The Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King, And Me




 The Lorraine Motel in Memphis is now the central feature of The National Civil Rights Museum.

But it is still the Lorraine Motel, frozen in time at the point just after Martin Luther King was shot. And the rooming house that is being pointed out in the photograph is still there as well, and you can go inside and look out the same window that James Earl Ray looked out of as he pulled the trigger. It is one of the most chilling and intense historical experiences I have ever had, right up there with my visit to Ford's Theatre and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.

This excellent New Yorker piece provides some historical context:

There are many reasons to visit Memphis, particularly if you love rock and roll and the blues. But if you go, you need to visit The Lorraine. 

Gibson Guitar Factory

Toward the end of my excellent tour of the Gibson Guitar factory in Memphis TN, I spotted a red double-neck electric guitar like the one Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page plays -- a six-string neck and a twelve-string neck attached to a huge solid body. It was beautiful -- sanded, freshly lacquered, and waiting for its electronics to be installed before (perhaps) being shipped off to Mr. Page in London (Seth, our tour guide, wouldn’t confirm or deny).

I asked Seth if there was a double-neck in the Gibson factory store that I could look at, and he said there was. In fact, he said, every Gibson guitar model -- acoustic and electric -- is represented and for sale in the store, and at “factory store discounts.”

I play a vintage Martin D-18 accoustic and know a little something about guitars, which is why I had been looking forward to taking the tour, but I’m not in the market for another guitar, even though I’ve always wanted to get my hands on a real electric guitar to feel what it must be like to play one. Because while “Guitar Hero” might be fun -- like karaoke -- it’s not playing guitar.

In the store after the tour, Travis (really), the sales associate, must have noticed me drooling over the double-neck and decided that this old geezer looks like he’s ripe for a sale.

“Want to try it out?” he asked. “I can plug you in right over here,” he said, pointing to some live amps.

I thought “Are you kidding? Of course I do!”

“Sure,” I said. He got a cable and plugged me in.

The first thing you notice is how heavy it is, which probably explains why Jimmy Page always looked a little hunched-over when playing it. But it is fun to play – being able to switch between six and twelve strings is really neat. I didn’t get close to understanding any of the controls or deploying any special effects, but that was okay. It was enough just to play it.

I unplugged it, and returned it to its stand.

Now that I realized I could play any guitar in the store, I was drunk with power. Travis must have seen this scenario play out in the store many times before, and knew enough to wait out the storm before making any attempt to close a sale.

So I plugged in and played a Gibson Les Paul Model guitar that Les Paul not only invented, but actually played and autographed during a recent visit to the factory. I thus had a direct connection to the creator of the electric guitar and multi-track recording. I felt like Adam in Micheangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel.

Then on to a gorgeous red SG model, then to a J50 accoustic, then to the Sheryl Crow Signature Model, and on and on.

Soon it was closing time, and I wished Travis a good evening, and said I’d see him tomorrow.

I did have another chance to visit the store before we had to return home, and I got to play a couple more guitars.

And I did really did buy something – strings for my Martin, and a bunch of picks for my guitar-playing friends.

Sun Studio

I'm really glad that Graceland was last on my list of things to see during my recent visit to Memphis, because after visiting Sun Studio there was no reason for me to go.

I mean no disrespect to hard-core Elvis Presley fans, several of whom I spoke with during my recent visit to Bluff City. I understand that you have to go to Graceland if you want to immerse yourself in all the costumes and the country opulence (and decadence) that most people think of when they think of Elvis.

When I think of Elvis, I think of the three years or so after he arrived in Memphis from Tupelo, went to work as a truck driver for Crown Electric, and began churning out a raw blend of country and soul that sounded like nothing anyone had heard before. He recorded it at Sun Studio for Sam Phillips at the same time Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash were doing the same.

At Sun Studio, you stand in the same recording studio they all used, right next to the original speakers and recording equipment; for hardcore rock and roll fans, it is overwhelming.

When I was fourteen , the adult world hated Elvis for exposing us white kids to black music, but after Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA for $35,000 and Colonel Parker got hold of him and made him into a Hollywood star so that he would be acceptable to mainstream America, I lost interest in him and in his music.

Morgan Freeman recently opened a restaurant and blues club just off Beale Street in Memphis called "Ground Zero." I didn't get a chance to check out the music or the food, but it sure looks a cool place, and the name is perfect for its location at the epicenter of the blues in America. The music had better be good because that's a lot to live up to, especially with BB King's club just around the corner.

But for me, Sun Studio is the real Ground Zero in Memphis.

It's where Rock and Roll was born.

I was pleased to see that it has been designated a National Historic Landmark, but it’s really too bad that Memphis couldn’t have beaten out Cleveland as the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because that's where it really belongs.

Lorraine Motel

I didn't expect to be so moved by our recent visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis TN.

The walk through the Museum itself reminded me of several things I had forgotten about the history of the civil rights struggle in America, and the exhibits inside the Museum were outstanding

But it was the exhibits outside the Museum that really got to me.

You get off the trolley on South Main Street, walk down some steps through a little park, and when you realize you’re standing right in front of the Lorraine Motel -- exactly as it was in 1968 -- you’re hit by the full impact of Martin Luther King's assassination , and it takes your breath away.

Then you walk across the street, through a tunnel and into the actual rooming house from which James Earl Ray fired the shot. The room that Ray occupied, and the open second-floor bathroom window from which the shot was fired, are also exactly as they were in 1968.

It was truly chilling to stand in the bathroom of that rooming house, looking out the window that gave Ray a clear shot across the street, to the balcony just outside room 306.

The exhibits that document Ray’s journey after the assassination and prior to his capture reinforce the theory that he was well financed, and could not have acted alone.

It is a blessing that the motel and rooming house were saved from demolition so that they can provide a living history component to the Museum.

If you’re ever in Memphis, be sure to make this your first stop, ahead of Graceland .

I'll Be Walking in Memphis

I’m going to Memphis, and I’m trying to fit all that I want to do there into three days.

For a hard core Rhythm and Blues fan like me, Memphis ranks right up there with Chicago as the capitol of the universe. In fact, it was the main stopover on the road from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago.

Here are some of the things I plan to see in Memphis:
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
Gibson Guitar Museum
Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
Sun Studio
Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Our hotel is actually on Beale Street, and some of the attractions are within walking distance. The others are a short cab ride away. Also within walking distance: Beale Street’s many live-music bars.

Some music fans long to visit Nashville or Branson; I’ll take Memphis.