Marvelous Memphis: Elvis, Civil Rights, BBQ

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Sun Studio in Memphis, where Elvis Presley recorded music
Sun Studio offers tours and was where B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and other stars recorded their hits. (Photos by Jeff Orenstein)

If you love Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, there is no doubt that you will love Memphis, Tennessee, the home of Graceland and the Sun Recording Studio where he was discovered and made famous.

Wherever you go in this town, Elvis memorabilia and his music are not far away. No wonder Graceland and its Elvis-oriented attractions now cover 120 acres and attract as many as 750,000 visitors a year. It is the second-most visited home in the United States, behind only the White House.

But even if you are not an Elvis fan, Memphis is worth exploring because of its world-famous Beale Street, boundless blues music, barbecue galore, a great craft beer scene, the Mississippi River and its riverboats, the Peabody Hotel daily duck parade and the not-to-be-missed National Civil Rights Museum on the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

This cosmopolitan city of more than 650,000 people and several distinct neighborhoods boasts a cornucopia of live music on Beale Street and elsewhere. It has earned its moniker as the “Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with a musical tradition almost two centuries old that continues today.

While blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and jazz music dominate on Beale Street, the city’s rich musical history is evident everywhere, and Memphis has a flourishing classical and gospel music scene enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Always shaped by its location on the great river, a highway between north and south, Memphis was a bustling center of cotton commerce by the 1840s and remained so during the Civil War. Beale Street was an African-American commercial and cultural center, and its proximity to the Mississippi attracted African Americans from neighboring states and served as the northern gateway to the rich culture of the Mississippi delta.

The city’s large black population made it an important locus of the 20th-century civil rights movement. This is reflected in its history and museums.

With affordable hotel rates, many museums and music venues and some great barbecue, Memphis is a recommended place. You won’t be disappointed.

A river boat on the Mississippi in Memphis
Memphis’ waterfront is where you can embark on a 90-minute tour of the city as viewed from the Mississippi River. It is also where river boats from Minnesota to Louisiana dock for passengers to tour Memphis.

Getting There and Getting Around:

Memphis can be reached by air, highway, river cruise ship and rail.

  • By car, Memphis is crossed by Interstates 40, 55 and 69.
  • The nearest commercial airport is Memphis International, 3.6 miles from Graceland and 8.5 miles from Beale Street.
  • The nearest river cruise port is in downtown Memphis.
  • The Memphis Amtrak station is downtown. It is 9 miles from Graceland and is served by the City of New Orleans running from Chicago to New Orleans.

Must-Sees for a Short Trip:

  • Graceland, home of Elvis Presley with acres of displays
  • Beale Street

If You Have Several Days:

  • Tour the National Civil Rights Museum.
  • Tour Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Johnny Cash recorded.
  • See the daily duck parade at the Peabody Hotel.
  • Listen to Beale Street blues.
  • Take a 90-minute narrated sightseeing cruise on the Mississippi River.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way for Graceland and Memphis:

Upscale resort casual is the norm at Graceland and at the Civil Rights Museum. Anything and everything goes along Beale Street.

This Destination at a Glance:

Over 50 Advantage: Relatively affordable hotels, oodles of rock ‘n’ roll era nostalgia, Southern hospitality, civil rights history and an excellent multigenerational trip venue

Mobility Level: Moderate. There are riverfront hills.

When to Go: Anytime is good but May through September is the best time to visit. Summers are humid but also are the best time for festivals and outdoor activities. There are four distinct seasons in Memphis, with precipitation distributed evenly throughout the year. Late thunderstorms are frequent in summer, as is typical of subtropical locations, but usually don’t last long.

Where to Stay: If visiting Graceland is part of your itinerary, the Guest House at Graceland is new, comfortable and convenient to Graceland and the airport. Shuttles to Beale Street are available. If you want to be downtown, the Peabody Hotel is famous for its daily duck walks, and the city has a comprehensive collection of hotels at every price level.

Special Travel Interests: Elvis Presley, ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, barbecue and the blues.

Jewish Memphis

As the website of ChooseJewishMemphis.org proclaims, “YES, there ARE Jews in Memphis!”

The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities details that the Memphis Jewish community dates to when Joseph Andrews moved from Charleston, South Carolina, in 1840, and David Hart opened an inn in the booming town in 1843.

Andrews was a prominent cotton broker and became a city alderman in 1847. He donated land for a Jewish cemetery after his brother, Samuel, died in 1847. This led to a Hebrew Benevolent Society and the first Jewish congregation in Memphis, B’nai Israel.

The Civil War brought hardship, opportunity and conflict to Memphis Jews. Many fought for the Confederacy and suffered under Union occupation dating from 1862. After the Civil War, the city’s Jewish population grew, although yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s decimated the city along with its Jewish population.

Later, the Jewish community was revitalized by immigrants from Eastern Europe. They mostly settled into a neighborhood known as “the Pinch.”

Prominent Memphis Jews include Abe Plough, who built a large pharmaceutical company that became part of Schering Plough in 1971. Politically, Memphis Jews were involved with the Crump political machine and were accepted into the mainstream.

The 20th-century civil rights movement split the community again. Jewish Southern white supremacists and supporters of racial justice led an uneasy coexistence.

The Jewish community grew following World War II. It reached a peak of 9,000 by 1960.

Since then, the community has dispersed to the suburbs and shrunk slightly. A 2006 study estimated that 7,800 Jews live in Greater Memphis.

The Memphis Jewish community is fairly large for the Southern U.S. The Jewish population is about the same size as Nashville’s but considerably smaller than that of Houston, Atlanta, Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

The city’s Jews field a Jewish Community Center, Jewish preschools and day schools, a nursing home and rehab center, a Jewish social service agency, a Jewish Federation and kosher food is available.

Congregations include Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth, the Baron Hirsch Congregation, Beth Sholom Synagogue, a Chabad center, the Or Chadash New Conservative Synagogue, Temple Israel (Reform) and the Orthodox Young Israel Congregation.

Jeff and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Florida.

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