The Soul of Memphis

Despite setbacks, the Mississippi River city has held onto its rollicking blues joints, smokin’ barbecue and welcoming, can-do spirit

A throbbing two-block entertainment district is all that is left of old Beale Street, most of which was razed in urban renewal schemes. (Lucian Perkins)
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Look up almost anywhere in downtown Memphis, and you might spot a small white birdhouse perched atop a tall metal pole—a chalet here, a pagoda there. The little aviaries add a touch of whimsy to a town that has known its share of trouble. “People like them,” says Henry Turley, the real estate developer who erected them. “I’m proud of those birdhouses.”

Turley built them because he has concentrated his business efforts on the older, westernmost part of his hometown, near the Mississippi River—where mosquitoes are thought to swarm. That’s no small matter in a city whose population was once devastated by yellow fever.

“People complained that it’s impossible to live near the river because it breeds mosquitoes,” Turley says in his elegant drawl. “So I put up the birdhouses to attract purple martins, which are supposed to eat thousands of mosquitoes on the wing. But mosquitoes don’t like flowing water. So it’s bullsh-t.” He savors this last word, even singing it slightly. “And it’s bullsh-t about the purple martins killing them,” he adds. “I’m fighting a myth with a myth.”

A man of sly humor and earthy charm, the silvery-haired Turley, 69, joins a long line of colorful characters in local lore—from Gen. Andrew Jackson, who co-founded Memphis in 1819 on what was then known as the fourth Chickasaw bluff, to E. H. “Boss” Crump, the machine politician who ran the city for a good half-century, to W. C. Handy, B.B. King, Elvis Presley and a disproportionate number of other influential and beloved musicians. Turley is a sixth-generation Memphian descended from one of the Bluff City’s earliest white settlers; his great-grandfather was a Confederate rifleman who later served in the U.S. Senate. Birdhouses aside, Henry Turley’s stellar local reputation has more to do with what happened after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated here in 1968.

That traumatic event and the en­suing riots accelerated an inner-city decay that fed on racial disharmony, tax-advantaged suburban development and the decline of Memphis’ economic mainstays—especially King Cotton. Businesses and homeowners gravitated toward suburban havens to the east, such as Germantown and Collierville. But a hardy few, notably Turley and his oft-times partner Jack Belz, stood firm. And thanks to them and a few others, the city’s heart has steadily regained its beat. Several Turley-Belz developments have earned acclaim, such as Harbor Town, the New Urbanist community on Mud Island, and South Bluffs, a cobblestoned enclave overlooking the Mississippi near the old Lorraine Motel, where King was shot. But closest to Turley’s heart is a project called Uptown, which he undertook with Belz and the city government in 2002. They’ve built or renovated some 1,000 homes, fostered small businesses and carved out green spaces throughout a 100-block section that Turley says was probably the most degraded part of the city. And the new houses don’t all look alike. “We’re trying to make a nice neighborhood to live in, even if you happen to be poor,” he says.

Turley denies that he has any grand visions as an urbanist. He’s more like a blues guitarist who builds a solo gradually, from one chorus to the next. “We set out in a sort of dreamy Memphis way,” he says. “And remember, Memphis has a lot of freedom, Memphis is a place of creativity. I mean a pretty profound freedom, where there aren’t so many social pressures to behave a certain way. In Memphis you can do any goddamned crazy thing you want to do.”

On a broiling summer afternoon, Turley took me for a spin in his BMW and told me about some of the other Memphis mavericks he has known, such as his late buddy Sam Phillips, the white record producer who recorded such black bluesmen as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf and in 1952 founded Sun Records; his roster soon included Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Then there is Fred W. Smith, the ex-Marine who created Federal Express, in 1971, and Kemmons Wilson, who came up with Holiday Inns, in 1952. Another local innovator, Clarence Saunders, opened the nation’s first self-service grocery store in Memphis in 1916, featuring such novelties as shopping baskets, aisle displays and checkout lines. He named it Piggly Wiggly.

We ended the day at Turley’s South Bluffs home, tearing into some fried chicken with Henry’s wife, Lynne, a musician and teacher. As the sun finally melted into the pristine Arkansas woodland across the river, we sank into some sofas to watch a PBS documentary co-directed by Memphis author and filmmaker Robert Gordon. Called “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” it’s about the Memphis label that, in the 1960s, rivaled Detroit’s Motown for first-class soul music—think Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Booker T. and the MG’s.

The tourist brochures tout Memphis as the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, and there are musical shrines, including the original Sun Studios on Union Avenue and Elvis’ monument, Graceland, plus two museums devoted to the city’s musical heritage—the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum (a Smithsonian Affiliate) and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Between them, they pay proper homage to the broad streams of influence—Delta blues, spirituals, bluegrass, gospel, hillbilly, Tin Pan Alley, Grand Ole Opry, rhythm & blues, jazz and pop—that converged in Memphis from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries.

But the assumption that Memphis’ glory lies entirely in the past doesn’t sit well with some of the younger musicians. “There’s a little bit of resentment that when people talk about Memphis, they only talk about the blues and Elvis,” says Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, 31, a native Memphian and former executive editor at Vibe magazine. New music thrives in Memphis—a feisty indie rock scene and a bouncy, bass-driven urban sound that influenced much of Southern hip-hop. Independent record stores, such as Midtown’s Shangri-La and Goner Record, support Memphis artists. Local boy Justin Timberlake has conquered the international pop charts in recent years, and the Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia won a 2006 Academy Award for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from the film Hustle & Flow (set in Memphis and directed by Memphian Craig Brewer). That gritty side of Memphis life doesn’t make the visitor’s guides.


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