I love my couch and TV. The couch is a big sectional that allows you to stretch out and get super comfortable. The TV is 65 inches of full-on HD color magic. They’re both great, and as a pair, they are symbiotic. But they’re also devils. You see, they are so seductive that they can get you to settle in, night after night, and experience some weird electronic version of “life.”
I’ve learned that I have to get off the couch, turn off the TV and go out and experience the real thing. It’s one of the reasons why I love live music so much. The rush and exhilaration of the band, the music, the crowd, the lights and the unspoken but prevalent energy is, combined, a type of drug for me. I crave it and I need it.
Most of the time, I go and see a band that I know. Of course, right? But there are occasions when I simply go and see whatever is playing, and get surprised by how good or bad the band is. When I’m traveling, particularly to a place like Memphis, Austin or Nashville, the opportunity to go from bar to bar and see multiple acts in one night is too good to pass up. I love hitting cities with a large indigenous music population that bursts out everywhere and allows me to indulge. Sometimes, you even hit the jackpot.
Such was the case in Memphis recently. We sauntered into Jerry Lee Lewis’s honky-tonk joint, and sat our butts down. The band was on a break, and so we ordered up some drinks and I went to take a piss. In the men’s room, this dude with a great pompadour is primping it up in the mirror. I almost commented on how much I liked the hairdo, but it’s kind of weird to be exposed and complimentary to another man at the same time. I said nothing.
I go back to the table, and Mr. Pompadour heads to the stage. He gets up there with a couple of other musicians and then starts to pound into some wonderful covers of early rock. He plays with verve, energy, and passion. His name, as I find out later, is Jason James.
The place had a pretty good crowd, but it wasn’t packed and pretty much everyone had a seat. I’m glad that people were comfortable, but sitting down is an antidote to dancing and having a good time. When you’re standing and the music starts to roll, you just go with it. If you’re sitting down, you might tap your toe or move your head, but you might also stuff some fries into your mouth or take a swig off of your beer. It’s why I like to go to standing shows – you can groove. Yeah, my knees hurt, and my legs get tired, but so what? I’m also primed for the show to hit my dance button.
What does this have to do with Jason James? Well, we got up off of our seats, got in front of the crowd, and danced our buns off. He and the boys were ripping one great song after another, and we wanted to have some fun. Some others joined us, but not many. Nonetheless, I think it made a difference to the band: they had had an effect on someone in the crowd, and had made that aural connection that got us wiggling to the sounds they were making.
At one point, we were up there right by Jason, and he gets out a small bottle of something and starts splashing it on to his piano. He then lights it, and the flames come up bright and warm. You know I love that kind of stuff. I have testosterone in my system, so loud music, fire and spectacle get my neurons to “bing, bing, bing” and me to laugh, dance and carry on. Jason then rips into some boogie-woogie piano, and well, the Kid went wild.
So here’s more on Jason James. He’s from Massachusetts, but now lives in Memphis. He can play the piano like a man possessed, but he also can play a venerable lead guitar, and he can sing. The dude must love old time rock ‘n’ roll, and I mean from the fifties, because he plays great old songs that every boomer knows. Jason has a great stage presence, and understands what about 99% of contemporary musicians don’t get: not only are you there to play music, you’re also there to have fun and perform. I’m getting kind of tired and bored with bands that just come out and stand in front of their mics. C’mon, haven’t they ever watched video of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Jagger, JB, Daltry, Mercury or any other rock icons? Jason understands that you need to PERFORM, play for the crowd, and become a different person on stage that is there to blow minds and give people something not just to hear, but to see and experience.
I ended up talking to Jason and he gave me his live CD to review. I’ve listened to it a bunch of times, and here are my thoughts. First, it’s a cover album, so you know the tunes. And he has done a great job in selecting ones that are historically important, but that also rock. Second, his band played live, but they were well-rehearsed and the performances were tight. There aren’t a lot of “oops” moments, and that’s a feat in the live format. Next, Jason can play that damn piano and guitar, and to great effect with the crowd. It was obvious that the people who were present during the taping were having a great time. But alas, all is not perfect. Jason’s voice is competent but not compelling, and on some tunes, the range is too much of a challenge. That’s not to say that the vocals are bad, but they can be pedestrian. Still, my opinion of the album is that it’s one worth having in your collection if for no other reason than a new version of Rocket 88 is needed in everyone’s music collection.
