Memphis wasn’t on my list of vacation destinations but the soul music coming out of there always intrigued me. So, Kate & I recently drove up there to check it out for a couple days. We hit the three main places we wanted to go; The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Sun Studio and The Stax Museum. We learned a whole lot and I felt a whole lot too. I was reminded of where I was & what I was doing in the late 60’s around the time Martin Luther King was assassinated. Something clicked and I understood why I was so curious about Memphis in the first place. That took me back almost 50 years.
On the evening of April 4th 1968 I was watching TV. Not sure what was on, probably McHale's Navy, Gilligan’s Island or Lost in Space. Or maybe it was Gomer Pyle. Anyway, I was startled and scared when this bulletin hit hard “We interrupt this broadcast, Martin Luther King has been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.” I was 11 years old and I knew something really bad had happened on out there in the world somewhere. I had no idea where Memphis was and only a vague notion about the civil rights movement from our Rabbi’s sermons about his experiences in the march on Washington. I didn’t pay much attention to our Rabbi and in 1968, on the south shore of Long Island my friends weren’t talking about Memphis or Martin Luther King. During this same period of time I was gravitating toward the soul music I heard on the radio. I distinctly remember the moment at summer camp up in Maine when I heard Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay” for the first time. Hard to describe how it made me feel other than to say it felt like home. The melody and that backbeat changed everything for the better. Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” & Booker T’s “Hip Hugger” rocked my world in the best possible way. I didn’t know Stax from Motown, Memphis from Detroit. Only thing I knew about the Motor City was I loved GM’s “Cars of the Future” exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair. Memphis might as well have been on the moon. I didn’t known their names but Stax’s Al Jackson Jr. & Howard Grimes and Motown’s Richard Pistol Allen & Benny Benjamin were turning me on to a groove that transcended all the TV-watching an 11-year-old could possibly stand.
I cried when I stood next to room 306 at The Lorraine Motel looking out on the spot where Martin Luther King was gunned down. I understood that I was here on this planet when it was all going down. I learned a ton about the musicians cross-pollinating the blues and gospel, country and rock & roll. Booker T Jones, David Porter, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr, Donald Duck Dunn & others with the singers they backed at STAX were the epicenter of soul. 48 years later, we listened to sweet soul music all the way home. But when the news came on the radio it became painfully clear, we still have a long way to go.