The Great River Road, Part 15: Ste. Genevieve, MO to Memphis, TN

Put on my blue suede shoes and

I boarded the plane

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues

In the middle of the pouring rain…

            – Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis

September 18, 2015 – Day 21 – Ste. Genevieve, MO

We said farewell to Swansea and drove to Scott AFB to pick up our RV. We were both sad and relieved to learn that it had not sold for our exorbitant asking price of $1 million. We loaded up, powered up, and headed west, crossing over the Mississippi River south of St Louis. We then headed south along the Great River Road in Missouri, and decided to spend a couple of hours in Ste. Genevieve.

Ste. Genevieve was the first organized European settlement west of the Mississippi River and is the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri. Founded in 1735 by French Canadian colonists and settlers from east of the river, today it is best known for its “French Creole colonial” buildings. Notable structures include the 1792 Louis Bolduc House and the 1818 Felix Valle House State Historic Site. However, our favorite old building on Main Street is home to the adorable Stella and Me café, where Lil Jan had “the best potato soup” she’s ever eaten. While Lil Jan did some antique store browsing, I ducked into a pet store to watch the owner hang and groom a dog. I had no idea that’s how grooming is done…at least in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Shear Magic!
Shear Magic!

We continued south along the Mississippi River until we reached our next stop, the Navy Lake Recreation Area in Millington, TN. This military campground, which we’ll review in a separate blog, would serve as our base camp for the next few days as we explored the Memphis area. We ended the day with some Bar-B-Q at the Pig-N-Whistle restaurant near the campground. According to the restaurant’s menu, “Long ago in Merrie Olde England, the symbol of a pig and whistle was a tavern sign derived from ‘Piggen wassail’. The pig and whistle was used as a tavern sign because many people were unable to read. The pig represented meat or food in general, and also, a drinking cup. Whistle is referred to in early Anglo-Saxon as the mouth or throat. Hence the expression ‘Wet your Whistle’ and today the meaning of the words ‘Pig-N-Whistle’ is good BBQ and beverages served in comfortable surroundings.” So now you know.

September 19, 2015 – Day 21 – Memphis, TN

Then I’m walking in Memphis

Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale

Walking in Memphis

But do I really feel the way I feel…

– Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis

National Civil Rights Museum
National Civil Rights Museum

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Today was the first of three days we would do some “walkin’ in Memphis”. Our first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum which is located in and around the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. We began by looking up at the motel balcony where King stood and breathed his final breath. We then entered the museum which is extremely well done. It’s a self-guided tour, but they queue groups of visitors into the first exhibit to avoid over-crowding the rest of the way. The first main exhibit goes all the way back to the time of slavery and the Triangular Trade Route. We learned that as the Civil War was about to begin in 1860, our nation had nearly 4 million slaves, worth more than $3 billion ($10 trillion in today’s dollars). The practice was so foundational to our agricultural economy that many Americans never considered, or quickly dismissed, any question of its morality. That mindset was undergirded by the belief that black people are inferior to whites, and thus subject to be owned, traded, and even mistreated.

Rosa Parks...Game Changer
Rosa Parks…Game Changer
Dr. King's Motel Room
Dr. King’s Motel Room

The subsequent exhibits and videos traced the history of the civil rights movement in general, and of Dr. King’s life in particular. We sat on a Montgomery bus with the courageous Rosa Parks. Our hearts sank as we watched videos of marchers being sprayed with fire hoses and beaten with clubs. We were inspired again as we heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and especially his call for people to be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And then, towards the end of the tour, we looked into his motel room, still arranged as it was 45 years ago when he stayed there. We looked outside on the balcony where he was killed, and remembered the man who paid the ultimate price for a worthy cause. We then crossed the street to a wing of the museum dealing with King’s killer, which included a stop at the bathroom window where he pulled the trigger. Every American should visit the National Civil Rights Museum. It does a first-class job paying tribute to the man and the movement. The only thing I didn’t like was the “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt on sale at the gift shop. In my opinion, that message misses the point. All lives matter, regardless of skin color. All people should be judged based on the way they live and the content of their character. T-Shirts, banners, and slogans that single out blacks, whites, police officers, or any other group and designate them for special attention, at the exclusion of others, really miss the point of what Dr. King (and Jesus) were all about.

Remembering Dr. King
Remembering Dr. King

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The Assassin's Perch
The Assassin’s Perch
The Assassin's Perspective
The Assassin’s Perspective

Having honored the man and the movement, we headed across the street to Central BBQ for some fabulous Memphis cuisine. There is some debate as to the best style of BBQ (wet or dry), best sauce, and overall best BBQ restaurant in town. I’ve had the dry variety at Rendezvous downtown and the wet variety at Central BBQ. I love them both, and so I’m declaring a tie. Like Little League, everyone gets a trophy.

