The hallowed sound of Memphis

The river city's music and memories - from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes - are its rock and soul.

By Sean Daly, Times Pop Music Critic
Published August 5, 2007

MEMPHIS - It's 3 a.m. in the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, and I'm walking out of a former brothel with two tipsy 21-year-old women. I just met them inside. Well, met them six hours ago. It's been a long night.

My new pals, from Tampa no less, have road-tripped to this river city to commune with the spirit of Jeff Buckley, an indie-rock icon who drowned in the Mississippi River 10 years ago. The women took a picture of his old shotgun-shack house. In the photo, red eyes glow in a window. It's either Buckley's ghost or a golden retriever, they can't decide.

I've come to Memphis for Elvis Presley and Otis Redding, who also are celebrating major anniversaries. The King died 30 years ago on Aug. 16; the town is already in full-on hunka-hunka mode. Redding was the heart of Stax Records, the Memphis label that turns 50 this year. Redding died in 1967. There's always a major music anniversary here. But 2007 has some doozies.

The gals and I have just spent the night at Earnestine & Hazel's, a brothel-turned-juke joint built in the early 1900s. Some people say the bar is haunted by bluesmen; some people might be right. It is, without a doubt, the perfect place to hold a rock 'n' roll seance.

While we're there, bartender Karen Brownlee dishes about how B.B. King used to hang upstairs - and just like that, B.B. King starts wailing on the bar's jukebox, trusty guitar Lucille cutting through the cigarette smoke. Bar owner Russell George says paranormal investigators visit all the time. "They're always looking for ghosts," he chuckles, his own Marlboro Light dangling Andy Capp style.

Earnestine & Hazel's has been featured in several movies, including Black Snake Moan and Elizabethtown. The cinematic appeal is obvious. Paint is flaking off the wall. The lighting is dim. Look down the length of the front bar, and you'll find Southern belles, blue-collar joes, soul singers, a gaggle of tourists.

In Earnestine & Hazel's, Memphis makes beautiful, haunted sense.

This is a town where restaurants and bars pride themselves not on their DJs or their stereo systems, but on their jukeboxes. Slide a quarter in and press play for the past.

Music connects everything here - the food BBQ, fried catfish, related artery nightmares, the architecture (brick, mortar, cinder block), the people (cliche in their hospitable charm) - and almost everything is connected to Elvis, Otis, the Delta bluesmen. Memphis is hot, steamy, mosquito-ridden, but it also is soundtracked by greatness.

"We have everybody here," George says. "The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll: Tina Turner. The King of Rock 'n' Roll: Elvis Presley. The King of Soul: Otis Redding. And the Queen of Soul. You know who that is? Aretha Franklin. She's from here, too."

But now George is closing up the bar. Outside, my Tampa pals, Elizabeth Kelly and Meghan Kearney, start walking up historic Main Street, fueled by good stories, strong drink and the instant rock star vibe that comes from hanging around there.

In Memphis, you have to blame your bad behavior on something. And at 3 in the morning in this place, you can blame a lot on the power of a killer groove and a haunted jukebox.

Music and ghosts. You'll see.

- - -

William McGlothlin knows all about jamming with the spirits.

Every few weeks, the 62-year-old retired military man drives 40 miles from Marked Tree, Ark., and sets up shop in front of Sun Studio, the holy epicenter of rock 'n' roll. The folks inside don't hassle him much, as long as he doesn't block the famous brick facade and that neon sign.

"Sometimes I go to Graceland and sit in front of the Heartbreak Hotel," he says. But mostly, it's Sun Studio, where Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison first recorded.

McGlothlin sits on a folding chair, plugs his ancient six-string into a dusty amplifier, and starts quick-picking a country-blues shuffle. He taught himself to play when he was 21.

"It's a spiritual connection," he says of playing with Elvis and the boys. "I know some people don't believe in that sort of thing, but it's true."

The only people who "don't believe" are those who have never been inside Sun. The humble storefront at 706 Union Ave. is relatively unchanged since Elvis walked in on July 18, 1953.

The original soundproofing tiles still hold up the place, says tour guide Jayne Ellen White. The petite blond has a tattoo - "Honky Tonk Angel," it says - plunging into her cleavage. "I get chills every time I come in here," she says.

She says Bob Dylan stopped by once. Didn't say a word to anyone. Simply walked to the black "X" carved into the floor, the very spot where Elvis sang That's All Right (Mama), and kissed it.

Not many people know this, but Sun is still an operating studio. It costs only $85 an hour to rent it out and that includes sound engineers. That's cheap to make a record, but William McGlothlin says he's just fine communing with his ghostly heroes outside on the broken sidewalk.

