Discover the Memphis Blues


EXG MAY 14 TRAVEL - Credit: Justin Fox Burks

John Carter, long-time presenter of ITV’s Wish You Were Here, dusts off his blue suede shoes to explore Memphis and its musical heritage


EXG MAY 14 TRAVEL - Credit: Archant

There are bound to be some extra high jinks in Memphis this year, as they celebrate the 60th anniversary of a musical milestone. It was on July 5, 1954, that Elvis Presley recorded That’s Alright Mama at Sun Studio in Union Avenue. After which, nothing would ever be the same again.

In fact, Elvis had recorded at Sun Studio a couple of times previously, but had paid for the privilege, saying the discs were presents for his mother. This monumental musical breakthrough came about by accident. Sun’s proprietor, Sam Phillips, had arranged for the young unknown to sing a couple of songs with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. The results were far from satisfactory, and they were on the point of packing in when Elvis started to fool around with his guitar and sang That’s Alright Mama, for the sheer fun of it. When Moore and Black joined in, Phillips burst into the studio to start recording.

With Graceland, Presley’s home, being its major tourist attraction (second only to the White House as the most visited property in the USA), Memphis is inevitably dominated by The King. But there is far more to this city than the story and legacy of a single performer — not to mention the fact that Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and the legendary BB King also recorded at Sun Studio.

A wider look at the fascinating city of Memphis is well worth it. For a start, there’s a year-long programme of festivals and special events including Memphis in May, which covers the customs, cultures and heritage of the city, and the same month sees Greek and Italian food festivals, along with a huge BBQ event.

The prestigious National Civil Rights Museum has just completed a massive renovation and in the spring of this year the Beale Street Landing project is to open. Among its attractions is a children’s play area with water features and the famous Memphis river boats will arrive and depart from its dock.

One of the city’s more unusual attractions is to be found in Mud Island River Park. A scale model representing 1,000 miles of the mighty Mississippi River runs for half a mile through the park. Particularly fascinating is that the water level in the model is constantly changed to mirror that of the real river running alongside.

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Memphis has a carnival too, which, while not as well-known as the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, is a great excuse to party. What makes it special is that it combines the spectacle of carnival floats and ‘Krewes’ with the tradition of St Patrick’s Day, as the Silky Sullivan parade is held on March 15.

That parade takes place in Beale Street - which brings me back to the city’s musical heritage and the annual Beale Street Music Festival which takes place in May. WC Handy, while not as well-known generally as Elvis Presley, had as great an impact on the music scene as The King himself. It was Handy who ‘invented’ the Blues, shortly after moving to Memphis in 1909 with Memphis Blues and Beale Street Blues two of his many compositions, as well as St Louis Blues.

There will, of course, be extra events and attractions at Graceland in this 60th anniversary year, but to get the most and the best out of Memphis, don’t overlook its other attractions and the other outstanding talents that the city claims as its own. Stroll into WC Handy Park and seek out the statue ofthis great man.

Find out more

America As You Like It offer a five-night Memphis package from £767 per person including return international flights, car hire and accommodation. Price is based on two people sharing. For details call 020 8742 8299 or visit