Earnestine & Hazel’s, a music club/burger joint/tourist destination in Memphis’ arts district, exudes so much grungy, funky, time-aged Rock and Roll realness it makes the old Southgate House seem like a Kenwood Mall chain store.
In a past business-life, when the place was a brothel, the small rooms off the upstairs hallway used to be bedrooms. Now, in his office there, club owner Russell George hands over to this visitor a black-and-white photo of what he calls “Memphis’ kings” — Elvis and B.B. King. In this place, as in many others in Memphis, the city’s estimable music roots are still alive.
Informed that I’m down from Cincinnati, he makes a request: “Send me some postcards from King Records.” And he talks about what a great label it was, in terms of Blues, hard Country and R&B/Soul. Told about the various start-stop efforts to preserve and display its legacy here, George says, “I sure hope you can do something.”
Coming from a Memphian, a resident of what is one of Rock and Roll’s most important cities, that means something. And this recent trip to Memphis and Mississippi showed just how much is being done elsewhere to create roots-music-oriented museums (and exhibits) that capitalize on a city’s or region’s heritage. And it ought to serve as an inspiration for efforts here. (There is a new exhibit at our National Underground Freedom Center, Music of Change, that includes a King section and is up through Sept. 22.)
I didn’t visit Graceland or Sun Studios this time, Memphis tourist attractions I’ve gone to before. But this was my first chance to see the nine-year-old Stax Museum of American Soul Music, run by a non-profit foundation.
Stax was to Memphis what Motown was to Detroit, a living presence whose recording acts were local celebrities as well as national stars.
It started in 1960 (as Satellite Records) in a then-vacant neighborhood movie theater and went on to become a giant of 1960s/early 1970s Soul music through acts like Booker T. and the MG’s and Otis Redding. A church took over the property and demolished it in 1989 for a never-built project.
Arriving at the Stax site today, you’d never know that the iconic headquarters had been destroyed. The new façade so evocatively recreates the old neon-lit movie-theater marquee that your first reaction is, “Hallelujah, they saved it!” They didn’t, but by building on the same spot — rather than putting the museum elsewhere — they furthered that illusion. Inside, besides engrossing exhibits, the museum also has recreated the recording studio where so many Stax hits were recorded.
Memphis also has the Rock ‘N Soul Museum that, despite its uninteresting location in the FedExForum by Beale Street, had amazingly interesting, well-thought-out displays, thanks to the museum’s partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. It’s excellent, but I think of Stax first because of its roots connection.
In Mississippi, home of so much Blues, seemingly every town that could do so has some kind of music-oriented museum exhibit. I also found tourists on pilgrimages to see them, especially in the Delta, the area of northwest Mississippi where the acoustic blues originated.
In Clarksdale, a small, old city trying very hard to renew itself, this was especially notable — I met someone from Brazil on the sidewalk. In its 33-year-old Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old railroad freight depot, the most important installation is the preserved, relocated cabin where Muddy Waters lived as a sharecropper in 1941 when musicologist Alan Lomax recorded him on the porch, one of American music’s great discoveries.
In Indianola, a struggling town seeking revival through blues tourism, the four-year-old B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is an inspiration. Its front room is the saved and restored 1920s brick cotton gin building where a young King worked before establishing a career in music in Memphis. The rest is a lovely new construction.
Cincinnati’s King Records has an important enough history to merit a museum, especially since the original building is still standing at 1540 Brewster Ave. in Evanston. While it would take a lot of work to restore that site, it’s essential to save it. The most active supporters of a King Museum want a location in Evanston’s business district as an economic development tool. Maybe there’s a way to also do that, but to not restore the actual King building for visiting is throwing away our physical connection to its legacy. And that’s what music tourists crave.
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