"These folks here" - he juts his thumb behind him - "Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry. It shouldn't have happened for them, but it did. They were as poor as a church mouse. But it did happen. It did happen. This town, it's . . . it's . . . " He puts his head down, picks a little, then looks up: "Hey, I remember that word. This town, it's a paradox."

- - -

The Memphis Sound: raw, heartfelt, sweaty. Not polished pop like Motown, which came about at the same time. The Memphis Sound, the sound of the city, was instinctual, sexy. Real, as the locals might say.

Elvis was real. Jerry Lee Lewis was real. But nothing defined the Memphis Sound better than the soul music that strutted out of Stax Records, the label that launched Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs. Try a Little Tenderness, Green Onions, Hold On! I'm Comin', Theme From Shaft - all Stax hits.

Fifty years ago, South Memphis was known as Soulsville USA. The original Stax Studio was demolished, but the gorgeous new Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built in the same location. It's not the same thing, but for a downtrodden neighborhood that needs a boost, it's close enough.

The museum is stuffed with sweet soul goodness, from the Hammond B-3 organ Booker T. Jones played on Green Onions to the two-track recorder that captured every sorrow-kissed note of Redding's Mr. Pitiful. There is a dance floor in the middle of the museum - guests are urged to get down. And they do.

But the most mind-blowing artifact is Hayes' 1972 peacock-blue gold-plated $26,000 Cadillac, with white-fur-lined interior and 24-karat windshield wipers. Consider that the Memphis-born Hayes was raised in abject poverty by his grandparents, and this gaudy car becomes more than just a cool ride.

The studio's roster was driven by African-American artists, but the best session star was Steve Cropper, a white kid with a wicked guitar. The Stax Records label was started by brother and sister Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, two white music fans with a thirst for soul. (Combine the first two letters of their last names and you'll get the name of the label.) As a result, there was no black and white - only music.

Until April 4, 1968.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel - just blocks from Earnestine & Hazel's - Stax changed forever. The music became divided, bitter. The label would die a few years later, the building torn down soon after that. "If Martin Luther King had not been killed," says Stax songwriter David Porter in a somber film that shows at the museum, "Stax would still be alive today."

Not everything that haunts Memphis is good.

- - -

When Jason Carpenter was a boy, he used to ride his bike to Graceland, the Southern colonial home of Elvis Presley. Elvis was still alive then, so fans could only gaze through the wrought-iron gates and wonder what it was like to be the King.

"I'd sit in front of those gates, and I'd just sit and stare," Carpenter says, talking in front of the long, brick wall that separates the white pillared mansion from Elvis Presley Boulevard. "I'd stare and I'd dream."

Carpenter lived in a trailer park, and the King and his castle represented a better life. "Elvis showed up at the perfect time," he says. "His music just fit." Carpenter looks up at the brick wall separating fantasy from reality. Generations of people, from all over the globe, have left messages on the wall. Elvis, We Love You, Erika + Ernie From Australia and I followed that dream, Elvis.

Thirty years after his death, the ghost of Elvis, that white kid with the black sound, still runs this town.

Carpenter is 41 now. He lives not too far from where he grew up, as a matter of fact. Times are tough, but he gets by. He has friends in town this weekend, so with the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death coming up, he thought he'd commemorate in a special way.

For the first time, Carpenter took the tour of Graceland. He saw the Jungle Room, with its shag-carpeted ceilings and waterfall. He saw the TV Room in the basement, with its '70s yellow-and-blue decor and that silly TCB lightning bolt.

As cars whiz down Elvis Presley Boulevard, which is littered with fast food restaurants and run-down motels, Carpenter grimaces and says, "You know, it was a lot smaller than I thought. I thought it would have been bigger than that, truly.

"I was a little disappointed."

And with that, he leans on the brick wall with all those messages, and stares at Graceland, just like he did when he was a kid.

- - -

By the way, Elvis bought Graceland in 1957. Fifty years ago. See? Another Memphis anniversary.

- - -

At Earnestine & Hazel's, long before midnight turned into 3 a.m., my pals and I spent a few hours upstairs in Nat's bar. It's cramped and dark but for the light from the street outside. Nat's bar is right next to the red "lounge" where Ray Charles would "entertain ladies." It's quiet up here, and the downstairs jukebox sounds a mile away.

Nathaniel Barnes is a local institution, running that upstairs bar for a good chunk of his 60-plus years. He'll serve anybody beer, including the dopey frat boys who show up now and then. But if he likes you, and respects you, Nat might have a little something special under the bar.

He'll also talk about anything you want.

Well, almost anything.

"I don't believe in ghosts," Nat says.

He pours me something special.

"I do not believe in ghosts," he continues. " 'Cause once you start believing in ghosts, that's when you start seeing them."

Just as you're about to believe him, Nat grins and a slice of light winks from a gold-capped tooth. The Tampa women giggle. Yes, this is going to be a long night.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.