The Memphis road trip – Part 2

Skip at Muscle Shoals
Skip at Muscle Shoals

(Start with Part I if you haven’t already read it.) Well, that didn’t take long—the tour of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, that is. And the reason it didn’t take long is because the place is only about the size of a three-car garage. Nevertheless, what a thrill to be standing on the same black, linoleum floor where, back in the seventies, music was made by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle, Linda Rondstat, Sonny and Cher, Glen Frey, lynyrd Skynyrd, Boz Scaggs, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan and on and on and on (I wasn’t supposed to take any photos inside. I did, of course, but you’ll have to stop by the house to see them.)

Muscle Shoals' black linoleum floor and Skip's brown cowboy boots.
Muscle Shoals’ black linoleum floor and Skip’s brown cowboy boots.

In conversation with the current curators, I was also enlightened regarding the relationship between this small studio and the larger one located 2.3 miles down the road (according to Sirius), which is the Fame Recording Studio. Fame has two relatively large studios (A and B) and has been owned and operated by the same guy (Rick Hall) for around fifty years now. Mr. Hall, an incredibly talented producer, sat at the recording console for the likes of Percy Sledge (“when a man loves a woman”), Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding, The Osmonds, Mac Davis, Paul Anka, Ronnie Milsap, Jerry Reed, and on and on and on, all of whom recorded many of their hit songs in these very ateliers. Rick Hall, who is now in his eighties, has been the publisher of the music of scores of the most successful popular and R&B music icons in modern history.

Skip at the board with Fame engineer, Spencer Coats
Skip at the board with Fame engineer, Spencer Coats

Here’s is a picture of me standing in Studio B, where reportedly Duane and Greg Allman, hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, first jammed together with the other guys who would eventually join them as the Allman Brothers Band—and Southern Rock was born—right there in that room.

Fame: Studio B with Skip
Fame: Studio B with Skip

The history of these two incredible establishments, and fascinating insights into the life and times of Rick Hall and his house band (who came to be known as the “Swampers”) is documented in a film entitled “Muscle Shoals.” (You can get it on NetFlix or something). This is an absolute must-see documentary for all my musician friends out there who, like me, were in the thick of it back in the sixties and seventies.

Before heading to Muscle Shoals, Sirius helped me find the Hank Williams museum in Montgomery, Alabama. What a pleasant surprise: It was larger than I had expected and kept my attention for over an hour while I gazed at some incredible photos, furniture, guitars, attire (lots of cowboy boots and tasseled cowboy shirts in there) and handwritten letters, all the while enjoying the piped in music of his hit songs from the era (the 50s and early 60s, mostly). I was surprised to learn that Hank died at the tender age of 29 in the back seat of his 1952 baby blue Cadillac convertible, reportedly of heart failure. I admit I didn’t look into why he was in the back seat. The museum might be a little off the beaten track for some travelers, but definitely worth the side trip for those who might remember Hank’s music.

And then, on to my scheduled overnight stay in Birmingham, which serendipitously ended up at a Sleep In motel. Once checked in and in the sack, I eventually drifted off (despite the screaming couple in the adjacent room) to Mr. Williams crooning in my head “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” which is probably the tune that guy next door was going to be humming in the morning.

Then, it was on to Memphis to meet up with Carol and Bruce.

Well, no surprise: We spent the best part of an entire day at Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. I had visited the estate about forty years ago, when Mr. Presley was still alive, actually. Nowadays, however, the tour is practically on a par with a visit to Disney World. We had a good time, though, and I came to appreciate Mr. Presley as a really good person—in addition to his obvious talents as a performer/artist—who, unfortunately, met his maker also at an early age of only 42. Nevertheless, millions of his fans will attest that he left the world a better place than he found it. You know how I feel about that.

But, before Graceland, we took a city bus tour, which dropped us off at the famous Bealle Street for lunch. Bealle Street is a little like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, in case you’ve been there, but on a smaller scale and focusing mostly on R&B artists. After lunch, we came across this delightful little old black man, 93 years of age we learned, dressed to the nines and standing outside a small record store. As we approached, he began to enthusiastically point out that the name on the brass plate embedded in the sidewalk there in front of the store was none other than his own. (It’s kinda like one of those stars they put on the sidewalk for famous actors in Hollywood). Sure enough, he was the same guy (he had photos). And he really, really wanted us to buy one of his CDs. After photo ops and some conversation, though, we politely declined and moved on down the street. But later, as we were returning for our bus pickup, I saw what in my own mind I had come to assume was a pitiful old bluesman out there hawking his old CDs in order to make ends meet. My inner-musician was coming to the fore and I felt badly about blowing him off when the ten bucks or so I might give him for a CD might, you know, buy a sandwich or something.

Driven by guilt, I crossed the street and told him I would like to buy one of his CDs. He was elated and took me inside the store where I found that the CD was actually, well, $17, and he would like me to buy the other two as well. I didn’t spring for the other two, but felt as though I had done the right thing in purchasing at least one of them.

Having eased my guilt, I left the store with Carol and Bruce where we struck up a conversation with another elderly black gentleman who was sitting on a banister just outside. He stated that he was originally from Memphis and that he had known Clyde for many years. He shared with us some interesting and entertaining stories not only about Clyde but other tales about the life and times of those who had spent so much time on Bealle Street back in the day. As we talked I noticed a dark green Cadillac Escalade parked at the curb right there in front of the store.

“Oh, look,” I said, “I didn’t know people could park down here.”

The old guy said, “Oh, that’s Clyde’s car.”

“That’s Clyde’s car? And he just charged me seventeen bucks for his ten-year-old CD?”

“Oh yeah, that Clyde, he’s cheap. By the way, do you suppose you could spare three dollars and 49 cents so I could buy a sandwich or something?”

Clyde and Skip on Bealle Street
Clyde and Skip on Bealle Street

All in all, we ate a lot of barbecue in and about Memphis and had some time to catch up a bit before it was time for me to head back to Florida.

On my return trip through Pensacola and Mobile, though, I unexpectedly spotted a huge Navy ship moored at a dock just south of the entrance ramp onto I-10. This discovery resulted in an entirely unscheduled stop in order to tour what turned out to be the USS Alabama, a Dakota Class (read: “Really, really big” Class) Battleship there. Well, Sirius nearly blew a gasket when I swerved off the highway at the next exit and headed for the museum. “Recalculating route! Recalculating route! Make a left turn now! Make a U-Turn! Where the hell are you going!?” (I made that last one up, but that’s what she was thinking.)

Photo while standing on the bow of a really, really big battleship
Photo while standing on the bow of a really, really big battleship
Really, really big battleship bullets (2,700 lbs, each).
Really, really big battleship bullets (2,700 lbs, each).

Well, when I arrived at the parking lot I turned Sirius off and then proceeded to roam through the ship for awhile (what a monster), took some pictures of it and various other military hardware on display and then jumped back in the ol’ Jeep and hammered it down I-10, back to Jacksonville. I think Sirius was really ticked off—she didn’t say a word for 150 miles (the silent treatment).

My friend Bill had said he wouldn’t mind getting a postcard from me like we used to do in the good old days. Bought the card but couldn’t find a stamp. Maybe I’ll scan it and email it to him now that I’m home.

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3 comments

    History old and new, bundled into one package is like buying software on Amazon. People at any given destination trying to make their own way where as travelers try to make their way through. Journies and memories then stick like dust on cowboy boots. Some history will become infused in the leather until a party will be cause for a fresh coat of polish. But deep below the shine remains the reflection of the person you were, the person you are and the person you will be.
    Thanks for the trip, Skip.

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