Here’s some great video of Jason tearing it up.
It’s always great to stumble onto a performer who cares and is skilled. We got that on a Friday evening on Beale Street in Memphis at Jerry Lee’s joint. If you’re in town, go there and hope that Jason James is ripping the place up yet again. We had a rip-snorting great time. Oh, and bring your dancing shoes, you’ll need them.
I’ve got one more post on Memphis upcoming. It’s all about Beale Street, which encapsulates everything I saw and experienced in Memphis in one compact corridor. Oh yeah, I’ve also been going to show after show, and have a backlog of reviews to get to on that front. It will be an exciting August at BRP, and you don’t want to miss a minute of it. Come on back soon, y’hear?
Wouldn’t you want to go see a show at a place called Stickyz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack? I sure as hell did, and my wish came true. Dash Rip Rock, a band from way back in the BRP arsenal but one I’ve never seen live, was in Little Rock the same day I was, and they were the headliner at Stickyz. I love going to shows that include music I want to see at a price I want to pay, but I must admit that I was feeling a little cheap when all they wanted to see 3 live bands was $10. $10!! And since I bought tickets at the door, there was no additional ticket, service or handling fees involved. Can I get an Amen? Thank you.
We didn’t catch the first band as we were still eating dinner elsewhere when they came on. But we caught the second act, whose name I can’t recall. They specialized in psychedelic country rock. I think that’s what it was. Whatever it was, it was pretty good, and they kept us interested for a half hour. We cadged a table right up front, stage left, and were feeling pretty smug that we had beaten the crowd that would surely emerge for the headliner. Oh, and the beer and beverages at Stickyz were also budget friendly, so we helped ourselves to plenty.
Usually it takes about ½ hour between bands as the first one has to pack up all their gear, and then the second one has to set up all of theirs. On this particular night, the bands were sharing the drum kit and microphones, so that cut down on the time needed for the roadies to work their magic. In fact, they were swift, and within 15 minutes of the previous band finishing, Dash Rip Rock took the stage. Yowza! But where was the crowd?
Well, the crowd never materialized. I’ll bet there were no more than 75 people in the club that night. Still, DRR put on a terrific set of material that was highly entertaining. Playing their characteristic cowpunk, the set moved from song to song swiftly. And the songs were swift, too. In fact, hearing hillbilly lyrics sung to Ramones-style pacing was something that my redneck/punk butt enjoyed quite a bit.
We noticed that a number of their original songs were sort of nasty. Other bands may try to be subtle with their lyrics, or try for the artsy crowd. Not DRR. If they want to pick up a girl at a bar and do the dirty with her in the parking lot, then they sing a song called Let’s Go F*ck in My Truck. If they think that a wealthy woman is a bit too much for them to take, the song is called Rich Little Bitch. This stuff is in your face.
But the band, a blazing hot trio featuring leader Bill Davis, is tighter than a duck’s behind, and they were clearly there to bring it that night. There were some great tunes that were creative and funny, such as a send-up of the two most requested rock songs ever (Stairway to Heaven and Free Bird) that was called Stairway to Free Bird and that featured hooks from each original tune, plus a mash-up of lyrics that made you smile. Or how about a tune called Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot that used Danny and Junior’s doo-wop song Let’s Go To The Hop with more modern lyrics. It was funny to have them doo-wopping the word “pot” when Danny used “hop.” They did a campy and punk-fast version of Delta Dawn. And they even played a Mojo Nixon song, which led directly to a Philly reference. Someone in the crowd said “who?,” and Davis replied “if you don’t know about Mojo Nixon than this place can use some fixin’” which is right out of the Dead Milkmen song Punk Rock Girl. Where are the Dead Milkmen from? Philly, naturally. Irrespective, It worked. And the boys played plenty of music that simply made your guitar-loving heart sing.
Davis can rip it on the 6 string. This guy is super-talented, but also cognizant of the fact that hardly anyone wants to hear lengthy guitar solo after lengthy guitar solo. So he sped up the songs, ripped off short bursts of artistry, and then went back to playing rhythm to carry the tune. And he has a good enough voice to make the whole thing entertaining.
