Mild-Mannered Memphis Seeing the sights: In little more than a day, a visitor can see much of the Mississippi River town that King Cotton -- and music -- built.

October 22, 1995|By Susanne Hopkins | Susanne Hopkins,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

I told a friend I was going to Memphis.

"Memphis?" he said. "Isn't that where the ducks march?"

It certainly is. Twice a day, in fact. But there's more to Memphis than the Peabody ducks marching down a red carpet in the venerable hotel's lobby -- although that is a most charming feature of this Tennessee town.

Perched on a bluff with the Mississippi River as its front yard, this city of nearly 700,000 is a kick-back place where friendliness oozes out of its citizens like honey from a comb, and where you can spend several days discovering its curiosities.

This is, after all the town that King Cotton -- and music -- built. Steamboats once paraded up and down the river, hauling their cargo of "white gold." W. C. Handy honed the sound that would become known as the blues at PeeWee's Saloon on Beale Street. And at the tiny Sun Studio at the corner of Marshall and Union streets, rock and roll was born and the career of another king, Elvis Presley, was launched.

This is also where, on a tragic day in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

And this is where I find myself on a warm summer day. Like most business travelers and many vacationers, I only have a little more than a day here. It's not enough time to do Memphis thoroughly, but you can at least get a sense of place -- and find out whether you want to come back.

Some Memphis possibilities:

* Gray Line Memphis Sightseeing Tour, (901) 948-8687; $18 adult, $17 seniors and $8 children ages 4-12. OK, so a bus tour is passive sightseeing. But it's also one of the quickest ways to get a little history and a comprehensive view of a city -- what's out there, the lay of the land, what might be worth further exploration.

With that in mind, I hopped aboard a tour bus that picked me up at my hotel. We took a spin by Elvis Presley's Graceland, then continued on to Central Gardens, a section of elegant homes built, our guide told us, between the 1850s and early 1900s. It's not Beverly Hills, but there are nevertheless some deluxe abodes on these tree-shaded boulevards.

On the way to our next stop, Sun Studio, where music legends such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley recorded, we got a little Elvis lore.

"They actually fired Elvis at the Loew's State [theater] here for giving away popcorn to his friends," our guide informed us.

The studio's little cafe has long been the meeting place for legends. It's stuck in the '60s in both menu (hamburgers and the like) and ambience. Massive photos of Elvis grace the wall (this was, after all, where the King recorded his first hit, "Don't Be Cruel"); one of the most famous photos, dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet," features Elvis on the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash.

I paid the extra $2.50 to see the tiny museum upstairs. This is where rock and roll started. Instruments, old candid studio photographs, early newspaper and magazine articles and a variety of memorabilia track the evolution of rock and the Elvis explosion. Want a souvenir? You can buy a copy of Elvis' driver's license for a few bucks.

Houses and hospital

We rolled by Victorian Village on Adams Street, a few blocks of restored homes dating as far back as the 1840s. Many are open to the public (for a fee); we didn't stop.

We did get out and wander around the Danny Thomas ALSAC (American Lebanese Associated Charities) Pavilion at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, one of 12 hospitals in Memphis.

It struck us as odd to see a gold-domed mausoleum on the order of something from the Middle East in the middle of Memphis, but then, the city was named for the capital of the old kingdom of Egypt. And the structure was, in fact, modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It houses a multifaceted tribute to Thomas, from his early show-business days and his TV show, "Make Room for Daddy," to his honors for humanitarianism.

There is also an exhibit dedicated to the work of this hospital that offers medical care free of charge to children with catastrophic illnesses.

The tour also took us by the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968. Now, it's the National Civil Rights Museum.

Then, we're on Beale Street, a jumble of nightclubs, restaurants, oddball shops and rundown buildings where the blues was nurtured. The music still, come nightfall, wails plaintively from clubs like B. B. King's.

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