Author Justin Goldman Photography Dave Anderson
DAY ONE | I wake in a spacious suite at the Peabody Memphis, slip on a robe, which is embroidered with ducks, fluff my pillow, also decorated with ducks, then shower and dry myself with a towel that’s emblazoned with ducks. I think they’re trying to tell me something.
As the elevator door opens on the ornate, marble-columned lobby, I find myself in a madhouse. Hundreds of people jostle alongside a red carpet leading from the elevator to a nearby fountain. The hero’s welcome isn’t for me: It’s for the famous Peabody Ducks, who roost in a $200,000 “mansion” on the roof of the hotel and march to the fountain in the morning and back in the evening, a tradition that dates back more than 70 years.
“The ducks know they’re the stars, and that every human being in that lobby is here to see them march,” says Anthony Petrina, the hotel’s red-jacketed “Duckmaster,” after leading the line of birds along the carpet. “They’ve waddled through every little bit of fabric [of history] that Memphis has had.”
Feeling rather, uh, peckish, I take a 15-minute stroll across downtown to the Arcade Restaurant, a bright diner that dates back almost a hundred years. I slide into a booth across from John Doyle, executive director of the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, who has agreed to give me an introduction to the city’s musical history—once I’ve tried an order of the Arcade’s grilled sweet potato pancakes, a perfectly crisp, sweet way to start the day.
From here, Doyle and I head back into the heart of downtown, the intersection of Beale Street and Highway 61 (the famous “Blues Highway”) to visit the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum. The exhibits detail how the call-and-response and sing-along songs of Southern sharecroppers—black and white—grew into country and the blues, which along with gospel collided in Memphis to form two quintessentially American musical forms: rock ’n’ roll and, later, soul.
“Rock ’n’ Soul is a great starting point for the Memphis music pilgrimage,” Doyle says. “So many folks come here, and they do the Graceland thing and see the jumpsuits and the gold records, but this lays out the whole basis of rock ’n’ roll.” The audio tour features songs from pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers, and the exhibit includes items like Jerry Lee Lewis’ flower-embossed stage costume.
Memphis is a small city, but getting around without a car can be a trial. So Doyle and I take my rental a few minutes southeast to Royal Studios, an old movie house that was converted into a studio in the 1950s. It was here that the legendary Willie Mitchell ran Hi Records, where Al Green recorded many of his hits. “The studio’s still a studio,” Doyle says, pointing at a wall bearing the signatures of artists who have recorded here recently, including RZA, Robert Plant and Bruno Mars, who laid down tracks for “Uptown Funk” here last year. “It’s exactly the way Willie Mitchell left it.”
Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, Willie’s mellow (but extremely busy) grandson, who now runs the studio, gives us a tour. He stomps on the same Coca-Cola crate Green’s guitarist, Teenie Hodges, used in 1972 to count off time at the beginning of “Love and Happiness.” He also breaks out a set of electric bongos and plays the beat of “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” sending the haunting, metronomic riff echoing through the studio. “Once people get here and look at the room and feel the energy, they’re like, OK, we get it,” Mitchell says.
Fittingly, lunch today is at another soulful local institution: Gus’s Fried Chicken. The line here stretches around the block, pretty much all the time, and once I’ve tried the food, I know why. This is the best chicken in America, the meat perfectly tender and juicy, the breading a flawless blend of spicy, crispy and greasy. You could fry a Marine’s boot in that batter and I’d ask for seconds.
After lunch, I say goodbye to Doyle and continue my musical journey, starting at the famous Sun Studio. My guide here, a perky young woman named Coco, explains how, in 1951, studio founder Sam Phillips recorded Ike Turner playing a guitar through a busted amp stuffed with newspaper to get the distorted sound that would become a hallmark of rock, then leads us into the room where Elvis recorded his first hit, “That’s All Right,” in 1954. The tour group circles around the King’s microphone, eyes wide, like pilgrims before the cross. “I’ve seen people do strange things with that microphone,” Coco says.
I’m feeling all shook up—and ready for more—so I drive to the Soulsville neighborhood and the Stax Museum, another old cinema that once housed the Stax recording studio. Stepping out of the car, I’m greeted by speakers blaring Sam & Dave’s 1966 hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Inside, I learn how the studio became the hub of “Soulsville, USA,” an integrated institution in a segregated city and home base for artists including Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. There’s so much music in the gallery—Tina Turner belting out “Proud Mary,” the driving bass and Hammond organ on “Green Onions”—that I practically dance through the museum.
A few minutes from here is one of Midtown’s hippest neighborhoods, Cooper-Young. I park the car and wander for a while, perusing Goner Records and Burke’s Book Store, before grabbing a seat at the Beauty Shop for dinner. Owner Karen Carrier opened the restaurant in a defunct beauty shop—legend has it Priscilla Presley got her hair done here—and the fixtures include converted hairdressing chairs. I pause at the sight of sugar and spice duck breast on the menu, remembering the Peabody Ducks, but the perfectly prepared dish defeats any lingering guilt.
At the restaurant bar, I start chatting with Allison Lawyer and Angie Johnson, a pair of Memphians out celebrating Allison’s birthday. “I’m about to get off, and my band is playing next door,” says a passing waitress. “I’ll put you on the list.” We finish our drinks and move over to Bar DKDC, where the waitress’s band, Marcella & Her Lovers, gets a young, diverse crowd shaking to soul-inflected rock tunes, including a funky cover of “It’s My Party.”
We watch the band for a bit, then head to Mollie Fontaine Lounge, a cocktail bar (also owned by Carrier) that occupies a gorgeous red mansion in historic Victorian Village. The bar is packed with 20-somethings sipping cocktails and bobbing to the sounds of a DJ spinning upstairs. “I painted these stairwells,” Allison says as we make our way to the high-ceilinged second floor. “One day I was here by myself, working, and the stereo upstairs just came on. I can’t explain it.” I’m not one for ghost stories, but in this city and this building, why not?