The people in the club who were smart enough to pull themselves away from their TVs that night enjoyed the show, too. Lots of whooping and hollering among the crowd at the end of each tune. No one really stood up and raved on, but there was some jamming going on in the seats. One guy was trying to keep up with the drummer the entire evening to no avail, but he was fun to watch.
So who the heck gets lucky like me on this whim 24 hour trip to Little Rock? I know of no one. To be able to say that I’ve been to Stickyz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack and seen Dash Rip Rock tear the joint up is just too much. Even better, we simply strolled 4 blocks back to our hotel at the end of the show, and didn’t have to hassle with the whole driving, parking, transportation thing. How refreshing. I do understand that DRR is on tour now, and if they come to Philly, you might want to take a look-see. I doubt you’ll do it for $10, and I doubt you’ll stroll up to a front row seat like we did, but I don’t doubt that you’ll have a rollicking good time.
With that, I’m done with Arkansas for the time being. And now, I’m done with this post. I told you that I had much to write about from my trip to the mid-south, and I wasn’t lying. What’s up next? Well, you’ll just have to take some time away from those other screens in your house and take a look at what foolishness I’ve been up to since the last time you were dumb enough to swing by. I promise you that I’ll try to make it worth your while. OK? Ok! See ya.
Colt 45? No, I drank that crap when I was a kid and wanted a cheap beer buzz. It’s really horrible stuff, but occasionally I get wistful for its flavor because it’s so powerfully reminiscent of part of my youth. Oh, and doesn't Colt 45 work every time? Yeah, that's what I thought.
45 RPM? No, not that either, but that would be a good guess given that this is primarily a music blog. Do you remember that little adaptor that you had to use to play 45s on your turntable? For whatever reason, 45s came with a much larger hole in the middle than did 33s, and you popped this little plastic disc adaptor into the hole so that the 45 could rotate uniformly on the spindle. I spent a lot of time with 45s in my life as they were the primary records that you bought prior to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The Beatles were the first band that made entire albums relevant, and not just singles. Once the Beatles did that, everyone naturally followed and the 33 became the medium for purchasing and listening to records.
Back to 45. What 45 do I speak of? Well, there are 50 states in the U.S. and I have now visited 45 of them. The latest state to be conquered was Arkansas (“Woo Pig! Sooie!”). I don’t know why but it’s become a thing with me that I want to visit all 50 states.
Like everything, there is a way to make the visit “official.” Some will say that you simply have to step onto the soil of a place to proclaim an official visitation, while others will say that you have to do something there for it be a visit. For me, you have to spend the night within the jurisdiction. That seems reasonable given that you are making some kind of proclamation that you’ve visited a place. Spending a night requires some effort, and puts you into the position where you actually have to see daylight and nighttime in order to say “Yep, I’ve been there.”
What’s the point? I have no idea. Perhaps for me, it’s just that I’m American, proudly so, and want to see this great and large country of ours. It’s a big place, and it’s different and beautiful when you travel around it. Despite a homogeneous popular culture, there are still some pretty significant regional differences that are best experienced rather than simply acknowledged. And the U.S. has certain things that other countries don’t offer, and I want to be a part of them, at least for a day. Sure, it’s also silly, trite and egotistical, but hey, I’m silly, trite and egotistical. I’m not the only one; what’s the purpose of Johnny Cash’s song other than to brag that he’s been there, done that, and you haven’t.
There are places in the U.S. where you can still feel out of place, or where you are instantly recognized as not being “from there.” I was in a restaurant in northern Mississippi recently, and we had to wait on a table. The host looked at us oddly because he could tell that we weren’t from Mississippi. He took down our telephone number to text me when it was ready, and he didn’t recognize my 267 area code. He asked where I was from, and when I said Philly, he said “for real?!” Like, what are you doing here? And it’s so obvious you’re from SOMEWHERE other than here. I was still certainly in the U.S., but I clearly wasn’t in a big Northeast city or some other place where I routinely find myself.
