What can I tell you about Memphis? Well, if you go there expecting to be bombarded by live soul and blues music you’re going to be disappointed. There’s ‘live music’ alright, but a majority of it is incredibly bad – especially down Beale Street, which is depressing at any hour. Tourists totter around holding their plastic cups of beer, trying to convince themselves they’re having a great time. Every venue has a band playing obnoxiously loud, with the sound of each one spilling into the street, creating what can only be described as a cacophony of mediocrity. Let me tell you – Beale Street is not where its at. Your best bet is to try one of the jook joints out in the seedier parts of town. You will need a car or, like us, a taxi driver who’s game to take you there. More than this, though, if you decide to expand your musical horizons beyond blues, you’re in for a nice surprise in Memphis. Despite what most people say, there IS quality live music to be had in Memphis – it’s just that it isn’t soul and it isn’t blues; It’s indie rock. Memphis based label Goner Records are doing great things for the city’s music scene. We attended the pre-party for the annual Goner Fest which was a hip warehouse affair. There were even some Aussie punk bands on the bill.
Of course, if you’re visiting Memphis to reminisce and learn about the glory days, you’ll have a nice time. For example, Sun Studios and the Stax Museum are wonderfully curated. And as for Graceland – well, we all know its awesome. Jungle Room, anybody? Wowsers!
Now, you might be thinking: how could anything top Elvis’ Jungle Room? The same thought did cross my mind as I was disembarking the Graceland tour-bus. It seemed like an impossibility – until I came across the best dive bar in the world: Earnstine and Hazel’s on South Main.
From the outside, it looks like its been shut for years: all the blinds are drawn and the front doors are closed tight. The only clue that it’s open for business is the red neon sign in the window. We pushed the door and it creaked open to reveal the most dingy, grimey bar you’ve ever seen. I mean this as a compliment – the whole place has been left virtually untouched since it was a nightclub and brothel during the Chitlin Circuit days.
We found a couple of bar stools with all their legs intact (some of them only had two!) and got chatting to the bar manager, Karen. She looked like she might smack your face in if you gave her any trouble, but thankfully she liked us and spent most of the afternoon talking about the venue’s history. It was originally built as a pharmacy after the Second World War. It operated as such until two women – Earnstine and Hazel – revamped it as a sundry story and entertainment venue for travelling black musicians in the 1950’s. Performers such as Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett and Howlin Wolf were regulars. Years later, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards spent time there, and legend has it that the brothel (upstairs) was the inspiration behind Honky Tonk Women. If you listen to the lyrics, it makes sense.
Danny and I already knew about the brothel, so we asked Karen if we could have a look. She said yes and led us down a dark corridor to where the staircase was. I felt spooked. Upstairs was even worse, mainly because it was abnormally quiet.The only noise was the occasional creak of a floorboard; or maybe it was a ghost, which is a possibility since Earnstine and Hazel’s is known to be haunted. Apparently there’s audio of ghosts moaning and footage of them scooting around upstairs. To add to the overall haunt of the place, the owner committed suicide in one of the rooms a few days before we arrived.
Here’s some of my photos:
Speaking of spooky, the next day we went to the Civil Rights Museum. A majority of it was closed for renovation, so we walked down to the Lorraine Motel which is now an eerie shrine of remembrance for Martin Luther King. The motel has been restored to look the same as it did in 1968, down to the 1959 Dodge and 1968 Cadillac which are parked in the same spots as they appear in the photographs taken after the shooting. The audio of Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” is piped out on the loudspeaker all day long. We walked away feeling very somber indeed.
From Memphis we headed down to Clarksdale, Mississippi on the old highway which winds its way through the cotton fields.
My favourite character in Clarksdale was a snappily dressed Afro-American dude called RazorBlade. We met him at Ground Zero club on our first night. He introduced himself and then went on stage to sing with the band. During his performance he kept rabbiting on about his ‘trademark’ phrase: “Uh-Huuuuuuh”. For instance, he’d be half way through singing a mournful song about how his lady left him and would yell out: “What’s my trademark? Does everybody know what my trademark is?” followed by a “Uh-huuuuuuh”. I’m sure you’d agree that this isn’t an original catch-phrase, but by the time he’d finished his set, he’d said it enough times for me to never want to use it in a song myself.
From that moment on, Razorblade kept popping up everywhere. He accosted us in the main street a few times and made us get in his car and listen to his CD. During one of these car meetings he told us a long and involved story about how Morgan Freeman once told him he was mentally retarded. Perhaps he kept hassling Morgan about his CD, too – who knows. Anyway, we gave in and bought a copy. It’s un-listenable because of the “Uh huuuuuuh” thing.
Razorblade was one of the many characters of Clarksdale. The other stand-out is Red – the proprietor of one of the best venues in town: Red’s Jook Joint. He’s a portly black man who lopes around behind his bar, drunkenly knocking things over and poking fun at tourists who have the nerve to venture inside. Oh yeh, and he drives a limo. You can imagine how ridiculous that is in a poor old town like Clarksdale, or anywhere in Mississippi, really.
A few days later we were on the road again, this time heading into the Hill Country.
We were on a mission to see one of Danny’s musical heroes, Kenny Brown, who was performing that evening at a venue in Corinth, Graham’s Corner Store. It used to be garage, so it has a great jook joint feel. Clearly we stuck out like sore thumbs, because the owner of the place, Cid, came over and welcomed us enthusiastically. Afterwards he took us backstage to meet Kenny. What a DUDE. We had a neat time and the next day Cid gave us a little tour of Corinth. Talk about southern hospitality!
From Corinth we traveled through Tallahatchie County to visit Tippo: the birthplace of one of my favourite jazz artists, Mose Allison.
As you can probably tell from the photos, nothing much happens at Tippo these days. Strangely, though, there’s a Post Office and a Service Station. The original Service Station – which Mose’s father operated – is still there, too (its to the left of me in the photo above). On the grass in front of it is an official Blues Marker which tells you all about Mr Allison and how, as a child, he got his first taste of Jazz on the Service Station jukebox. The Blues Marker is very informative, but as far as style is concerned, I prefer the town’s hand-painted sign on the opposite side of the road.