Baseball, Barbecue and Beale

Published May/Jun 2007

Also see:
50 Years of Soul Celebration

Catch the Redbirds then enjoy great music attractions, restaurants and nightlife in Memphis.
By Deborah Reinhardt Palmer

The weather was suited more for football than baseball. But despite a game-time temperature in the low 40s (which dropped throughout the evening), a few thousand of the faithful on April 5 watched the Memphis Redbirds–Triple-A minor affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals–lose the home opener to the Oklahoma Redhawks.

As Yogi Berra said, it was déjà vu all over again. Just a few days earlier, the Cardinals dropped their home opener to the New York Mets in front of a crowd bundled in coats, hats and gloves.

Cardinal fans visiting Memphis will feel at home in AutoZone Park, and any baseball fan will enjoy a weekend in Memphis; 48 hours of ball, barbecue and Beale Street.

Step up to the plate

Professional baseball has been a part of Memphis’ history since 1849. The Redbirds play in the north division of the Pacific Coast League’s American Conference. The PCL is the final step in the minors before getting called up to the majors. Memphis lefty Randy Keisler recently got the call for the Cards’ starting rotation. With ace Chris Carpenter ailing, Keisler filled in against the Pittsburgh Pirates, holding the Bucs to two runs in six innings.

Redbird fans hope this season with new manager Chris Maloney will be brighter than 2006 when the ‘Birds had a record of 58 wins, 86 losses–the worst in franchise history. In the opening weekend series, the Redbirds took three out of four from Oklahoma.

In addition to watching good baseball, the entertainment experience at AutoZone Park is tough to beat. Built in 2000 with primarily private funds, the park sits in the heart of downtown Memphis with hotels, restaurants and venerable Beale Street a short walk away. The classic, neo-traditional style complements other downtown buildings. The park has 14,200 seats and can accommodate 3,000 additional fans on the Bluff, a grassy knoll behind left field. Fans bring blankets (no chairs are allowed) for seating, but a lot of the children we saw weren’t sitting. They were enjoying the Boardwalk, a family-oriented area with carnival games, a rock-climbing wall, giant inflatable slide and other amusements. Next to the Bluff is a playground called P.D. Parrot’s Playhouse Perch.

The open concourse allows fans to keep an eye on the game while fetching a soda, beer or hotdog. Try the famous barbecued nachos–taco chips dripping with cheese topped with either barbecued chicken or pulled pork. It’s a meal at $8.  

There are several nearby garages to accommodate fans driving to the game. Tickets for AutoZone Park are reasonably priced from $5–$18. Live music in the Toyota Center plaza, main entrance to the park, is offered before games, and fireworks follow every Saturday night contest. Other promotions include baseball, jersey and lunchbox giveaways in May. The Redbirds close out the season Sept. 2. Visit www.memphisredbirds.com for more information.

Other city attractions

Memphis offers visitors a solid line-up of attractions.  However, music is the pulse for this city and the beat is strong. For first-time visitors, make the pilgrimage to Graceland, the empire Elvis built, on your first day. Go in the morning, which offers cooler temperatures and smaller crowds.

The Graceland experience is a well-oiled machine, but it would have to be with more than 600,000 people from all over the world coming through that famous gate per year. The mansion is the main draw, but there also are ancillary exhibits–including Presley’s jets and car collection. 

This year, Graceland marks the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death (Aug. 16, 1977). It’s also the 25th anniversary of Graceland’s public opening in 1982 and the 50th anniversary of Presley’s purchase of his now famous home. Elvis Presley Enterprises estimates tens of thousands of fans will attend Elvis Week, Aug. 11–19. Although the big tribute concert on Aug. 16 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis likely will sell out, there are other events detailed at www.elvisweek.com.

Graceland tours start at $25 for the mansion tour and $30 to see the mansion, plus his two jets and the car collection. Children 7–12 get in for $10 and $15, and there are discounts off the adult admission for youth, seniors and students with valid school identification. Graceland is on Elvis Presley Boulevard, minutes south of downtown Memphis. Take Interstate 55 south to exit 5B.

If the Redbirds play a day game, you’ll have time to grab lunch on Beale Street and head to the game. For visitors with a night game on the itinerary, take in a city tour after lunch.

Ride the Ducks is a good tour, especially for those traveling with children. Get tickets at the downtown booth located at the corner of Beale and Third. Our driver/guide David Morrison, a native Memphian, peppered the usual sightseeing script with jokes and great Memphis music. The tour goes by Sun Studio; Lauderdale Court, once the apartment home of the Presleys; and historic churches. Then it was off to Mud Island and Wolf River Harbor to dive into the Mississippi River. On the way back, the vehicle passed the National Civil Rights Museum, lingering to retell the story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of his death.