This country has so many great places to see, too. I was in California for a wedding earlier this year, and we found ourselves in Carmel, a picturesque retirement town for the wealthy. We hiked along the Pacific coast at Point Lobos State Park (no, we didn’t see any wolves), and it was unspeakably beautiful. I would imagine that a Californian coming to see the Jersey shore would be taken by how different it is from the coastline with which they are most familiar, and that’s how I felt. I’m glad I saw it, watched sea lions bask on a hidden beach and tidepooled around some rocks at low tide. You don’t do that on the East Coast. Instead, you swim in the warm ocean and hang out in boardwalk towns that are full of little kids eating funnel cakes and other healthy snacks. Both are great, both are remarkably different from one another, but both are part of our country and ought to be experienced.
Wait a minute, what's that pickup doing here? Well, they must know that I'm a southern redneck at heart because when I got to the San Francisco rental car agency, that pickup is what they had reserved for me. Hahaha, who in God's name wants to rent that for SF? I don't know, but they had about 15 of them in a row, so I kept the damn thing and embraced my heritage. Yee-hah!
When we went to Memphis, I immediately seized on the idea of going to Arkansas for just one night. It’s right across the Mississippi River, and Little Rock, the capital, is all of 2 hours away. Since I was driving, off we went. I will say that the drive from Memphis to Little Rock is kind of boring save for the many trucks that plow I-40 and that are constantly jockeying for position along the way. The landscape is flat, agricultural and open. Think of driving along the Delaware eastern shore, and you’ll get a clue. It always strikes me that the U.S. is still remarkably free from development compared to the rest of the first world countries. Asia is simply teeming with people, and there isn’t a square foot of land that isn’t purposefully set aside for something. Farmers live in skyscrapers in Korea, I kid you not. And Europe is also densely populated in comparison. It has 100 million more people in half the size of the U.S., and you notice it. I like the open spaces and the feeling that there is still land aplenty for our citizenry.
We got to Little Rock with, let’s face it, low expectations. I knew the Clinton Presidential Library was there, as well as Little Rock Central High School, but other than that, I was pretty ignorant of the place. I was happily surprised. The city is compact, but has a nice setting astride the Arkansas River. Downtown is spruced up with new buildings, charming older places that have been restored and preserved, and there is a thriving arts and culinary thing going on there. We strolled through a gallery composed of the output from Arkansas artists, and it was large, diverse and interesting. You know I love the visual arts, and while Little Rock certainly can’t compete with the big cities in terms of museums (although the Waltons have funded a museum in Bentonville that is supposed to be pretty amazing), that didn’t diminish the artistic beauty and relevance of the works on display here.
The Clinton library is worth seeing. It has the typical stuff of many of the presidential libraries: the replica Oval Office, presidential limo, and history of the presidency of Mr. Clinton. And they threw in a replica of the Cabinet conference room to boot. The curators did a good job of putting his presidency into perspective, although it was a bit too rah-rah for my tastes. The building is designed to resemble he main library in Dublin’s Trinity College, and after comparing pictures, there is a similarity of design. As always, I found the gifts that people and dignitaries had given the President the most interesting thing on display. I’ve been to LBJ’s and FDR’s libraries, and this one held its own. It also has distinguished architecture and a lovely spot along the river. I liked it.
I’ll talk about Little Rock Central High School in a separate post that discusses the plight of black people in the U.S, and particularly in the Jim Crow south. My heart aches for what was done to them.
Little Rock also has a free downtown trolley system with antique cars that tool around.
It was fun to ride one for a bit. We were just messing around and figured that it would be a quick and easy way to discover some spots we might not otherwise see, when bam! I look out the window of a small club about 4 blocks from our hotel and it is advertising that Dash Rip Rock, the New Orleans cowpunk band, is playing that very night. I had seen any live music in, well, hours, and I was itching. Did we go? Oh yeah. I’ll write that up separately, too. Here's a couple more pics from Little Rock, including the Ten Commandments on the state capital grounds. Really? Yeah, really.
All in all, it was a well-spent 24 hours in Arkansas. I’ve now visited 45 states, and only have Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska to go. The Dakotas have plenty to interest me – Custer’s house and the battlefield at Little Big Horn, plus the Badlands. I know a lot of people from Iowa, and I pretty much like them all, so I’ll figure out something to do there. Nebraska has the Lewis and Clark trail that goes up the Missouri River. And Alaska is huge, majestic and full of characters. See? Everyplace is interesting, sometimes even BRP. Catch you soon, I hope.
