Fantastic Features,” and he cut a mighty sinister figure in his black cape and top hat. He would appear amid swirling fog and then pull a coffin out of a horse-drawn hearse. Then he would start talking:

“Good evening. I am Sivad, your monster of ceremonies. Please try and pay attention as we present for your enjoyment and edification, a lively one from our monumental morgue of monstrous motion pictures.”

He had a thick Mid-Southern accent that his false teeth actually accentuated. I have distinct memories of seeing reruns of that program when I was very little, scared and fascinated by Sivad. I did not realize how corny he was until after I grew up. And then I loved him even more.

Another Memphis television legend is Dick Williams, a magician who this year turned 91. When not performing tricks and illusions, Williams gave the weather report. Once as a child I made my one and (so far) only visit to a television studio, and it was (you are starting to recognize it now) WHBQ. My reason for being there: my father bought an illusion from Williams. At that time my father and mother were traveling around Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas performing magic shows, which made for a number of interesting experiences in my childhood, including magical levitation and being vanished and made to reappear again. In fact, I remember one time when . . .

This essay grows too indulgent, but then Memphis licenses indulgence, especially when it comes to food. There are some real gems, such as Gus’s Fried Chicken and The Beauty Shop, housed in a literal old hair salon where the food comes served on mismatched dishes and drinks in a variety of glasses on a single table. But the real heart of Memphis food is barbeque. Now let me say something important here: in Memphis, the word “barbeque” means pulled pork, typically served on a bun; to order “pulled pork barbeque” is redundant. I might add also that in this part of the world, among most natives of the area, the word “barbeque” generally does not refer to cooking food outside on a grill—that is called “cooking out.” I say this so that you will know what people hear in case you should visit and use the term “barbeque.”

But those barbeque places . . . . there have been grand ones. My father would take me along with him to Leonard’s when I was a child. There the slaw came on the sandwich piled higher than the barbeque itself. I could not get the sandwich in my mouth, so heaping a thing it was, and I conceived a rather strong dislike of slaw as a result. For a time when I was a teenager John Wills offered good barbeque, and Corky’s is an iconic establishment, with multiple locations in Memphis and beyond; frozen boxed packages of Corky’s barbeque can be found in grocery stores across the country. Then there is Tops, low-key but delicious. But the most famous of all is surely Rendezvous. It does not announce itself very loudly, the entrance being in an alley, marked by one of those nostalgic Memphis signs. When you get in you have to go downstairs too, but once you get there you find yourself in one of the great dry ribs restaurants in the country. A Greek man named Charlie Vergos founded the place in 1948 for working class folks downtown. He included quite a few things on the menu, but it was when he started offering ribs with a dry rub that included paprika that the game changed.

Pigs are an important animal in Memphis—certainly they were for one of the city’s great entrepreneurs. Clarence Saunders was in the grocery store business, which in the 1800s and early 1900s was staffed by workers who handed customers items down from shelves behind counters. Saunders got the idea that a grocery store could be self-serve, and in 1916 he opened the first such place in the country. He called it Piggly Wiggly. The store developed into a chain, which could be found throughout the South. Saunders built a mansion in Memphis out of pink Italian marble; it is now a museum called the Pink Palace.

There have been other Memphis entrepreneurs. Many know about the earlier-mentioned Kemmons Wilson as well as Fred Smith, founder of Fedex, which is based in Memphis. Less known and remembered is Barron G. Collier, who came up with the idea of creating advertising cards to fit in a strip along the top interior of streetcars. Collier established a company called Consolidated Street Railway Advertising Company and relocated to Manhattan, ultimately expanding into real estate, banking, hotels, and even a steamship line. On Beale Street, Abraham Schwab established a store under his name that dealt in various goods and now offers just about anything imaginable. Isaac and Jacob Goldsmith started the department store Goldsmith’s on Beale Street; it spread throughout the South until being bought out by Macy’s.

Finally, I must mention one of the most colorful figures in Memphis history: E. H. Crump. A native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Crump came to Memphis as a youth and worked his way up through politics to become mayor. But it was after his mayorial stint that his real power consolidated as he assembled a formidable political machine. Often seen wearing an old fashioned straw boater and light-colored suits, old Boss Crump cut what might now be thought the classic figure of a gregarious southern politician.

The city has produced far more immediately recognizable icons in the past few decades, including Cybill Shepherd, Dixie Carter, Leslie Jordan, Justin Timberlake, and a whole cast of professional wrestlers of whom Jerry Lawler was king. Mainstream as many of these people have been and are, even the classiest ones of this bunch arguably sometimes display a little of the Memphis essence—that lightweight but endearing cultural blending in loops of bright electric color that to my mind finds best expression in the southern term, “tacky.” I well realize that summoning up the word “tacky” may outrage some Memphians, but I suspect many would agree. For there is a great geniality in it that smooths over harsh realities of inner-city violence and remaining racial and class inequities. Those things exist, as they do in any city, but tacky provides a space where at least there is a possibility of commonality. Abhorrent to some and loved by others, tacky is built on a kind of innocent joy that is the currency of camp, which the theorist Susan Sontag has called “a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘characters’ . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying . . . it’s good because it’s awful.”

View of the I Love Memphis painted mural in the Crosstown neighborhood section of Midtown Memphis, TN by artists Jay Crum and Kong Wee Pang

A lot of Memphis is good because it is awful, which is one way of expressing its unique form of tacky. A friend of mine, Warren Kelly, recently described Memphis as a place that “aspires to many things that it never attains, as a city. Even its greatnesses are second place ones. There are so many second-hand greatnesses that a person doesn’t mind so much.” Anybody connected with Memphis knows that it might lure any number of Fortune 500 Companies, but the city will always have its languid flavor gilded with lovely tackiness. Whatever genteel side it possesses, the reality is that it raises tacky to an art form without making that art form snooty, perhaps a sensibility that has stuck around since the cotton and riverboat days. There is something heartbreaking about that lovely tacky, and I do not think I am alone in loving it with all my heart.

I love those old neon signs because they are so very tacky. Lansky’s is tacky. Elvis was and is sooo tacky, especially when painted on black velvet and set out along the roadside. The attractions Memphis has loved are tacky—the amusement park Liberty Land and the uninvitingly-named Mud Island, which boasts as its central attraction a model of the Mississippi River. For heaven’s sake, this city actually drew on its sharing its name with the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis to justify building a massive mirrored pyramid in which to play basketball.

That tacky never seems quite vanquished, despite revitalization of the downtown around Autozone Park and the invasion of Starbucks and Barnes and Noble. Try as mainstream culture might, Memphis tacky just does not die off entirely. It leaves its silly-putty thumbprint all over in places expected and unexpected, a grin on its face, a tall-standing straight backbone whispering that it will remain. And with luck it always will.