The National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis, Tennessee. More specifically, it’s located at the converted Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. Knowing this, I expected a visit would provide a detail history lesson on the life and work of the famous civil rights leader. What I got instead was an in depth look at the history of racism and the civil rights movement in the United States, complete with some of the missteps made by well-known leaders. Read More »
Although Graceland is definitely one of the most well-known attractions in Memphis, and its former owner definitely one of the most famous Memphians, many visitors might be hesitant to pay the price of admission if they aren’t big Elvis fans. With tours of the mansion starting at $31 for adults, it’s understandable – but is skipping the potentially cheesy tourist destination a good idea?
My family was provided free tickets for the Graceland Platinum Tour during our recent visit to Memphis. Had we not, I’m almost positive we wouldn’t have shelled out the $87 it would have cost us to visit. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say with confidence that we would have been missing out on an important look at American culture and a musical icon.
The Platinum Tour includes access to the Graceland mansion and grounds, which includes a self-guided audio tour that’s done very well. The audio tour not only explains what you’re looking at, but offers an intimate glimpse at the man who took refuge there. I walked away with a better understanding of a fun-loving man who loved his family and friends, but who was tragically ill equipped in some ways to handle the pressures and privilege of fame and fortune. His apparent obsession with entertaining an entourage, seen from the famous Jungle Room and Billiard Room to the collection of motorized vehicles and makeshift shooting range, seems to hint at a man who was somehow lonely while never being alone.
The house itself is an homage to horrific taste, while the grounds are surprisingly refined and beautiful, with the exception of the family cemetery where Elvis and his parents and grandmother are buried. Originally built as a meditation garden, this living shrine is both reverent and whimsical, a place where plastic flowers and stuffed animals sit among stone angels and an enormous statue of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the mansion and grounds, the Platinum Tour includes access to the Elvis Car Museum and his private plan, the Lisa Marie. You won’t find anything particularly touching or intimate here, but rather an opportunity to gawk at the things that celebrities spend their money on. It’s slightly interesting, yes, but not necessarily worth the price of a ticket upgrade.
Photo: Britt Reints
They call it Soulsville, USA, but the post office says we’re in Memphis, Tennessee. From 1959 to 1981, it was the home of Stax Records, a recording studio and production company that launched not just important music careers, but an entire genre of music. After lawsuits, bankruptcies, and foreclosures, it became an abandoned lot. Today, the home of soul music is marked by a museum and a music academy dedicated to helping local kids prepare for college and music careers. Of course you can’t tell all that just by looking; what we see is a building that resembles an old movie theater.
Stax Records was founded by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton and found a home inside a once-abandoned theater attached to a record store on Memphis’ McLemore Ave. Although the building was once demolished to make room for a community center, it has since been rebuilt in order to pay homage to the musical history that was made at Stax, a history that included some of the biggest names in the music industry.
Perhaps the biggest name at the time was Otis Redding. Before his death at 26 in a 1967 plane crash, Redding helped put Stax and soul music on the musical map with hits like “These Arms of Mine” and “Try a Little Tenderness”. (Tragically, Redding’s biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, was released a month after he died.) It is stories like these, told through music, video, and pictures, that help the Stax Museum bring the history of soul to life for today’s visitors. Some of the museum’s most interesting exhibits include an old Episcopal church that has been rebuilt inside the museum, a recreation of Studio A, and Isaac Hayes’ infamous blue and gold Cadillac.
Music is as much a part of the fabric that is Memphis as is the Mississippi River. A trip to Graceland and Sun Studios, usually considered mandatory for tourists, definitely tell an important part of that lyrical history. However, no visit — or picture of Memphis – would be complete without also spending a few hours in Soulsville.
Photos: Britt Reints