Every great studio that produces tons of hits seems to have a house band that plays on track after track. Think about it. At Hitsville USA in Motown, it was the Funk Brothers. You’ve got the Swampers down in Muscle Shoals. In LA, you had the Wrecking Crew. And at Stax Records in Memphis, you had Booker T. and the MGs coupled with the Memphis Horns. Unlike those other house bands, Booker T. had a massive hit all by themselves, the fantastic instrumental Green Onions.
Yeah, these guys, like their city, were gritty and played with a rawer edge than many of those others. But let’s not try to rank or do something silly like that. Let’s instead dive into Stax and its legacy to see what was going on in Memphis in the post-Sun period.
The Stax museum is definitely worth visiting. Stax took over a former movie studio, modified it to contain a large control room and studio, and then punched out the hits for local and national adulation alike. Take a look:
Who recorded there? How about Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, the Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers to name a few. This was soul music, gospel with secular lyrics, and it was a sound that came out of Memphis and other black urban hubs throughout the nation. But having people like Otis Redding carrying the flag makes it hard to compete. Once again, Memphis boasts a larger musical heritage than its modest size would otherwise indicate.
The quick Stax story is that a brother and sister combo, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, set up a record shop and eventually a recording studio, and they operated the place in a color-blind fashion. Opening up in a traditionally black neighborhood referred to as Soulsville, this team of white people would record anyone with talent, and formed an integrated band well before integration was acceptable in this part of the world. Word got around, and Stax made a distribution deal with Atlantic Records that allowed its songs to get the national exposure that ensured commercial success. Tons of great music was recorded here, and the place competed with other local studios/labels like Hi and Argent (Argent ended up becoming a somewhat partner, and recorded other great bands, like the Box Tops and Big Star). The whole thing came spiraling down after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The place then ultimately falls derelict before being resurrected as the current museum.
Unlike most of the other music museums, this one told the story of soul music whether or not it was recorded at Stax. Sure, they focused on some of the great Stax artists and had more artifacts from them, but they also had some great stuff from Ike and Tina Turner.
But the collection of Stax memorabilia is super cool and some is over the top. Check out Isaac Hayes’s custom Cadillac:
Wow, can you imagine that thing driving around town? It would certainly catch your attention. Other great stuff includes Otis Redding’s stylish suede jacket, instruments used by the Bar-Kays, and lots of stuff from Booker T. and the MG’s: Steve Cropper’s Fender Telecaster, Donald “Duck” Dunn’s Fender Precision bass, Al Jackson, Jr.s drum set, Wayne Jackson’s Besson Brevete Trumpet, and Booker T. Jones Hammond M-3 organ. Take a look:
I don’t know why, but I love seeing that stuff. How about this send-off of the Beatles Abbey Road picture, done Memphis-style by Booker T. and the MG’s:
And let’s not forget the wall of 45 singles that were recorded at Stax:
Stax tells the story of American soul music, with a special emphasis on what Memphis brought to it. There's great video, too, and you can spend a lot of time in the joint just watching and then checking out the artifacts. One young kid was there, and the adult with him referenced the Theme From Shaft. The kid had never heard it, which blew the adult and me away (notice how I don't reference myself as an "adult"), and then we played it for him on Spotify. Yeah, he liked it. Who doesn't?
Memphis. How can such a small, gritty city have such a large impact on the world? Location, individuals with ambition, and great local talent all conspired to make Memphis a music hub. It's days are not gone, either. I still have to write up the Beale Street experience, where I came into contact with an extraordinary musician named Jason James. We'll get to that soon. But I need a break from Memphis. Can I take one? Phew, the boss said OK. I hope you'll like my detour. If not, skip the posts and then roll on back for more from Memphis. In the meantime, turn up the volume and rock it!
About a half hour south of Memphis is Nesbit, Mississippi. It’s a rural area with very little development. But Nesbit sports the home of one of rock’s early masters, Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis.
