The DEC4 Podcast Companion: Gary Wells (Part 1) - From Memphis to Vegas: A Vintage Leisure Tour
The Memphis Experience
Gary Wells (www.soulrideblog.com) has joined us once again on the DEC4 Podcast for this special end-of-year extended episode, during which he takes us on an immersive, audio tour through Memphis and Las Vegas. We’re considering these destinations wholly in the context of mid-twentieth century entertainment and culture, and what are essential places of interest for the ‘vintage leisure’ enthusiast. We also thank Gary for these photos from his personal collection.
This first of two companion newsletters features Memphis, situated on the Mississippi River in southwestern Tennessee, the state's second largest city. Our starting point is Days Inn, adjacent to Graceland and conveniently central to other attractions significant to our ‘vintage leisure’ tour, and very much part of the Elvis experience.
There is significant, and occasionally strong, commentary online over matters of street crime and personal safety in Memphis generally and, in particular, Whitehaven, where Graceland is situated. Gary reminds us that Memphis is a living, working city, not a theme park, and getting to know the city itself and living the Memphian summer heat is all part of the total experience. There is traditional southern hospitality to embrace, as well as the opportunity for some welcome camaraderie with fellow, like-minded tourists from all parts of the US and the world. From Gary’s commentary we can reach the conclusion that there’s no reason to be deterred from visiting Memphis over safety concerns, however, as with any unfamiliar city, visitors should remain aware of their surroundings, know where they are going and be alert. We understand that personal experiences will vary, and everyone should consider information from a wide variety of credible sources before making a decision on personal safety when travelling.
Although Elvis and Graceland inevitably form a big part of our Memphis segment, there are many other people and places to consider. Iconic recording studios Stax, Sun, and Chips Moman’s American Sound asserted huge influence over 20th century music and were collectively responsible for some of the most significant and enduring songs of that era. Many artists, Elvis included, did some of their best and most commercially successful work at these historic Memphis hit factories, backed by some of the finest in-house session musicians and producers in the business. Gary talks us through what part of this cultural history can still be experienced, with Sun Studios retaining its original location, interior and equipment, and providing atmospheric and informative studio tours.
American Sound Studios has long since been demolished, although there is a commemorative plaque there, and a Family Dollar convenience store. There is a little more on American Studios by NPR’s music writer and commentator Ed Ward (1948-2021), consisting of a podcast and transcript;
The Forgotten Story of Memphis’ American Studios
The Memphis Travel website states that around 20% of the early inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came from within a 100 mile radius of Memphis, and that the Memphis Musicians Union, founded in 1873, is the oldest musicians' union in the country.
Another Memphis icon, Beale Street, is an entertainment strip where the best and worst aspects of city life can be on display at various times, but is steeped in cultural and music history. It has been voted the second most popular entertainment district in America following Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Gary recommends Lansky Brothers as a destination of particular interest for a daytime visitor.
Another highlight of Gary’s Memphis itinerary is a visit to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, just a few minutes’ drive from Graceland. Al Green is one of the most successful soul/R&B singers of all time, having sold 40 million records, won eleven Grammy Awards, Kennedy Centre Honours, numerous industry lifetime achievement awards, and as an inductee into the Rock and Roll, Songwriters, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame. His Sunday church services are popular with local Memphians and tourists.
In 1956, Elvis purchased a home at 1034 Audubon Drive and lived there with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, for 13 months before he acquired Graceland.
Gary takes up the story of 1034 Audubon Drive on his website, in a fascinating piece on musician, impresario, record company executive, motorsports team owner and politician, Mike Curb. Both Graceland and the house on Audubon Drive were first and foremost family homes, and it’s well worth taking a moment to consider the real human stories behind these iconic attractions; Gladys Presley was very kind and welcoming to the young fans who turned up to Audubon Drive, in the brief period of Elvis’ early fame before it all became unmanageable on that level.
We also have an extensive look at Graceland itself, its auxiliary facilities and exhibits. Every morning, the Meditation Garden is open to the public for one hour from 7.30 am, for free, to pay respects to the Presley family.
The Graceland home, 13 acre grounds and family heirlooms remain the sole property of Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie. (POST-EDIT: We note with sadness the passing of Lisa Marie Presley, January 12th, 2023, aged 54.) It is administered by Elvis Presley Enterprises, which is 85% owned by Authentic Brands Group, and the result appears to be a well managed place of pilgrimage for fans, appropriately balancing commercial realities with the preservation of an incredible personal and artistic legacy.
“…It’s a hundred percent worth it, and what you get is the feeling, the experience. Elvis worked, lived, operated here. This is his home. It really does add an intangible and a strong dimension to the pursuit of the man and his world…” (Gary)
Find the official site here;
We’ve barely scraped the surface of Memphis as a destination, but there is lots more detailed information on the Memphis Travel website, including a fascinating page listing some ‘fun facts’ about the city, including;
Memphis has one of the top urban park systems in the nation covering 7 000 acres.
The Memphis Zoo was founded in 1905…Volney, the lion who roared at the beginning of all the old MGM movies, lived there until his death in 1944.
Home of W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," and Robert Church, the South's first black millionaire. W.C. Handy was told by George Gershwin, "Your work is the grandfather of mine."
In our bonus segment right at the very end of the podcast episode, Gary takes us across the state line into Mississippi and talks us through a visit to Elvis’ birthplace
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Thank you for joining us on this ‘vintage leisure’ tour of Memphis. We’ll see you in Las Vegas for Part II.