THE BLUES TRIANGLE : Part I
Finally, something to share! I’ve purposely been hoarding my pics and stories for here. While I’m hoping whoever reads this is inspired to travel and step out of their comfort zone, it’s really a journal of my travels, highlighting the blues, along with a bit of history of the places I went. And selfishly I’m jotting this down so that I don’t forget it all! My way of travel isn’t for everyone, but it sure as hell worked for me and I loved every bit of it.
The first stop on my trip had to be Muscle Shoals, AL. So much music came out of that place it was a no-brainer to start there.
Side note: I was informed (very much schooled rather) by Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson Jr., owner of Teddy’s Juke Joint, that not only was I traveling down the Mississippi Blues Trail, I was actually traveling across the Blues Triangle. Here are some highlights of the first leg of my trip. A more detailed account of Teddy later…
April 24th, 2016
The Shoals: Muscle Shoals & Florence, AL
What’s in a name? There are a few theories about where the name ‘Muscle Shoals’ came from. Some say the name Muscle Shoals came from all the stacks of mussels found along the shoals in the TN River. Another theory is that the shape of the river looks like the muscle of a man’s arm. The last theory claims that “Muscle Shoals, the Niagara of the South, derives its name from the Indians, who, attempting to navigate upstream, found the task almost impossible because of the strong current.” Thus came the word muscle, symbolic of the strength required to “paddle a canoe up the rapids.” (City of Muscle Shoals)
Stay: At Caleb’s Carriage House in Florence. Super cute place with great amenities, centrally located, just across the Tennessee River is Muscle Shoals. Close to shops, restaurants, and the UNA campus.
The Father of the Blues: Born in Florence in 1873, he’s one of America’s most influential songwriters and is credited for giving blues music its contemporary form. His musical style was influenced by church music and from sounds in nature. His family was not supportive of his love of music and considered musical instruments to be the tools of the devil. In 1902, William traveled through rural Mississippi to study the blues and documented and transcribed the music he heard when he returned home. A few of his most famous tunes were: Saint Louis Blues, Memphis Blues (some consider this to be the first blues tune), and Beale Street Blues.
“Life is something like a trumpet. If you don’t put anything in, you won’t get anything out.”
— W.C. Handy
Wilson Dam: took a nice bike ride along the TVA Trail and happened upon this big ‘ole dam. Completed in the early 20s, this dam was once used as a power supply center for munitions plants in World War I. It allowed a once un-navigable stretch of the Tennessee River “Muscle Shoals”, to become a major transportation resource for the Shoals area. (www.florenceal.org)
Move: Bike along the TVA Trail, follow signs to the yellow bike trail and go over the Tennessee River. I rode over this bridge, to think the river could rise that high, scary! Before ya hit the trail get tuned up and buy any necessary bike accessories at Spinning Spoke Cycle Hub. I got a bike pump for the road, some lube, and another reflector. The guys working there told me to do this trail and I loved it!
Do: You must tour FAME Recording Studios, after all, it’s really why you visit this town anyways! I got a fantastic tour from a young engineer who works there. Got to go in both recording studios, which are oozing with musical history. Lots of incredible memorabilia lining those walls. Some of the original B-3’s and other instruments used in the 60s are still being played on recordings today. Many people have questioned, is there something in the water there? And for good reason, the amount of incredible music that came out of that place (and still does) is unreal.
Hours: M-F 9am, & 4-6pm tours, Sat: 10-4pm. Admission: $10 And if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary Muscle Shoals.
History of FAME: Founded in 1959 by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford, this studio has recorded the best of the best (well, for those that know what’s good). Their first hit was recorded in 1963 by Jimmy Hughes, ‘Steal Away.’ Etta James recorded ‘Tell Mama’ there in 1967. Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Otis Redding, and Candi Staton have all recorded in this studio. The list goes on…
Duane Allman frequented the Shoals often and loved it so much he pitched a tent in the parking lot to be closer to the studio (2006 Skydog: The Duane Allman Story). It’s in this very studio that he taught Wilson Pickett ‘Hey Jude’ which was recorded in 1968. Soon after, he got his very first recording contract here.
Hear: music at Swamper’s
If all else fails, go to Swamper’s Bar (named after the famous backing band at FAME who later opened their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound) inside the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. Not only do they always have live music they have some pretty spectacular memorabilia. Be sure to tune in to 92.3 while you’re in the area, they play the good tunes for when you’re driving around.
April 25th, 2016
Drive/hike on the Natchez Trace Parkway
Route: the drive from Muscle Shoals to Tupelo was along the Natchez Trace and was simply beautiful! Definitely take this route and make a stop in Tupelo.
I had a quick stopover here, I honestly had no intention of going out of my way to visit Elvis’ birthplace (I mean, I’ve been to Graceland of course) but after hearing about this awesome blues venue/restaurant from Richard Upchurch I had to check it out.