Before going to Tennessee, I read that you could go to Nesbit and visit Jerry Lee’s home, called the Lewis Ranch, and I was intrigued. Jerry Lee is still alive, and still lives part-time at the ranch. What star opens up their home for tours while they are still living in the home? It doesn’t happen in Hollywood, or Nashville or anyplace else. It’s highly unusual and an interesting opportunity. I couldn’t resist.
Unlike Graceland, the home isn’t just open – you have to make an appointment and you get a private tour. Two people give the tour – Jerry Lee’s son and Jerry’s Lee’s security guy. We got the security guy (Alex?) and we were the only two on the tour. We learned a lot about the Killer and how he lived, and got to see a ton of personal items. We even went into Jerry Lee’s bedroom. It was intimate.
I think it’s cool that Elvis is the King, but Jerry Lee is the Killer. JLL got that nickname because he was gonzo when playing the piano, and because of his wild personal life. There’s no sugar coating how influential JLL is in so many ways, including how to live the crazy rock ‘n’ roll life.
Unfortunately, the Killer wasn’t there when we toured. Apparently, he’ll show up on occasion. He reportedly has another house about 20 minutes away that is more modern, and he spends a fair amount of time there. And Jerry Lee suffered a stroke a bit ago, and so his health may not be top-notch. But I was bummed that we didn’t get to meet him personally. I’m not much of a star-chaser, but how often do you get to meet one of the original rockers and the inspiration for thousands who followed his lead? It would have been nice to say hi and tell him to read BRP, the best damn rock ‘n’ roll blog published in my house.
It wasn’t hard to find the house. You get the address, and it has a gate with a piano prominently built into it. You hit the button, the gate opens up, and off you go. Unlike Graceland, JLL doesn’t care if you take pictures and post them (except for his bedroom) and so I’ve got a ton of shots inside the house. Want to see them? Of course you do. But first, let's see the Killer in action.
This house is not opulent. JLL has had some financial issues with the IRS and maybe that has something to do with it. But what the house lacks in luxuries, it makes up for in accessibility and memorabilia. Like a lot of southern dudes, the Killer likes his guns and knives, and we got to see an armoire that he shot and the back of his bedroom door which was riddled with hundreds of knife cuts. Apparently, the Killer likes to throw his knives. And just so you know, it’s not that easy to get a knife to stick in a door. Once in college, I went to a buddy’s apartment where the boys were throwing kitchen knives into the back of a door. They were having trouble getting the knife to stick, and when I walked in, they demanded that I try. I took the knife, never having done this before, and on my first (and only) throw, I put that bitch right into the door where it stuck and wiggled. American bad ass! Haha, anyway, I watched for a while, and I’ll bet only about 30-40% of the throws resulted in a stick, and so Jerry’s door was impressive. Well, that and that he did it in his bedroom.
We saw a lot of other stuff, too. There’s a grand piano used by the Killer, and we were allowed to pose with it. Hey, just so you know, I can throw a knife, but I can’t play a lick on the piano.
There were the gold records.
There was the bar where luminaries like Johnny Cash passed out after a few too many (and few more gold records, too).
And there was the couch where Jerry Lee posed for an album cover.
We saw a lot of other items, too, much of which qualified as mementos from a long and lustrous career. Like the Jerry Lee and Skooby Doo sketch, or the keys to the jail.
Or how about Jerry Lee’s first electric piano?
He’s got a nice lake outside, and has a Rolls Royce sitting in the carport. Unfortunately, his “piano key” swimming pool is being repaired, so we couldn’t check that out. But we did go out on the back patio with a nice view of the lake. And we saw the kitchen, dining room and living room.
Let’s be real: this is not luxury living, but it’s homey and comfortable the way a normal person would live. Yeah, it needs updating, but it was cool getting to stroll around the house, hear stories of the Killer and see pictures and mementos of his life, and to do it on a very small tour. There was no need for an iPad or jitney bus here, and we hung out until we had run out of questions.
The Lewis Ranch is just another piece of the Memphis music story that hangs all over the region. You see pictures of Jerry Lee at Sun Studios, go to his house, and then hit his Beale Street honky-tonk. The presence of these influential and seminal musical personalities is universal in Memphis, and it makes it cool and different.
