(Bluff-top art, the mighty Mississippi, and the green expanse beyond. Photo by Richard Banks)
I lived 33 of my 44 years in Memphis. Now after eight years away, the city’s culture is still under my finger nails like ribs and sauce, and its music reverberates in my head. When I get back to town, it’s like I can breathe again and I hyperventilate as I can’t stop paying visits to old haunts. Back home after a long weekend, I’m usually spent after days of reconnection and no sleep.
I’m happy to report – in between naps in my office, of course – that a recent trip was no different. The city is as entertaining as ever and the local populace as hospitable as any in the South – both perfect ingredients for a quick weekend escape.
Most Scenic Landmark: The mighty Mississippi (above) continues to mystify, amaze, and even intimidate me. Standing on the bluffs overlooking the river, I get swept away thinking of its place in history, its raw power, and the fact that to this day, there is scant development on the Arkansas bank opposite Memphis. Very few downtowns this size offer as much greenscape so close. Such a view is one of the reasons why developers continue to convert warehouses and office buildings into residences, making for an even more vibrant downtown.
Juke Joints and Rockin’ Clubs: First, let me be clear – there is no “Memphis Sound.” Sure, Sun and Stax put the city on the map, but they offered more differences in approach to pop music as they shared similarities. That’s not to take anything away from the city, however. To me, it’s more meaningful that the city that raised me taught me more than one sound, most of which, plus plenty more, can be found today. If you have to visit one club, go to Wild Bill’s on the north end of Midtown at 1580 Vollintine. No, it’s not the best neighborhood on the outside, but on the inside you’ll find yourself feeling at home with some of the best blues in Memphis – and that’s saying something. For an eclectic mix of rock, country, and just about everything else, try the Hi-Tone on Poplar just across from Overton Park. Co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, Ground Zero recently opened near Beale Street and features blues and an occasional celebrity sighting. (This is the second Ground Zero location; the first opened in Clarksdale, MS, in 2001.)
Best Coffee: Others may disagree and call me old hat (coffee drinkers are soooo opinionated), but I’m still a fan of the java offered at Otherlands at 641 South Cooper. It just perks me up.
Best Brew: I love a good beer and Boscos brews and serves some of the best in the South. The food ain’t bad either. As with any good watering hole, try getting a seat at the bar for terrific conversation among the locals. If you’re there on a Thursday evening ask for the whereabouts of Richard, Dean, and Rob. If you’re lucky enough to engage this fab trio in conversation, you’ll leave the bar greatly enlightened on every subject from Nietzsche to University of Memphis basketball.
Best Radio: It frightens me to think of what I would’ve missed musically had it not been for WEVL, 89.9 on the FM dial. Every city in the country should have such a community-supported radio station (WEVL stands for we volunteer) that offers such a mish-mash of musical programming. Check out their schedule and listen online
(Cafe Eclectic: a new addition to Midtown. Photo by Richard Banks)
Deliciously New: Café Eclectic opened up just around the corner from where I spent about 20 of my years haunting Midtown. If I still lived there, I would have a second home. The menu may be limited but the items served are tasty and prepared with fresh ingredients. Have breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the counter and engage one of the servers in conversation. Those with whom I’ve chatted there know the area and where to experience Memphis.
(The Bluff at AutoZone Park. Photo by Van Chaplin)
Home Run: Let me be clear – I’m no baseball fan. The subtleties of the game usually evade me. All that changes, though, if I’m at AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds and one of, if not the nicest Triple A parks in the country. For one, the park’s view of the downtown skyline makes me feel in the thick of things; two, you’re almost always in view of the field when in the stadium’s concourses; and three, watching a game from the lawn at The Bluff section of the park is a heckuva way to experience a game. Lastly, the design of the park is itself a striking work of architecture. The Birds have had better seasons, but at least they’re way ahead of cross-state rival Nashville. Better hurry, though, the last regular season home game is September 1.
Goodbyes: I can’t let this posting pass without mentioning the loss of two musical icons in Memphis. First, I read with great dismay a few weeks back that longtime WEVL deejay Dee “Cap’n Pete” Henderson was shot and killed in his backyard on July 15. The killing, which even received ink in the New York Times , silenced one of the city’s most venerable radio celebrities and left me in tears, as it did plenty of others who’d listened to Mr. Henderson’s show each Friday night on the city’s community-supported radio station. Mixing nuggets of wisdom with great music, Cap’n Pete never failed to entertain and inform. Also, his infectious laugh always got a long, wild Memphis Friday night off on the right foot.
(Isaac Hayes and Stax songwriting partner David Porter. Credit: Stax Museum of American Soul Music)
The city lost another esteemed member of its music community August 10, when Isaac Hayes was found dead at his home in East Memphis. (Read more about Hayes on the official blog for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music at www.staxmuseumnews.blogspot.com.) Known as the music behind Shaft, the voice of Chef on South Park, and, most importantly (to me at least), partner with David Porter in the ground-breaking Stax songwriting duo that wrote such hits as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming.” For a wanna-be musician who came of age in 1970s Memphis, it’s hard to explain the influence a man like Hayes had on me and countless other musicians worldwide. Time will tell, but he may even have an influence on my son, Aaron, being the first celebrity the latter met. In a Midtown grocery store in 1996, the two of us rounded a corner and there, on the peanut butter aisle, stood Mr. Hayes, bald head and all. I stammered, “A-a-a-a-a-aron, this is Isaac Hayes, Mr. Shaft.” Mr. Hayes, cracked a smile, chuckled, and said “hello.” With my heart about to beat out of my chest, I stole for an out-of-the-way corner of the store before I said something really stupid. Albeit short and sweet, I’ll always remember that introduction as yet another that made me proud to be a Memphian.
Cap’n Pete and Isaac Hayes you made many a life richer with your contributions. We’ll miss you.