25 Things You Should Know About Memphis
Between Elvis lore and pulled pork cookouts, Tennessee’s biggest city has a lot to offer. Why not prepare for your next visit with some southern-fried Memphis trivia?
1. Andrew Jackson is regarded as one of the city’s founders. In 1819, Old Hickory teamed up with two other land speculators (judge John Overton and General James Winchester) to establish Memphis as a hotspot for commerce. Its beginnings were humble—the place initially consisted of nothing but a fort, a trading post, and a handful of cabins.
3. The 1862 Naval Battle of Memphis pitted two Union fleets against a lone Confederate one. Each of the three was commanded by an officer with no prior experience in river-based warfare. Even more incredibly, two of those men lacked any sort of military experience whatsoever.
4. Meat-lovers recognize four primary BBQ styles: North Carolina, Kansas City, Texas, and (of course) Memphis. In western Tennessee, barbecue chefs relish a distinctive and rather sweet sauce. This topping exposes Memphis for the major port it’s always been—while cooks in other southern cities used whatever local ingredients they could find, early Memphians could have choicer ones shipped up or down the Mississippi. Thus, molasses became a popular cornerstone in Tennessee BBQ sauce.
Robert R. Church Park was created by (and named after) one of America’s first black millionaires. The former slave bought a huge chunk of land near Beale Street in 1899. A grand community center for African-Americans, the park boasted an auditorium with over 2000 seats that Church personally financed.
7. One of 1912’s biggest hits, “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy, was the first commercially successful blues song ever written. Handy based the tune on a campaign jingle that was used by Memphian mayoral candidate Edward Crump.
8. Congress officially recognized Beale Street as the “Home of the Blues” in 1977. Given that every icon from Louis Armstrong to Muddy Waters to B.B. King performed there at some point, the choice was a no-brainer.
We can all thank an unemployed bear for Memphis’ world-class zoo. Like many baseball clubs, the now-defunct Memphis Turtles used a live mascot, frightening home crowds with an ursid named “Natch.” A gift from businessman A.B. Carrathers, Natch’s career didn’t last long and he was promptly returned. Unable to accommodate the beast at his home, Carrathers chained him to a tree in Overton Park. Soon, a number of other unwanted pets joined him there. This prompted Col. Robert Galloway—who headed the parks commission—to request funding for a zoo in 1906.
10. Once upon a time, American shoppers couldn’t peruse grocery aisles for themselves. Instead, customers had to give their lists to their grocers who’d then turn around and gather the items. Enter Piggly Wiggly, the nation’s first self-service grocery store. After the original outlet opened in Memphis on September 6, 1916, it became a widespread chain.
11. Often regarded as the first rock 'n' roll record ever made, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston was produced at the historic Sun Records Studio (a.k.a. “Sun Studios”) on Union Street in 1951. The establishment then became a hit-generating machine, churning out smash singles such as “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” In 1960, it closed its doors, finally re-opening nearly three decades later after the necessary renovations were complete.
12. Back in 1953, Sun Studios would let any passerby record an album for $3.98 plus tax. That summer, a teenage trucker from Mississippi walked in and made one for his mother’s birthday. Present at the session was studio founder Sam Phillips, who was largely unimpressed by this greenhorn singer. His secretary, however, heard something she liked and, at her recommendation, the artist was invited back for a second session on July 5, 1954. Five hours in, he dazzled Phillips with a little song called “That’s All Right.” And thus began the meteoric rise of one Elvis Aaron Presley.
14. After retiring from showbiz, the original MGM lion was moved to the Memphis Zoo, where he passed away in 1944.
15. The last home that Elvis ever owned is now a prime tourist magnet. Every year, Graceland is the second most-visited private home in America, trailing only the White House.
16. By the way, Graceland’s name has nothing to do with The King. Originally, the property belonged to S.E. Toof, a newspaper publisher who named it after his daughter, Grace. Presley bought the place in 1957 and never re-branded it.
17. The former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum.
18. If you check out the famous Orpheum Theater, be wary of the mezzanine’s northern side. Rumor has it that “Mary”—the shoeless ghost of a 12-year-old girl—can often be seen enjoying shows from seat C-5.
19. Several prominent celebrities hail from Memphis, including Morgan Freeman, who was born there on June 1, 1937.
20. The city's annual Cooper-Young festival attracts over 130,000 people every year. Visitors can enjoy live music, art sales, and an ocean of craft beer.
21. When gazing at the city skyline, one building sticks out like an ancient sore thumb. The modern re-imagining of Egypt’s architectural wonders, the famed Memphis Pyramid, was built in 1991. Originally conceived as an indoor sports venue, it’s now a hotel and Bass Pro Shops megastore. Inside, visitors can hitch a ride on America’s tallest freestanding elevator, which stands 320 feet tall and stops at 28 floors.
23. The University of Memphis’ athletic teams are known as the Tigers. In 2012, to honor the school’s centennial, 100 differently-painted tiger statues (including one whose design was modeled after Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”) were displayed on campus. If you’re in the mood for an adventure, know that most of them are now viewable at various locations around town.
25. Memphis is home to the most spoiled ducks on planet earth. Bluff City’s ritziest five-star hotel is an establishment called “The Peabody.” In 1932, manager Frank Schutt and his hunting buddy decided to amuse the customers by placing five live ducks in the lobby’s water fountain. Schutt’s guests adored these feathered friends, and today the Peabody is the home of an all-new flock. The birds mostly while away their days inside a $200,000 duck penthouse. However, every day at 11 a.m., they’re escorted by an impeccably-dressed employee down to the Italian marble fountain for a six-hour swim.