The nation’s first self-serve grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, got its start here. So did the concept of hotel chains (Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inns).
But what this city has long been about is blues and barbecue.
And, of course, The King.
That’s particularly true in early August during the week that commemorates Elvis Presley’s death in 1977. The event draws upwards of 40,000 Elvis-lovers and some impersonators as well. They flock here to visit sale sites for Elvis memorabilia, attend fan club meetings, go to trivia contests and gospel brunches, watch Elvis movies, take in Elvis art contests or even play in a golf tournament. The event ends with a candlelight vigil at Graceland.
The irony may not always be apparent, but long-dead Elvis gave life to this city’s tourism business.
“Up until that time, this city practically had no tourism. Even the city fathers then didn’t realize what they had in Elvis,” said Mike Freeman, a local writer and tour guide.
Elvis’s home, Graceland, has become the second most recognized tourist site in the country, trailing only the White House. Upwards of 700,000 people a year visit it.
It was originally a 500-acre farm established after the Civil War and owned by a prominent local doctor until 1957, when newly-famous Elvis bought it for $100,000.
After his first hit single, Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis lived here for more than 20 years separated from his fans by a stone “Wall of Love.” For decades and continuing today, visitors write personal messages on the graffiti-strewn wall.
Tours begin every three minutes and last about two hours. Groups are limited to 14 people who wear headsets to learn historical trivia such as the singer’s favorite chair or even when he ate dinner (rarely before 10 p.m.).
Preserved from the past are such Elvis items as his TV room, which had three sets. Elvis learned about multiple TV-watching from U. S. President Lyndon Johnson, who watched news broadcasts. The singer was more inclined to take in football games.
Also on view at Graceland is Elvis’s Jungle Room, which was the singer’s favorite. The only room he decorated entirely by himself, the room is furnished with African furniture with animal hide coverings.
A highlight of the tour is the “Hall of Gold.” Here, mounted on two walls, are 37 gold albums, 63 gold singles and 28 platinum albums. They represent 100 million record sales – the largest privately owned collection of gold records in the world.
The museum also displays his automobile collection and his private jet, a customized Convair 880 jet that has 14-karat gold buckles on the seatbelts.
Visitors find reminders of Elvis everywhere here, but there’s no shortage of other musical attractions throughout Memphis.
One of the latest additions is the Smithsonian’s Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul museum, which offers audio tours. Visitors can see such memorabilia as B.B. King’s guitar, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand podium, Ike Turner’s piano and 31 costumes worn by such stars as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. There’s also vintage films and interviews with the artists.
The museum is located in the Beale Street Entertainment District and is open seven days a week. The admission charge is only $6 for adults and $4 for children 5-17.
The Sun Studio where Elvis first recorded his music is another popular music-related attraction. And – shades of the past – visitors there can still walk in and record their own songs.
A popular non-musical tourist stop is the Riverboat Rides. There are various options including a barbecue cruise, but one of the most popular is the simple one and a half-hour sightseeing cruise. The cost is $12.50 for adults and $9.50 for children 4 through 17.
If a tearoom is more your cup of tea, an off-the-beaten-track attraction here is The Woman’s Exchange. Homemade lunches are served daily, Mondays through Fridays, in a setting that includes hand-crafted items such as tables and chairs, christening dresses, linens, wedding gifts and seasonal items. Want it gift wrapped? There’s never a charge.
The best restaurant and certainly the most popular here may be Rendezvous, located in an alley not far from Beale Street. Diners frequently sample the dry barbecue (put your own sauce or eat it with the restaurant’s seasonings) and then amble over to hear jazz and blues at Beale Street.
Observers say March and October may be the best months to visit because the city is less crowded and the sometimes-brutal summer heat can be avoided.
The history of Memphis goes way back. Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto passed through here in 1541, but it took a close friend of President Andrew Jackson, Judge John Overton, to see the strategic value of the area.
In 1819, Memphis was established on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. It was named after an ancient Egyptian capital. Memphis means “place of good abode.”
During the end of the 19th century, Memphis became the largest hardwood market on earth. Later, cotton became king.
But the boomtown atmosphere that brought loggers and gamblers also attracted African-Americans who created the blues. It was this country’s first original music that later spawned jazz, ragtime, Rock ‘n’ Roll, soul and every other form of American music.
The city’s famed Beale Street faded during the depression and buildings fell to bulldozers. But in the 1970s, after multi-million dollar investments, Beale Street came back.
Music is still the major attraction, but now there are also shops, restaurants, boutiques and the popular Elvis Presley’s Memphis Restaurant. It opened in 1997 and a major offering is the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches said to be the singer’s favorite snack food.
Visitors to Beale street should not miss musty, wood-floored A. Schwab’s, the more than a century old department store that sells everything from voodoo powders to 99-cent neckties. Aging A. Schwab still holds court daily, sometimes reminding visitors of the store’s slogan that “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it.”
Another free historic attraction here is the Peabody ducks. Up to 1500 visitors cram the historic hotel’s lobby on weekends to see the ducks walk over a red carpet to retire from the lobby to their penthouse pond.
The practice began in the 1930s when General Manager Frank Schutt and a group of friends returning from a hunting trip thought it would be humorous to place some of their live duck decoys in the Peabody fountain. The reaction was so positive that ducks became part of the hotel’s attraction. A circus animal trainer started caring for the ducks and their daily Duck March, accompanied by the music of John Philip Sousa, became a local tradition.
Like much of the history of Memphis tourism, it was a happy accident.