Nelson George - Author, Director, President of Urban Romances
Memphis: Blog
By Nelson | november 2, 2009 | Post a comment



On the night of April 4, 1968 I walked into the kitchen of my family’s Brooklyn apartment and joined my mother as she sat in front of a black & white TV with tears in her eyes. Together we watched the a news broadcast about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Thankfully that isn’t the only memory of Memphis from my childhood.  My mother loved to give Saturday night parties at our place. Being somewhat precocious I’d go over to her Motorola hi-fi player and look at the singles stacked up on the record changer. As they hit the turntable and the needles found the groove, I’d see that so many of them had light blue labels with black lettering and a finger snapping logo. The artists would be Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs or the Bar-Kays.  All of them recorded for Stax Records, which was based in Memphis.

So, for me, Memphis has always had a mystique, both as a place of profound tragedy and great pleasure. What’s remarkable about Memphis today is that it has embraced its crucial role in American history and made it accessible for us today and for generations to come. I’ve made two recent trips down there: one was for business, where I got a chance to roam around; and the other was a birthday present to my 73 year old mother. I felt Memphis was so much a part of African-American, and of our family’s history, that it would be sweet to share a tour around town with us. As a bonus my 20 year old niece, Amber, came along, making it three generations of my family that would walk through Memphis.

The beauty of Memphis for visitors is that the city has done an admirable job of institutionalizing its past. Now you can go to Graceland if you like (I kinda feel about Elvis the same as Chuck D), but there are more than enough black themed culture to keep you busy.

One of the first things I did in Memphis was sit down by the Mississippi River. If you did not grow up in an area adjacent to the Mississippi, it’s a real treat to sit down one of the many benches that overlook the mighty river and take its his side and power. The Mississippi was, for most of our nation’s history, the heartbeat of America, moving people and cargo North and South. For much of the 20th century Memphis was a black Mecca that brought folks up from the farms of the deep South to opportunities of this city and so many of those folks traveled by boat.

Just a few blocks from the Mississippi is Beale Street, which was once the spiritual home of black Memphis, a place full of businesses, restaurants and nightlife. In the ‘60s urban renewal brought an end to that era and, for a few decades, Beale languished as an historical footnote. Today it is a lively tourist strip that has music pouring out of spots like B.B. King’s, on the corner of Beale and South 2nd Street, and from the many local bands that play outside. (B.B., by the way, stands for Blues Boy, a nickname he picked up when he began his career in Memphis playing on the legendary black oriented radio station WDIA.)

W.C. Handy, the father of the blues is well represented on Beale. First there is a public park named after the composer/trumpeter/band leader, which features a very imposing statue around which all manner of people hang out and drink out of Beale’s notoriously large beer cups.  For those seeking a deeper understanding of Handy’s contribution to American music the W.C. Handy Museum (352 Beale St.) is farther down on Beale.

One of the unique features of this avenue now are the Beale Street Flippers. It’s a collective of bold, fearless black teenagers who, for money and love, back flip down Beale’s cobble stone streets on a daily basis. Those of you who may have caught them this summer of ‘America’s Got Talent,’ only got a taste of the athletic ability and showmanship of these young men.  The Flippers are one of the only things that the hard drinking folks who traffic on Memphis will stop to pay attention to.

There are a number of great museums in Memphis. The Smithsonian’s Museum of Rock & Soul, which is just two blocks from Beale, does a great job capturing how the migration of Southern blacks and whites to Memphis helped birth rock & roll and soul music. But when I think of Memphis and black culture there are two must see spots for any black traveler.

So I took my mother and niece to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is partially located in the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot, and partially across the street in the building James Earl Ray fired upon. So clearly this is not a frivolous trip. My mother, niece and I started outside, looking up at the infamous two floor balcony.  Once inside the Civil Rights Museum is designed so that you walk through the entire history of the civil rights struggle, slowly ascending through Montgomery and Selma, past Rosa Parks’ defiance on that bus, to the Freedom Rides, and, finally, to the Memphis garbage man’s strike that brought King to Memphis in the spring of ’68.

There are few things more moving than to walk into the exhibit where, behind glass, you see the rooms that King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and the others shared at the Lorraine. You can look out at the balcony and see where King died. In fact a square has been carved out which was, apparently, stained with his blood. It was quite a powerful moment to be there with my mother, remembering back to the night it happened and the million conversations we’ve had about civil rights and blacks folks since then. My niece was very quiet during our walk through. I was so glad she was able to get a deeper insight into our shared history.

That’s all in the first building.  Walking through it is an experience so emotional for some people that they could end their tour there. The second building, which deals with King’s assassination and its aftermath, is very different experience. In large part because its so painful and frustrating to follow the trail of his assassin. James Earl Ray’s stalking of King is well documented, as are the many conspiracy theories as to whether the man worked alone or was helped by others. All these years later this wing of the museum makes you wonder, if we really know all that was behind King’s death.

The flip side of the black ‘60s can be found at the Stax National Museum of Soul. There are two aspects to the Stax location. One part of it is a musical school, which trains a new generation of young Memphians to play instruments. So, instead of just looking back, the facility is very involved with moving the culture forward.

But the draw for any visitor is still the history. For any fan of the “Memphis soul stew” that came out of Stax this is a heavenly journey. There’s a film. There’s lots of installations that play TV and music clips. Crazy costumes and platform shoes are on display. In the Hall of Records there are 912 45rpm singles and 292 albums line the walls. The tour ends with the late Isaac Hayes’ gold plated Cadillac that contained working phone and television back in the ‘70s. The gift shop has great Stax tee’s and every Southern soul CD or DVD your heart desires.

After all that history your gonna be quite hungry. What you’ll find in Memphis is that every restaurant in town claims to have the best bar-b-q and sauce. You can’t go wrong by playing it safe and stopping by one of the Neely’s two Memphis locations (5700 Mt. Moriah & 670 Jefferson). This clan of cooks have become national celebrities via their show on the Food Channel and its well earned, both because of their inspirational story and the quality of their food.

There are two other spots I’d recommend in Memphis. The Beauty Shop (966 South Cooper) is in the artsy Cooper-Young Historic District of Memphis and is located on the site of an old beauty shop, so the old dryers and many of the other fixtures are part of the motif. For Memphis the menu is relatively light. My family and I enjoyed the fried chicken and watermelon meal.

One of the most famous soul food restaurants in Memphis is the Four Way Grill, which is located in the Soulsville section of town. Rev. Jesse Jackson and others associated with the civil rights movement still stop by when they are in town. The fish and the deserts will fill you up quite nicely.

I don’t want to give the impression that Memphis is a place just obsessed with its past. There is a very lively hip hop and neo-soul scene. Unlike a lot of cities, who are not producing gifted young musicians, kids from Memphis can play and play well. The best reference point for young Memphis soul is a web site called, which is the brainchild of local singer Tonya Dyson. To see Tonya, another local groups, run by Café Soul (492 South Main Street) when you hit town.

I think that Memphis, because of its well-maintained black history museums and hearty food, is really great family destination, a place that will both fill your mind your belly.


Its very tempting for any music fan to wanna run by Hi Records studio, where Al Green recorded, but the area is very unfriendly, so skip that. Instead you should go out to Reverend Green’s church to catch the great singer behind the pulpit… If you wanna a catch a glimpse of a quirky Memphis tradition go by the Peabody Hotel for where ducks walk off an elevator into a lobby fountain and then back into the elevator in the morning and afternoon. Its certainly not for everyone, but you’ll be surprised how packed the velvet rope gets for people who wanna see how these well heeled ducks live.

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1 comment for 'Memphis: Blog'

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