The Killer rocked it. Given how inspirational and influential he was on subsequent keyboard frontmen, right down to modern guys like Adam Weiner in Low Cut Connie, it was a privilege to get this kind of experience. Keep rolling, Jerry Lee, and live that rock ‘n’ roll life!
I've got so much more on Memphis - Stax Records, Jason James, Beale Street - plus some surprise stuff, too. You've just got to keep coming back and checking it out. I'll be here whenever you get the inkling.
It’s important to go to the Mountain. In this case, that’s Graceland. Other than the White House, it is the most visited home in the U.S., with about 600,000 annual visitors. Elvis Presley bought this house and lived here until he died at the ripe old age of 42. I had never been to Graceland until last week. It was well worth the wait.
Let’s get some things clear right up front. I like Elvis, but his real moment in the sun as a musician happened before I was born. I remember watching him when I was a kid in some of his cheesy movies on Saturday afternoons, but I don’t remember anything about his early rock ‘n’ roll days. Bands from the 60s resonate a lot more with me.
But I still have TREMENDOUS respect for the King. I’ve listened to his songs many times, and watched enough bio-pics on the dude to understand just what a phenomenon the guy was. I won’t pretend to be a know-it-all about Elvis. I haven’t seen all 31 of the movies he starred in, don’t know how many gold records he has, and don’t remember him impacting U.S. popular culture the way my elders do. By the time I was getting conscious about music and pop culture, Elvis was already a huge established star. Many others have spilt tons of ink researching and writing everything you would ever want to know about Mr. Presley, and I’m just not going to get into all of that.
Here’s the lowdown, BRP style. Elvis basically took a lot of black and hillbilly music and turned it onto the greater white world. But it wasn’t a conscious, calculated move. He was raised poor in Tupelo, MS before moving to Memphis with his folks, and he listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night, went to church and heard gospel music, and was living in Mississippi at a time when great bluesmen were playing their songs. He basically just took the influences that were all around him and emulated them. And it’s not like he wrote his own music anyway. Elvis thought of himself as a ballad singer, and he was a great one, but I remember him as a rocker. Nonetheless, the guy had great natural talent, charisma, boyish charm, and oozed sex appeal at a very prudish time in our history. You can’t give him too much credit for popularizing rock ‘n’ roll.
We forget sitting here in 2019 how narrow the world was back in the early 1950s. There was basically no TV, no internet, limited movies, and limited radio. You got what you got, and there was still tremendous regional variation throughout the country. To put it in perspective, much of the rural south was ruled by Jim Crow, and was just getting electricity. It was not unusual for homes in rural America to have outhouses and no electricity. In the South, church was the center of life, not only as a place of worship, but as a place of companionship and fellowship. And Mississippi was dirt poor with sharecroppers picking cotton in the fields and singing call-and-response gospel and blues tunes like slavery had never ended. That, along with the Grand Ole Opry radio show, were huge influences.
But it was also the post-war period, and things were looking up. Moving to Memphis allowed Elvis to be exposed to a lot more opportunities than in rural Mississippi. And the boy could sing. Nonetheless, there were no rock ‘n’ roll role models out there. When asked why he danced and swung his hips when he sang, Elvis said that he wasn’t even aware he was doing it; he was just feeling the music.
Whatever, once he got Sam Phillips to believe in him and start recording his songs, he burst on the scene. Not only did he become a regional hotshot, he got national airplay and was ominpresent. The string on number one hits is amazing, as is his move into movies and television. Maybe Col. Tom Parker was an exploitive SOB, but he was also a marketing genius, and he built Elvis into an icon and international star. And part of the story of Elvis is so non-traditional that it blows your mind. At the height of his musical popularity, he did what no rock star would ever do these days: he took a few years off and served in the military. For real? Yep. Sure, he was drafted, but he served.
Once Elvis hit it big, he started to get rich very fast. Well, maybe not very rich, but for a poor dude, he was rolling in bucks like he never dreamed. Thus Graceland. A previously owned home on acres of ground in south Memphis, he turned it into his home where he lived with his parents, his wife Prisciilla and his daughter Lisa Marie. That is, until he got divorced and his ex-wife and daughter split for Southern California.