Ride the Ducks is a good introduction to the city and some of its history. Tickets are $18.95 for adults, $9.95 for children 3–12. Seniors get $1 off the adult price.

Adults or teens interested more in the musical history of Memphis may want to do a 90-minute Memphis Mojo Tour with Backbeat Tours onboard a restored 1959 public bus. See Beale, Sun Studio and Stax Museum. Tour guides are working musicians who make the music come alive on the bus. Tours depart from the Blues City Café, Second and Beale streets. Prices are $25 for adults and $23 for students and seniors. For tour times, click on www.backbeattours.com.

Then you can return to the hotel, change into your Redbird T-shirt and head for the park.

On your second day in Memphis, go deeper into the city’s music history at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, 191 Beale St. on the FedEx Forum Plaza. This jewel is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute and tells the story of the birth of rock and soul music. A great film sets up this story and a wonderful audio guide leads visitors through the exhibits. Stop to hear some Memphis blues, soul or rock and watch your neighbor bop his or her head to the beat. The museum is a must for any music fan 10 years and older. There’s also a good gift shop waiting at the end of the tour. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for children 5–17. Visit www.memphisrocknsoul.org for more information.

After lunch, take in either Sun Studio, ground zero for rock fans, or Soulsville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Fifty years ago, owner Sam Phillips opened Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave., and  launched the careers of Presley, plus Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and many more. Our guide, known as El Dorado, was a Memphis resident and working musician. He and his Elvis-inspired sideburns led us upstairs to a small gallery of historic recording equipment, record jackets and other memorabilia. Audio clips filled in the stories about Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and Roy Orbison.         

Heading downstairs, the tour stops at the actual office where Presley walked in and paid $3 to make his first record. The mike he used is still there and participants posed for pictures with it after the tour.

After the studio tour, stop in the gift shop for a soda, coffee or browse the collection of CDs by Sun artists. Admission is $9.50 ($1 off for AAA members). Free parking is in back of the studio (drive here from downtown). Visit www.sunstudio.com for details. 

The Sun tour is about one hour, giving you enough time to tack on a tour of the Gibson Guitar Factory, 145 Lt. George W. Lee Ave., across the street from the Forum and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. See how experienced luthiers craft these legendary instruments, including the custom guitar used by B.B. King, who has played Gibson’s guitars for more than 40 years. The tour is for anyone 12 and older (younger children are not permitted in the factory) and admission is $10. For information, visit www.gibsonmemphis.com.

Stax Museum is a tribute to American soul music and its development. Owners Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, started a recording business called Satellite Records in 1957, later moving next door at 926 E. McLemore and renaming the label Stax. The museum opened in 2003.  

Begin your visit with a film explaining the evolution of this music, the history of Stax Records and the influence it had on American culture. The close ties with the Civil Rights Movement were especially interesting. During segregation in the South, Stax was one of the most successful integrated companies in the country.

This is an inspiring tour filled with wonderful music. However, information and music from various media comes at guests from all directions; it’s sometimes hard to focus on a particular exhibit. Still, visitors come away with a good background on Stax, a remarkable company that in just 14 years produced 800 singles, 300 albums, launched careers for artists like Otis Redding and helped further significant cultural changes.

But the story doesn’t stop with one label. Exhibits about artists from Muscle Shoals, Motown, Atlantic and Memphis’ own Hi Records are part of the museum. And like other music museums in Memphis, the gift store has CDs and other items to take home.

Memphis is celebrating 50 years of soul music all year, with a special week of music planned in June. For event details, click on www.memphissoul50.com.

Evening entertainment

After the ballgame, walk to historic Beale Street to hear some of the best blues, R&B, soul and jazz music. Popular blues bars–B.B. King’s Blues Club and Rum Boogie Café–pack in the crowds. Outstanding house bands almost guarantee a good time. Other choices for music include King’s Palace, which features various jazz artists and award-winning gumbo. Click on www.bealestreet.com for a list of nightspots, restaurants and events.

Where to stay and eat

If music is the soul of Memphis, the Peabody Hotel is an example of the city’s spirit. Unmatched hospitality, gracious accommodations, superior dining and a storied history make this AAA four Diamond hotel one of the greatest in the South.

The Peabody originally was located on the corner of Main and Monroe streets when it opened in 1869. It closed in 1923 after a series of small fires and reopened at the present location, 149 Union Ave., in 1925. 

