On the afternoon of December 4, 1956, someone was smart enough to press the record button when Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley all happened to be in the same room, jamming and jawing at Sun Studio in Memphis. It was a musical summit meeting historic enough to spawn a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet, which opens in the West End this week.
The show is reportedly fun, but in an attempt to get a real sense of what that million dollar day was like, I find myself standing in the dusty little Memphis room itself. In 1987 Sun reopened for hourly tours and late night recording sessions like a mosquito preserved in amber, with the same shabbily soundproofed walls and even some of the equipment that Sun founder Sam Phillips used to record that mighty foursome. Though when I stand in front of assistant Marion Keisker’s desk and announce, as Elvis did, that “I don’t sound like nobody”, any drowning sea lions in the vicinity might object.
This is one of those rare attractions that actually proves better for being smaller than I expected, thinking of all those giants rumbling around in that cramped, unremarkable looking space. Sensing the history is the challenge of my musical tour of America’s Deep South. I’m not looking for artefacts (though there are plenty) but atmosphere.
Nashville, which calls itself “Music City” is the obvious starting point. The Country Music Hall of Fame, with its snazzy 10-year-old building shaped like a bass clef with piano key windows, bursts with platinum discs and shouts about the achievements of alumni including Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette. It feels more natural to worship at the altar of these stars, however, at the Ryman Auditorium on Fifth Avenue, the former home of the pioneering radio broadcast The Grand Ole Opry – for the simple reason that it was originally a large church.
As an overseas visitor, the country music attractions can get lost in translation. Those rhinestone suits are a bit ridiculous aren’t they, and it’s somehow harder to be impressed by Eighties country rock band Alabama’s 70 million album sales, or singer Barbara Mandrell’s 27,000 square foot mansion, Fontanel (billed as the Graceland where you can touch stuff) when I’ve never heard of them.
Still, there’s always Elvis, who looms like a jumpsuited behemoth over this part of the world. You can relive his 4am recording of Are You Lonesome Tonight? in another well preserved recording studio, Nashvile’s RCA Studio B. Graceland in Memphis is far less tacky (and again, smaller) than I had been led to believe, sitting calmly on the other side of the busy road from all the quiffy souvenir shops. The family graves, including that of Elvis’s stillborn twin Jesse, could move the most unreconstructed rock ‘n’ roller.
For a different take on the modern myth I head to America’s Bethlehem, the King’s birthplace in Tupelo Mississippi. The white wood two room shack loses something by being surrounded by newer buildings today, but there’s a clever, surprising video recreation of the church services where he first sang in the reconstructed chapel next door, and I also visit the still-trading Tupelo Hardware Company where he bought his first guitar – where employee Howard Hite has laryngitis from telling the story so often.
When Tupelo’s Mayor gives me a lift back to my hotel as we find ourselves leaving a restaurant simultaneously (there’s Southern hospitality for you) he tells me they’re also thinking of rebuilding the trail to the old swimming hole where young Elvis and pals once splashed.
With no time to head further south to New Orleans and the birthplace of jazz, there’s still blues and soul to cover round here. For soul, the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama is only beginning to capitalise on its status as the base for classic recordings by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, particularly at FAME Studios, while the Stax Museum in Memphis proves inspirational. It’s just a reconstruction of the original record label headquarters, but is forgiven for that because in its new tourist-friendly incarnation it incorporates a Music Academy and a Charter School for kids from this underprivileged neighbourhood. It also has the coolest gift shop.
On the blues trail, enigmatic guitarist Robert Johnson, dead in 1938 at 27 with just 29 recorded songs and two photographs to show for it, proves the hardest to pin down. Both the location of his grave outside Greenwood and the crossroads where, as legend has it, he sold his soul to the devil, are still hotly disputed (if you must see the “official” intersection, it’s in a busy part of Clarksdale with all the moody mystery of the North Circular) and debate will heat up again when Greenwood marks Johnson’s centenary in May this year. For the best account, Sylvester Hoover of Delta Blues Legend Tours proves fantastic value around the Baptist Town area corners where Johnson lived and played.
Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum and the brand new BB King Museum in Indianola also impart much knowledge, but it’s two other places that have the ghosts I’ve been looking for. I arrive at the Dockery cotton plantation near Cleveland Mississippi, where bluesmen Johnson, Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf all lived, as the sun sets on rickety wooden storehouses that look like impromptu stages. If it isn’t the definitive birthplace of the blues, as it claims on a plaque with a crucial questionmark, it should be.
Then it’s on down a dirt road nearby to Po’Monkey’s Lounge, the last of the traditional juke joints. Open just once a week on Thursdays, this is the home and hangout of Willie “Po’Monkey” Seaberry, a windowless tin shack with a floor made of who-knows-what, non-flushable toilets, junk everywhere and a sign ordering: “No lounld [sic] music. No dope smoking. No beer brought in. No rap.” In the middle of it all, a large seated man calling himself Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean is playing electric blues so primitive he makes The White Stripes sound like Stravinsky.
Dockery and Po’Monkey’s are the kind of places where this world conquering music really all began, still standing, just about, and a long way from being polished into unrecognisability. Buying a CD seems like too modern a way of marking their memories. I just soak in the sounds in these remarkable surroundings and try not to forget.
milliondollarquartet.co.uk. For more information on the area visit deep-south-usa.com. Original Music Travel offers a similar eight night trip including flights from GBP2,200 per person (020 7978 0500, originalmusictravel.com).