Let’s get a little lowdown on the Graceland experience circa 2019. First, the area surrounding Graceland is, well, derelict. You wouldn’t go there unless Graceland existed. It’s cruddy and poor and simply not very nice. And then, all of a sudden, there sits a big-ass new hotel right on Elvis Presley Boulevard which is owned by Graceland. Across the street, you are directed to park and you enter the Graceland complex.
We’re old and get up early most days, and have learned that, like the marines, it’s best to be first on the beach when going to popular tourist attractions. We got there a few minutes before the place opened, got our tickets, and started the tour. In case you were wondering, you have a bunch of choices with your ticket options, and they are all kinda pricey. We opted for the Elvis Experience, which gets you into Graceland the house, all the museums, and into the airplanes. How much? $65 per person. Ouch!
You enter the Graceland complex in the middle of a big group of not-very-attractive buildings which house the ticket office, a theater, a bunch of museums, 4 restaurants, a live music venue and acres of $10 per car parking. I think you can camp there, too, as the number of RVs on premises at 9 in the morning was impressive. Once you have your ticket, you get in line to see a quick and very good intro film (about 8 minutes long) that recounts Elvis’s career (but with none of the bad parts). Then you go outside, get on a jitney bus, and head over to the mansion itself.
They give you an iPad and headphones as the tour of the house is self-guided. The iPad is good and works well, with lots of side information available if you want it. You aren’t rushed through the house, but it’s crowded because the house itself isn’t very large. I don’t know the square footage, but I’ve been in bigger houses many times on the Main Line. Here are some pictures of the experience and of the back of the house.
I took a ton of pictures, but am only showing the outside ones. There was a sign that said you could take as many pics as you want, but couldn’t put them up for “commercial” use. As you know, BRP is a de facto non-profit, nay a money loser, but I’ve come across these serious types before – read my Taylor Swift post for more on that – and Graceland is nothing if not a serious effort to part you with your money. I’m not going to tempt fate, but if you’re interested, swing on by my house and I’ll show you the inside pictures – they’re cool and worth putting up with me for a while (well, that’s a big statement, but you get the point).
With the Elvis Experience, you get lots of Elvis information, but only if you’re looking for the good and flashy side of him. You get nothing on Col. Tom Parker (I think I saw his name mentioned once even though he managed Elvis’s career his entire life and at one point took 50% of everything), you hear nothing about Elvis’s slide into depression and drugs, and there is precious little about his divorce and post-divorce years. And of course, you get zero information on who now owns Graceland (from what I can tell, it’s Lisa Marie and maybe some other company that bought Elvis’s name/likeness from his estate). By the way, the internet estimate of Lisa Marie’s net worth is $300 million, and Elvis was worth all of $5 million when he died. If you think about that, and how much he is estimated to have generated during his lifetime ($1 billion is the estimate), well, someone was getting fleeced.
Still, Elvis had money to spend. He decorated the house in the manner of a poor kid done good. Some of it is tacky, some nice, some crazy (the jungle room) and some extravagant (the racketball court complete with lounge). He bought cars, motorcycles, modified snowmobiles, and all kinds of other toys. Elvis had a small jet and big touring plane that was decked out to the nines. And he was a generous soul, constantly giving money to those in need and to worthy causes. You come away from Graceland thinking that he was a fun loving, good guy, and that fame boxed him in, but he was free at Graceland. You also find out that he had some odd habits. One was that he had a police car light, and would occasionally pull people over and give them a safety tip. Can you imagine that happening today? Me either.
We spent about 3.5 hours at Graceland. On an hourly basis, that admission fee isn’t so bad after all. It was well done, very slick and “corporate,” but also chock full of great Elvis memorabilia. I’m going to show the wall of gold records because it’s about 50 feet high and they used every square inch of it. It’s highly impressive. But they also had a bunch of his cars and motorcycles, stage outfits, a big thing on Elvis in the military, an area devoted just to his Hollywood days, and lots of other artifacts. It was slim on video, but that’s what YouTube and BRP are for, right?
Yes, we went to the Mountain. It was important. It was worth it. But Graceland is like the Everest of rock locations. The Lewis Ranch, which I’ll talk about in another post shortly, is more like one of the forgotten Himalayan peaks that, on their own, are mind-blowing, but in reality are always in the shadow of Everest/Graceland. Maybe that’s for the best.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.