Last year, the hotel completed a three-year restoration project involving all 464 guestrooms, meeting rooms and the famous grand lobby, with the centerpiece marble fountain and The Peabody ducks. The two daily duck marches continue to attract large crowds. The Grand Lobby bar, a great place for people watching, also is a coveted spot for duck diversions. The lobby and bar fill up about an hour before the show each day, so order a signature martini and claim your spot early.

Dining options at the hotel include Capriccio Grill. This AAA three Diamond restaurant is known for outstanding steaks, which were delicious and perfectly prepared. But a steak dinner here can be expensive, so for budget-conscious travelers, an option for enjoying this fine restaurant would be one of the luncheon pasta dishes.

Other restaurants include Chez Philippe, which has garnered the AAA four Diamond award for 17 consecutive years. Open only for dinner, reservations are necessary here. It’s also a good idea to call for reservations to enjoy The Peabody’s remarkable Sunday brunch served in the historic Skyway.

The Peabody is a destination unto itself and is so ingrained in Memphis history, it’s hard to imagine the city without this place. Its location is convenient to the ballpark, Beale and the Forum. AAA members receive a discount. A variety of packages are available, including a 50 Years of Soul special including one-night accommodation for two plus tickets to the Stax Museum, Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, a music CD, breakfast in Capriccio Grill, turndown service and valet parking for $310 double occupancy. More details are available at www.peabodymemphis.com.

Other hotels near AutoZone Park include the DoubleTree, 185 Union Ave. AAA members receive a discount. A new Westin, located across from the Forum, is expected to open in May.

Options for lunch or dinner should include the famous Rendezvous restaurant, one of the city’s most famous barbecue joints. This downtown, back-alley establishment started in 1948 and today ships its famous dry-rub ribs all over the world. Start with the cheese and sausage platter for an appetizer ($7.95) or the pork barbecue nachos ($7.95). Dinner should involve the famous ribs, $16.95 for a full order, $13.95 for a small. There’s also a combination platter with ribs and pulled pork ($17.50), pork loin plate, chicken or beef brisket. Dinner is served with the signature baked beans and tangy vinegar coleslaw. The aroma of smoked pork hits you a block away from this place that’s located downstairs behind 52 South Second St.  Your taste buds will thank you.

Catfish is another dish for which Memphis is famous, and a restaurant in the known trendy Cooper-Young midtown neighborhood–Soul Fish Café, 862 S. Cooper–does this regional favorite well. Although salads, po’ boys and other sandwiches are on the menu, get the catfish basket. A small basket ($9.50) was perfect for lunch. Three or four strips of mild fish dusted with seasoned cornmeal were fried golden brown and served with fries, amazing hushpuppies and coleslaw. With a décor that includes some retro touches, Soul Fish is worth the short drive from downtown.

This year, many people will discover or revisit Memphis. This gateway to the Delta has a lot going on, with more on the horizon, including a Ground Zero blues club opening at The Westin and a Graceland expansion planned in about three years. Come for baseball, stay for barbecue, music and a whole lot more.

Deborah Reinhardt Palmer is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler magazines.

In title: The Redbirds’ roost, AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis, is a great venue for baseball. (Deborah Reinhardt Palmer photo)

Above: The Peabody Hotel blends history with superb hospitality and service. (Peabody Hotel photo)

Below: Music fans will want to see Sun Studio where the first rock ‘n’ roll single was recorded and the careers of legends like Elvis Presley were started. (Deborah Reinhardt Palmer photo)

Before You Go
For more information, contact the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau at (901) 543-5300 or click on www.memphistravel.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

50 Years of Soul Celebration

Memphis will host a musical event, “Seven Days of Soul,” June 16- 22 as part of the city’s 50 Years of Soul celebration.

The milestone commemorates the golden anniversaries of the founding of Stax Records and Royal Studios.

Beale Street will be the centerpiece for “Seven Days of Soul.” The nearby Gibson Guitar Factory will also host a soul performance series all week long, showcasing top R&B acts in its intimate lounge setting. To complete the week, Concord Records will host a star-studded concert at Memphis’ Orpheum Theater at 8 p.m. on June 22. The concert, benefiting the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy, will Stax artists such as Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Mabel John, the Temprees, Rance Allen and The Reddings, a group consisting of Otis Redding’s sons Dexter and Otis II.  Tickets are $25, $50, $100 and $1,000. Visit www.ticketmaster.com/venue/221389 for more information.

For more information about the “Seven Days of Soul” and Memphis’ other famous music attractions, please visit www.memphissoul50.com.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music is one of Memphis’ best music attractions and will be the focus of a concert at the Orpheum Theater on June 22. (Memphis CVB photo)

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