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Holiday 99: American excess ..; RHYTHM, BOOZE AND A DATE WITH THE KING IN MEMPHIS.

THE hotel bellhop smiled, shook his head and punched floor eight on the elevator console. "I'll tell you this, brother - you'd better be ready to par-tay."

Later, I was glad to have answered firmly in the affirmative as we reeled out of another Beale Street blues club in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

It was two in the morning and there were still three more hours of heavy partying to go. The voodoo had well and truly got hold of us - and, like the hundreds carousing in the streets around us, we'd given up fighting it.

In just one night, we'd got up close and personal with Memphis blues legend Guitar Shorty, we'd watched the house band at the Rum Boogie Cafe burn through the Stax back catalogue and we would see the dawn up with surfer-funk rockers Big Ass Truck at Willie Mitchell's Bar-B-Q joint.

Once the bustling centre of black culture in the Delta and lined with theatres, pawn shops and gambling dens, this is the place where blues was born. On the street, the jive boys pushing everything from dope to religion danced along to the pick-up bands working every available corner.

The air was thick with the smell of booze and gumbo as two fat cops in obligatory mirrored shades kept the beat by tapping night sticks against their doughnut-refined thighs.

This was just another Friday night in Memphis. And, as we finally weaved our way back three blocks to the faded grandeur of the Peabody Hotel, a street hustler wheezed: "You really gotta be here during the blues festival."

Memphis is the living heart of blues and rock and roll - and is mentioned by name in more than 350 songs.

Elvis Presley, BB King, Al Green, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert King - the roll-call of music pioneers who got their start here just goes on and on.

This sprawling city teetering on the edge of the Mississippi bleeds music from every pore. You get goose bumps the moment you walk into the tiny room at Sun Studios where in 1954 the 19-year-old Elvis cut his first record (The song was That's All Right Mama and yes, his original microphone is still there) for $4.

It's a working studio, and recent visitors include Elvis Costello and Aerosmith. Five miles away, in a down-at-heel suburb, is Graceland, the King's home until his death at 42 and now owned by his daughter, Lisa Marie.

It's a modest house which, despite the emphasis on the upbeat side of his life, retains an atmosphere of extreme melancholy.

Here are his jungle-room recording studio lounge, complete with green shag-pile carpeted ceiling, the marble and gold dining-room, where he once insisted on eating meatloaf for dinner every night for a month, and the TCB (Taking Care of Business) and thunderbolt insignia stencilled everywhere.

He is buried alongside his mum and dad in a garden of remembrance out back.

Across Elvis Presley Boulevard is a far from tacky souvenir and restaurant complex - eat the King's favourite fried banana and peanut butter sandwich or double cheeseburger with chilli fries - his car collection and two private jets. The whole enterprise is a tasteful and fitting tribute to Elvis.

But Memphis isn't just all about music.

The city was at the centre of the Sixties civil rights movement and the scene of Dr Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4 1968.

He was on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Mulberry Street when he was gunned down by James Earl Ray. His room remains as it was on the day he died, right down to the half-drunk cup of coffee and crumpled newspaper.

The National Civil Rights museum has been built on to the back, a shocking but very moving commemoration of a heroic struggle which still continues.

For an extraordinary glimpse of religious fervour, Southern-style, there is nothing quite like Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.

The soul legend turned pastor delivers a three-hour Sunday morning service full of hellfire and brimstone. He saw the light 15 years ago after his then girlfriend scalded his back with grits and then shot herself with the singer's gun.

He welcomes fans of the old Al Green, but don't expect him to start singing Tired Of Being Alone or Let's Stay Together. "Those were in my sinful days," he says with that trademark grin.

Memphis was our final destination after a two-week swoop across Tennessee. We had landed in Atlanta in neighbouring Georgia and driven 300 miles to Chattanooga, home of the Choo-Choo train. The 1901 rail terminal has been converted into a Holiday Inn - alas, one of the unfriendliest hotels I've ever stayed in. Everything, even checking you in, came across as a total chore. We won't be back.

Chattanooga is an unremarkable but typical US town which provides a glimpse of the real America, a place where the folks are polite and peaceable and still find strangers fascinating. This is a place where an English accent still creates a stir.

The Tennessee Aquarium, a space-age construction on the banks of the Mississippi, is one of the world's best. It contains hundreds of species of water life from turtles to piranha fish.

We then motored east into the Great Smoky Mountains, a meandering drive, first over flat plains, then through deep green valleys with tree tops disappearing into the clouds.

Our destination was Gatlinburg, a bizarre curiosity of a place which has the appearance of a pretty Alpine-style town but is gradually being swallowed up by an avalanche of neon and junk food.

This, it seems, is where America's unhealthy come to play. Like the rest of Tennessee, it appears to be a criminal offence here to sell or buy fresh fruit or vegetables.

Everything is fried or broiled - and it's certainly the first time I've ever had a piece of fish fried in about a pound of butter which is then served up with a further pot of hot butter on the side.

Dozens of tatty candy stores sell brick-sized slabs of fudge (Get Three For $5!), and suddenly you know why America is always battling with its collective waistline.

The Smokies was the traditional homeland of the Cherokee Indians until they were driven out in one of history's most brutal examples of ethnic cleansing.

More than 900 miles of riding and hiking trails criss-cross the park, and the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail runs right through it.

Yet most trails are so remote and little-used that, despite the influx of visitors, it is possible to walk for miles without seeing another soul - not even one of 600 black bears which roam the park.

At the other end of the entertainment scale is Dolly Parton's theme park, Dollywood, at Pigeon Forge, a cosy tribute to the people of the Tennessee mountains and their folklore.

Next stop was Nashville, the capital of country music. One expects wall- to-wall cowboys, but the only evidence of any real music scene is three square blocks downtown at Broadway and Second Avenue where you hop from bar to bar, watching wannabe country stars.

These are drinking joints where men are men and if you buy a guy a beer you are blood brothers for life. There was barely a stetson in sight.

Across the city is Music Row, a nondescript suburb. Rather than some stressed-out entertainment centre, you find a village atmosphere, with neat brick townhouses where all the top singers and record companies have their offices.

Trees and greenery make it look more like an eight-block university campus than the headquarters of a $3 billion-a-year industry. Here is Nashville's oldest studio - the legendary RCA Studio B where all the country greats from Hank Williams to the Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris have worked.

A staggering 47,000 songs were recorded here between 1957 and 1971.

Around the corner is the best introduction to the history and evolution of country music at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It's an intelligent guide to the country's folk roots, bluegrass, singing cowboys, Cajun and Western Swing. Display cases are filled with the original costumes and instruments of stars from Patsy Cline to Merle Haggard.

Then it was on to Memphis for five days of full-on excess, proving that if you want to experience several of the many sides of America, then Tennessee is most definitely the place.


NORTH America Travel Service (0171-938 3737) offer tailor-made packages to Tennessee to suit individual travellers. Two weeks including flights with American Airlines to Nashville with fully-inclusive Economy car rental with Alamo is from pounds 639pp. Recommended hotels: Loews Vanderbilt Plaza, Nashville from pounds 59pp per night, The Peabody, Memphis from pounds 56pp per night. Further information: Tennessee Tourist Board (01462 440784).
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wallace, Richard
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 22, 1999
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