Central BBQ, wet w/ mustard sauce
Central BBQ, wet w/ mustard sauce

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

– Elvis Presley

This was Memphis and it was time to get our Elvis fix. We headed to rock pioneer Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio for one of the highest rated tours in Memphis. An extremely energetic and knowledgeable tour guide told us the history of the studio and highlighted several artifacts in the display cases. Some call the studio the birthplace of rock & roll, as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded the first rock & roll single (Rocket 88) there in 1951 (with song composer Ike Turner on keyboards).   Since then, artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, U2, Def Leppard, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, and Brian Setzer (of Stray Cats fame) have all recorded hits at Sun Studio.

Sun Studio
Where Stars Are Born

But our focus this day was on Elvis Aaron Presley, who received a C in music in eighth grade and was told by his music teacher he had “no aptitude for singing”. There’s a lesson there for students and teachers alike. In August 1952, Elvis walked into the offices of Sun Studio in order to pay for some studio time to record the song, My Happiness. Owner Sam Phillips was out that day, but receptionist Marion Keisker assisted him in the studio and asked him what kind of singer he was and who he sounded like. He answered, “I sing all kinds” and “I don’t sound like nobody.” Mrs. Keisker listened to the tape and passed it to Mr. Phillips with the note, “Good ballad singer. Hold.” Phillips was less impressed, despite Elvis frequently visiting the studio and making additional recordings. Later, Elvis failed an audition with a local quartet because, “They told me I couldn’t sing.” Even later, a professional band rejected him as a vocalist and told him to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.” Fortunately for us, Elvis had a V8 engine of ambition and a ton of talent.

Recording Studio
Recording Studio
Jerry Lee Lewis Leaves His Mark
Jerry Lee Lewis Leaves His Mark

Meanwhile, Phillips was looking for someone who could bring to a broader audience the sound of black musicians. Phillips is quoted as saying, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips came across a ballad, Without You, that he thought might suit the young teenage singer, Elvis Presley. Presley came by the studio, but his performance of the song didn’t impress. He then sang a few other numbers, and was good enough that Phillips decided to invite two local musicians, a guitarist and an upright bass player, to come in and record with Elvis. That session, held the evening of July 5, 1954, also didn’t go well until late in the evening. As the trio was about to give up and go home, Elvis launched into That’s All Right, a 1946 blues number. Guitarist Scotty Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open…he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’” Phillips quickly began taping and realized this was the sound he had been looking for…the sound that would launch a legendary career. Before our tour ended, we stood on the same floor where Elvis and others recorded many of their hits, and Lil Jan even posed with the original recording microphone used by Elvis and others. We also got a good look at the piano on which Jerry Lee Lewis felt comfortable enough to snuff out a cigar during a recording session.

Peabody Duck March
Peabody Duck March

Our next stop was The Peabody, a luxurious Memphis hotel featuring the legendary duck march. In 1933, the General Manager of The Peabody and his friend returned from a hunting trip, and had sipped on a little too much Jack Daniel’s whiskey. They thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys into the hotel’s fancy fountain. The ducks were enthusiastically received, and were later replaced with five Mallard ducks. In 1940, a former circus animal trainer offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day from the rooftop in a ritual now called the Peabody Duck March. Each day, ducks visit the lobby fountain at 11 a.m. and return to the roof at 5 p.m. The Duck March is a Memphis tradition and is rated a 5-star attraction by Trip Advisor, the #12 of 133 things to do in Memphis. Wanting to catch this fabulous show, we ran down the street and arrived at the hotel at 4:57 p.m.   The entire lobby was packed with eager tourists, hotel patrons, and duck-loving schoolchildren waiting for the ducks to do their thing. I got caught up in the fervor of the moment, looked over at a young boy and hollered, “Aflac!”  He whispered something to his mother and looked away. At exactly 5:00 p.m., the Grand Marshall made a rather lengthy pronouncement of the history and significance of the event, the march music began, and a young boy from the crowd led the ducks to the lobby elevator. The elevator door closed, and they were gone. It was over in an instant. I don’t want to offend any duck lovers, Memphis residents, or people named Peabody, but it was quite lame…a real downer…borderline foul, in fact. I hated myself for making us run down the street to get to the lobby in time. I promised myself never to shop at Gander Mountain again, or visit the town of Gander in east Newfoundland. In fact, as I exited the lobby, I felt a strong urge to go to a nearby restaurant and order duck, with a side of duck. I may even take up duck hunting, or at least buy ammo for those who do. While so many stops along the Great River Road have met or even exceeded our expectations, this particular one gives new meaning to the term, “lame duck”.

Graceland
Graceland

Our final stop of the day was Graceland, the home of Elvis himself. We decided to just stop at the front gate and take a few photos. It was late in the day, we had just experienced duck march trauma, and quite frankly, we thought the $77/person tickets were a little on the high side.

Tributes to Elvis, Graceland's Front Wall
Tributes to Elvis, Graceland’s Front Wall

Our first day in Memphis was a great success, and we looked forward to spending two more days there. I’ll close with a quote from Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips: “Eventually we all turn into stories. Be sure yours is worth telling!”

Big Steve

The Dream Lives On
The Dream Lives On

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