The Mighty Mississippi. The first thing that you must know about Memphis is that the Mississippi is king. The Mississippi River was the foundation of commerce upon which Memphis got its start—when "cotton was king." From the gulf coast to New Orleans, this majestic torrent of power and breath has proven time and time again that no one challenges the Mississippi River and lives to tell about it. On the other hand, those who learn to respect it power and authority (like river boat captain Samuel Clemens), have made their living and their life on the waters and rivers banks. When you get to Memphis, don’t simple drive over the Mississippi—get out, take a sit, and feel the power of this majestic force of nature.
Elvis. Al Green. BB King. Some of great musicians that have called Memphis home, and they are remembered for it today. Two places that you must visit in Memphis are Graceland and Beale Street. Graceland, of course is the modest homestead of Elvis Presley. Though it seems bigger than life, it is actually not a large house, but the stories and adventures that originated from this house during the life of this legend are indeed bigger than life. Upon walking in the front door at Graceland, you will enter a world that is exactly as it was in the 1970s. Yellow walls, gaudy décor, and many small rooms filled with the trophies of his life and his music. You don’t have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy a few hours at the Graceland mansion and grounds.
The second place that you must visit is Beale Street. The home of the blues. Here you will find the music of the legends to which Vegas only dreams of giving birth. Al Green—a Memphian who drove a black caddy with gold trim around town when we were children (in Shelby Forest). BB King—whose soulful music continues to set the world on fire. And those who have followed in their foot steps. Beale Street is still filled with music today, and though this is a bit of a tourist destination, if you are in Memphis on the weekend, Beale Street is a must-see.
Justin Timberlake. Not everyone knows that Justin Timberlake grew up outside of Memphis in Shelby Forest. This beautiful state park area is seated on the banks of the Mississippi River, just outside of Millington. Justin went to elementary school at EE Jeter, elementary—a very small rural school on Benjestown Road (if you want to make the drive from Memphis, it is about 40 minutes). There is nothing unique about this school. It does not crank out music celebrities, or have special classes for the musically talented. If it did, I may have been one, too. I went to school at Jeter for 5 years, but I missed Justin by a full generation. Yes, I went to school with uncle John Timberlake, and knew Randy, Justin’s dad, as well. Does that make me a Jeter celebrity? I wish. It only makes me another would-be celebrity stalker. Sorry Justin and family. I am not trying to get in your back yard.
Justin’s grandfather and grandmother still live in the general area and pastor a church near Millington. They are wonderful members of the community and earned their respect long before the name Timberlake became famous to the rest of us.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Most people know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis during a trash workers strike. This is one of the saddest reminders of the kind of national history that that the US is often known for having created. We have come a long way since the 60s, and if you want to see the place where King was standing and understand the history of Dr. King and those who fought so hard for the liberty of people of color in the United States, the The Lorraine Hotel (National Civil Rights Museum) is located at 450 Mulberry in Memphis, TN in the South Main Historic District. It is very close to Beale Street, and the Peabody hotel.
The Peabody. This southern institution is a classic and a common place for Memphian’s and visitors alike. The Peabody is one of the oldest southern hotels, and has one tradition that is so unique and odd, that it seems civilized to those of us who grew up hearing about it. Every afternoon, on schedule, the elevators from the top floor of the hotel gather their prestigious residents and shuttle them to the majestic ground floor lobby. On the red carpet from the elevator to the large antebellum fountain in the middle of the grand lobby, the ducks make their march. With every eye in the room fixed on these residents, they swim in the lobby fountain for several minutes, and then proceed to get out and make their way back to the elevator where they retire for the day. Like clock work. Every day. And the tradition lives on.
Memphis in May. If you are visiting Memphis during the summer months, make it May. Since the 1970s, Memphis has been putting on a summer festival every May, filled with music, BBQ, contests, and lots of regional fun. The MemphisInMay festival has its own website if you are interested in the schedule of events. www.memphisinmay.org
Barbeque. Pork BBQ, that is. Southern pulled pork BBQ. Don’t let anyone from Texas tell you that Texas BBQ is the best in the world. Texas has good BBQ, mind you, but Texas BBQ is Beef—naturally. But if you want real southern BBQ, you have to go to Memphis (or Little Rock Ark, which is the same flavor and taste as Memphis BBQ). There are a few places in the world where BBQ rules, and Memphis is probably in the top 2 to many who know and love BBQ.
There are a couple of culinary distinctions to note about Memphis BBQ that differ from Texas BBQ. First of all, it is made from Pork—I told you that already. White Meat BBQ. The second is that Memphis BBQ is either dry (rub) or wet or both. You will have to try both and decide which fits your taste. The next thing that you must know is that in Memphis, it is customary to put Cole slaw on your BBQ sandwich. This is not required, but if you don’t want it, you should probably ask to have it added "on the side" so that you are not surprised. I recommend trying it, whether you like cole slaw on not. It’s a Deep South thing. Try it!
A couple of popular BBQ restaurants in Memphis: Interstate BBQ. & Corky’s. These are both legends in their own right, and if Elvis were alive today, you might find him packing in the pork BBQ at one or both of these famous Memphis landmarks. There are many small BBQ shops in Memphis that serve great BBQ. Don’t be afraid of stopping, regardless of the name on the sign.
The River Walk on Mud Island. This may not look like much, but this little 2-mile long island has a scaled replica of the Mississippi River, from its tributaries to the Gulf of Mexico. If you remember the Tom Cruise movie "The Firm," part of the movie’s chase scene was shot on the walking bridge and museum on Mud Island. While you are in the area (downtown), don’t miss the glass pyramid and the nearby houses facing the river. Very close to the bridge that crosses the Mississippi River (called the "new river bridge" by locals, though it was built 30 years ago) is the Danny Thomas St. Jude Children’s Research Center. This facility is one of the most notable children’s research facilities in the world today. If every celebrity left the legacy that Danny Thomas has left to the world, the world would be a better place (not that it’s a bad place!).
The Memphis Zoo. The Memphis Zoo is a smaller zoo located in Overton Park, but very nice for its size. One thing that is interesting about this zoo is that the most famous former resident of this sanctuary is the Volney the Lion. You may have seen Volney. He was the lion that roared at the beginning and end of MGM movie trailers. Don’t expect to see Volney today, as he passed in 1944 (but I thought you might like to know—since you seem to like celebrity stories).
Well, there is more to say about Memphis, but I am sure that many others have already said it. Memphis is truly a place of southern culture, southern history, and southern traditions.