Stan Slap’s Memphis Blues Trip Part 2 of 2 Civil Rights & Pastor Al Green
We started the second day with a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, located on the site of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. The museum is an extraordinary interactive experience that tells the full story of the civil rights struggle in America. There is a huge wheel of chance you can spin that features all of the spurious reasons that African Americans were turned away by Mississippi officials when trying to register to vote, so you get an idea of the odds. There is the lawyer’s briefcase used to smuggle out Notes From A Birmingham Jail. There is a stunning photo essay showing James Meredith’s last walk and his assassination as it happens. There is a life-sized sanitation truck and statues of I Am A Man marchers facing off against gas-masked armed police. And on and on and on.
The museum takes hours to appreciate. Absorbed by the compelling narrative force of the displays as they bring history back to life, what you fail to keep in mind is where that history led and you also don’t notice you’ve been walking up a gradual incline all this time, until the museum ends at a glass wall when you remember all too well: On the other side of the glass is the actual balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. You are inches away from that iconic spot.
No, the museum is not done with you yet; this is just the first building. The building across the street is devoted exclusively to King’s assassination. This is the building where the trigger was pulled. It features the room with the sniper’s view to the Lorraine balcony and the complete FBI evidence file including the rifle. Words cannot describe the feelings this evokes.
Hours later, when we finally felt like doing something again, we journeyed across town to the former home of Stax Records. Stax is critical to the history of soul music not just because of its artists like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Isaac Hayes but because it was the first major integrated soul label. It’s a fun tour—including Hayes’ fur-lined Cadillac!—and it has a great gift shop. But the biggest impact for me was to be reminded of the serendipitous nature of the birth of the music—the remarkable combustion of circumstances, coincidences and combinations that had to occur in a single city at one time to create it.
Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (the ST and AX of Stax) bought a defunct movie theater in a run-down neighborhood because it was all they could afford and used it as the Stax offices, recording studio and retail record store. It happened to be located in a residential area and so it happened to attract the curiosity of young locals who included, in a ten-block radius, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Dan Penn and Willie Mitchell.
We ended the day with a visit to Memphis Sound Recorders AKA Sun Studios, the actual physical location where, literally and without exaggeration, rock and roll was born. There are plenty of amazing things on display at Sun. One example: The first rock and roll song is generally acknowledged to be Rocket 88, composed by Ike Turner and recorded by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. Legend has it that on the way to Sun Studios the day it was recorded, the band’s amp, which was strapped to the top of their car, slipped off and was damaged as it fell to the street. It was the band’s only amp and so when they arrived at Sun they frantically attempted to repair it by stuffing newspaper around the torn speaker cone. The resulting fierce buzz heard on the recording gave the song its unusual snarl, which was recognized as a new sound that became rock and roll.
That’s an amazing story well known to anyone who knows music, but it isn’t anywhere as amazing as seeing the amp on display, stuffed with the newspaper.
Of course, that’s only foreplay because the tour ends in the actual one-room studio that first recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich. The studio is the size of a large bedroom and looks exactly the same as it did the day a young Elvis first walked in to record. Nothing has been changed: The tiles on the walls and ceiling were personally installed by owner Sam Phillips and the lighting fixtures and window blinds are all original. The microphone used to record Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire and I Walk the Line is standing in the middle of the room—they let you touch it!
This is the room where Elvis and musicians Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana—three guys whom he had just met—couldn’t come up with a song they all knew and were yelled at by Phillips for wasting his valuable studio time. Ordered to go eat lunch down the street and not to come back until they had something to sing, they returned and launched into an impromptu That’s All Right, Mama, flooring Phillips, who lunged for the Record button as rock and roll was laid down right then and right there.
They have an ultra-rare recording of what happened next as Phillips, recognizing that something out of this world had just occurred, rushed the tape directly to the cutters to make a demo disc and then directly to Dewey Phillips (no relation), the white disc jockey at local WDIA who was renowned for playing black music. You can hear Sam try to explain what he has in his hand to Dewey and then hear Dewey agree to play it for the first time in history and hear how for the first time in history the life reporting and sexual energy that was black blues is translated by a white teenager to other white teenagers. Dewey ended up playing it fourteen times in a row in response to the more than 200 calls that flooded WDIA that day from astonished teens and their outraged parents.
Again, it is difficult not to be struck by the coincidental nature of how rock and roll happened. It might not have happened at all if Sam Phillips didn’t own a local studio that would record amateurs, if someone with Elvis’ talent—nascent but unique and urgent—hadn’t been exposed to the root music and wasn’t able to sweet-talk his way past Marion Keisker—Phillips’ secretary and the most important woman in rock and roll history—with a fabricated story of wanting to record a sweet song for his mother’s birthday (his mother’s birthday was in May and this was in July and his parents didn’t own a record player), if Sam Phillips didn’t have the sharp ears to recognize the impact of what he was hearing and the fast hands to record it and if Dewey Phillips wasn’t a local DJ who would play the result unheard.
And it is again difficult not to be struck by the poignancy that was Elvis, a global sensation but forever a local boy, who spent the rest of his life living just 20 minutes away from where he was first discovered.
FULL GOSPEL TABERNACLE CHURCH
Our last day was Sunday and in the morning we journeyed outside of town to the poor residential neighborhood that houses the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. There weren’t any tourists in this run-down funky place of worship but there were about 75 church members, mostly large, formidable, older black women in big hats. They had come to hear their pastor, who preaches whenever he’s not on tour: Al Green. Yeah, that Al Green.
Al Green is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen live and that’s when he’s doing something he doesn’t care about as much as this. We sat front row center, a couple of feet away from him, as he delivered a passionate evangelical sermon from the book of Matthew. “I know you feel alone,” he cried out to his parishioners, then dropped to his knees singing a few verses of I’m So Tired of Being Alone in that famous falsetto, then thundered through more of the sermon.
“You’re from the North,” he said to me. “We’re from the South and in the South we say, ‘Hallelujah!’”
Memphis is not in the deep South and this is credited with allowing the integrated efforts that created rock and roll and some of the world’s best soul music, setting the foundation for what both of these genres were to become.
It is a special place. People are uniformly nice to strangers and to one another. There are not a lot of salad bars and fruit there—I’m surprised people aren’t dying of scurvy and we saw a sign in one small market window advertising “40 pounds of chicken wings for $20”—but what they do eat is sure worth eating.
This is a city where things that have affected us all first happened and where you are haunted throughout by history as sad and glorious as humans can create.
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