Our most regular contributor Steve Jenner, did a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage in late 2019 to get back to the roots of the music he loves, both as a listener and a radio presenter. Here’s his take on his favourite destinations on the tour taking in the rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll landmarks of America’s South.

 

 

STAX, Memphis

The heavyweight champion as far as I’m concerned. The range of exhibits is just breathtaking, the stunning range of photographs, the specific instruments which grace the museum, the fact that they’ve got a restored version of the jukebox I have in my house…and the fact that the building itself just reeks of the opportunity it represented as an oasis of creativity and inter-racial harmony, the unifying factor being music, makes this place a pilgrimage, an education and a re-affirmation of the love which brings you here in the first place. Flight cases stamped ‘Isaac Hayes Movement’. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s bass, Steve Cropper’s Telecaster. The pride with which WattStax is celebrated tells you all you need to know. This is the label where uncompromising soul music finally ‘gotten over’. Sell your goods and chattels and GO. The facility continues to do sterling work in the community changing lives for the better; but get selfish here. You WILL enrich your own life.

 

Sun Studios, Memphis

It would be sooooeasy for this to disappoint….but it doesn’t. Still a working studio, it actually feels like it. Not sure why they feel the need to play a Van Halen track as you ascend the stairs to the studio and small exhibition but once you’re up there…oh man. Where else are you likely to be within touching distance of a white-label demo of the first rock ‘n’ roll 78 RPM record, ever (Jackie Brenston, “Rocket 88” and I’ll brook no argument on this one.) The kit, the instruments…the room itself…and THAT microphone. The one the originators lit the blue touch paper to the cultural revolution with. Go, wait until the guide leaves the room, grasp the mic that launched a million hits and sing, as badly as you will, at least one line of a lyric that was recorded there. For me it was the first line from Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot”. Choose your weapon. And you will never feel the same again. I feel like some gold dust came off that mic and it hasn’t worn off yet and I don’t think it ever will.

Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Memphis

It takes the breath away. The range and depth of artefacts alone would reduce a grown man to tears if they were piled up in the corner under an old tarpaulin but the presentation, sequencing and ‘staging’ of the exhibits means you can hardly tear your eyes away from anything, anywhere. From huge chunks of ancient radio station to detailed explanations of how key artists ‘became’, you just can’t afford to miss this one and it makes a Transatlantic trip worth the ticket price alone. And then you step outside and you’re a couple of hundred yards from Beale Street. And you are walking with your feet ten feet off.

Gracelands, Memphis

I expected this to be much, much more tacky and a lot less interesting but still felt I just had to go. ‘I have reason to believe we all will be received in Gracelands’, right? Well, yes but it just shows what I know. Gracelands, the house, was actually a monument to a remarkably ‘normal’ life and if we disregard the loads of cars and a couple of planes, otherwise what might seem a reasonable wish list of toys for a top-end lawyer. And it seems quite small, ridiculous although that statement may appear, but very homely in a ‘seventies’ sort of way. Absolutely fascinating; and the garden of rest, where his mother, father and other family members are committed along with Presley’s remains is a real place of peace and reflection. The museum needs more energy than you’ve got in the Memphis heat to get through it all; and the range of costumes, cars, toys and paraphernalia is mind-boggling. House might be relatively modest…but he liked his transportation toys, did Elvis. And the costumes tell the story of the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll icon…who eventually went more ‘showbiz’ than showbiz itself. The true price of fame on an unprecedented scale, displayed alongside the attendant rewards; a parable for our times which sadly, many STILL don’t seem to have understood.

RCA Studio B, Nashville

Despite not being the greatest devotee of Jim Reeves, it cannot be denied that RCA Studio ‘B’ in Nashville has seen the recording of more hits than most big labels see in a lifetime from all sources. Most of Elvis’s biggest sellers were recorded here. Dolly Parton, Bobby Goldsboro, Charley Pride…on and on it goes. And once again you can cut the ‘atmosphere’ with a knife. I DID hear, and sense, the ghost of Elvis here. It was a throwback to 4AM, April 4th, 1960 when Elvis was recording “Are You Lonesome Tonight” here…in the dark. Ask her nicely and the studio guide will throw the light switch off and play you the original reel-to-reel of the original recording. ‘Saw the ghost of Elvis…then I watched him walk right through…’

All photos courtesy of Sue Jenner.