When planning a visit to Memphis, I knew I wanted to do some kind of city tour. I found out about the Backbeat Mojo Tour which combines live music and narration to learn about the musical heritage of Memphis. This had great reviews and sounded fun so I reserved a time for the three hour tour. Mark planned to drop me off downtown and return later so we could explore Beale Street together, the famous street known for music venues and restaurants. I should note that Mark does not prefer the big cities. He was concerned after reading that Memphis was unsafe and didn’t want me wandering alone around Beale Street and the area while I waited for my tour to start. I agreed rather reluctantly as I am a natural wanderer who really enjoys the big cities and is energized by them. I have wandered by myself in such places as Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, the capital city of San Jose in Costa Rica, San Francisco, New Orleans and Minneapolis to name a few.
My first contact with a Memphis citizen was shortly after drop off when an officer on a bike stopped and asked me what and how I was doing in the city. Now I am the kind of person that gets nervous when I see a police car driving behind me as I immediately wonder if I have broken some kind of traffic law. So, this contact at first had me wondering if perhaps I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But this turned out to be a very welcoming figure who just wanted to know if I had any questions about Memphis and if he could give me some tips. After this friendly encounter and my tour check-in I decided I had time to visit the Peabody Hotel ducks just a half block away. Could these be the most famous ducks in America? Or if not the most famous, the most pampered? The elegant Peabody Hotel presents them this way and my guess is there are no other ducks in the country who live in a penthouse and each day at 11:00 are brought down in the elevator to the lobby fountain with great ceremony.
Prior to their appearance, the Duck Master decked out in uniform and holding a special cane with a duck shaped handle, gives a speech in a commanding voice on how the ducks came to be at the hotel. It all began in the 1930’s when the hotel’s general manager and his friend returned from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas. They had drank too much whiskey and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Guests loved seeing the ducks and the tradition was begun. Today, people line up along the red carpet and around the fountain area to watch the duck march. I was able to see them when they first came out of the elevator and snapped the blurry photo above. Five drab and skinny mallards quickly made their way to the fountain and it was all over in less than a minute. This is such a sappy and overrated attraction that it is worth the visit to witness all the “oopla.” People love the spectacle and stand waiting for an hour or more to get the best viewing spot. Small children are allowed to sit along the side of the red carpet so they can see the ducks walk past.
At 5:00 each day the duck march begins again when the ducks leave the fountain and walk back to the elevator for the return to their rooftop home. Ducks serve at the hotel for three months before returning to the farm where they came from. During their stay they are considered “wild” and are not treated as pets or even named. Above is another blurry photo of these ducks as they swam quickly around the fountain as if chasing each other.
The Mojo tour turned out to be a fun trip around the city with our musician guide playing the guitar and educating us on all the big named stars that had their start or at least contributed to the important music history of Memphis. He played blues, gospel, country and rock and roll and we were encouraged to use the provided egg shakers and sing along as we toured the city. We drove through neighborhoods including one where soul music developed and was produced at Stax Records. We stopped at places of historical significance like the brick apartment building where Elvis lived with his family, practiced his music in the basement and played for neighbors on the front steps. We got off the bus at the Overton Park Shell where Elvis got his first big break. On July 30, 1954, Hillbilly Hoedown was the entertainment for the evening and the concert opened with an unknown local guitar player who was making his first live professional appearance. Our guide told the story that when Elvis sang and shook his leg in time with the music the crowd went crazy yelling and applauding. Elvis was confused why people were yelling at him. The stage manager told him that the crowd was cheering him and to go out and do the songs again which he did. One of the songs was called, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” People in the tour group liked posing on the stage for pictures using our guide’s guitar.
Moving on we saw the apartment building where Johnny Cash lived after moving to Memphis in 1954. The building pictured below is still in use as apartments.
Perhaps the biggest attraction in Memphis is the National Civil Rights Museum where we stopped for a quick look. Part of the museum uses the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. A wreath marks the spot on the second floor balcony where he was shot. I would have really liked to tour that museum but Mark and I didn’t stay long enough in the area to make it back. Hopefully another time.
Our last stop was the famous Sun Studio, the birth place of rock ‘n’ roll. It was here that Elvis Presley walked in, asked if he could record a song and a new legend was born. Other stars also had their beginnings here such as BB King, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
There is lots of memorabilia to see including original recording equipment, guitars, photos, posters and records. The studio guide took us around the building telling stories about the musicians and playing excerpts from recorded songs. We were able to see the room where recordings took place and could pose for pictures with a similar microphone.
It was here in 1956 that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins (pictured below) did an impromptu jam session and recording that became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet,” an important moment for rock and roll.
Thanks for reading! In the next blog more on Beale Street and camping by the Mississippi River.