See/Hear/Taste: The Blue Canoe: a live music venue with amazing eats (I had the dirty grains with greens, things, and shrimp) corn hole/baggo, and a great outdoor patio. I’ll definitely be going back to this place!
April 25th, 2016
24 Hours in Memphis
Don’t Stay: At the Exchange Place. Nope, don’t do it. The price is right but it’s oh so wrong. The Exchange Building used to be the tallest building in Memphis for over 20 years, apparently the apartments they can’t rent out they make into “efficiencies”. When the first thing I looked for were bed bugs, it ain’t good. Shit, they needed a double bolt on that door too. (The picture above is not of the Exchange Place).
Hear: I hit up all three of these spots in one night. Go see live music at the Lafayette Room (mid-town), Hi-tone Café (between Crosstown & Evergreen), and Rum Boogie downtown (supposedly the last real juke joint on Beale Street).
Move: do the walk ‘n see, there is so much to see in walking distance of each other downtown
Taste: Arcade Diner ‘Memphis’ Oldest Restaurant’ serving it up since 1919. 3rd generation owners still run this South Main Historic District restaurant, serving all-day breakfast. Steps from Beale Street, the Lorraine Motel, and the Blues Museum.
See (and stay if you can afford it), the infamous Peabody Hotel which opened back in 1925. It’s said that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of this famed hotel. Elvis Presley signed his first major RCA recording contract in the lobby of the hotel, it was typed up on the official hotel stationary.
The March of the Peabody Ducks is celebrating its 90th year tradition!!! The duck march happens on a daily basis at 11am & 5pm in the grandiose lobby of the Peabody Hotel (yes, really). The place is packed, everyone gathers around the stanchions along the red carpet to try and catch a glimpse of them as they make their grand exit from the elevator. 5 locally farm-raised North American Mallard ducks are escorted in by the comedic Peabody Duckmaster, eventually making it into the fountain where they stay for the reminder of the day. The ducks have a permanent residence (rotating every 3 months) on the hotel’s rooftop, a $200K structure made of marble & glass. Good God, ducks living as royalty…only in America.
Rub W.C. Handy’s statue in Handy Park for good luck! It’s a thing, do it.
In 1960, a still segregated Memphis, erected this statue in honor of its favorite African-American son. The statue became a template for the Blues Foundations’ early W.C. Handy Blues Award. In 1969, the US Post Office issued a W.C. Handy stamp. (www.memphismusicahalloffame.com)
Founded in 1980 its mission is to preserve blues heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and to ensure the future of this uniquely American art form.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 1pm-5pm,
Admission: Free for members, $10 Adults
One of the most popular soul music record labels of all time, Satellite Records was re-named Stax Records in 1961. Named after the first two letter’s of brother and sister owners, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton‘s last names. After Estelle re-financed her home for the second time they purchased an old movie theatre and turned it into a recording studio. The floors slant helped deaden the sound, a way of trying to control the acoustics on the cheap, that ultimately set Stax sound apart from other studios.
The theatre’s concession shop became Satellite Record Shop and turned into the neighborhood hangout. Residents and musicians would come to the shop to listen to records in hopes of getting to record. In 1960 the studio recorded its first hit record and single, “Cause I Love You” a duet by Rufus & Carla Thomas. That same year Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records offered them a deal to take over distribution, making it easier to get their records on the shelves.
Otis Redding was one of the biggest stars of the label arriving at Stax in 1962, not as a singer, but as a chauffeur for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. When his session went sour Otis took over and the rest was history.
I loved this museum so much! After a introductory video in the screening room you begin the tour in this real circa – 1906 Mississippi Delta church that was carefully reassembled inside the building. You pretty much dance your way through the museum, damn near impossible with all the greatest soul tunes playing. You’ll step into Studio A – an exact replica of the legendary converted movie theatre where Stax artists cut records, even down to the famous slant that contributed to the Stax’s legendary sound.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 1-5pm, closed Mondays.
Admission: FREE for members, Adults: $13
As I walked down and saw the Lorraine Motel for the first time I was overwhelmed with emotion. Upon entering the parking lot you hear his undeniable, powerful voice overhead preaching his famous words of hope and truth. Standing in the exact location where Martin Luther King, Jr. got assassinated on April 4th, 1968, you feel as though you’ve stepped back into the 60s. Nothing has changed from the facade of the motel, cars from the 60s remain in the parking lot, and a wreath still hangs on the door of Room 306 where he was staying the night of his tragic death. This is a place everyone should take the time to visit.
Hours: Monday, Wednesday-Sunday 9am-5pm, closed Tuesdays
Admission: Free to visit the outside of the motel (including interactive kiosks), Adults $15, Members: Free
In times of uncertainty, don’t forget…
Thank you for reading, stay tuned for The Blues Triangle: Part II