Thursday, June 28, 2012

Royal City?

Memphis was founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson, Republicans one and all (in the 18th century meaning of the word), their having all been born in the colonies and lived to see the birth of the United States. Theirs was a commercial venture, which was meant to take advantage of Memphis's favorable location on the Mississippi for the distribution of goods. They certainly didn't have any interest in or time for kings, but over the years, Memphis has been associated with her share of kings~Kings by name and kings by proclamation. Their stories range from the tragic to the ridiculous. Two of them are still alive~one seems to have achieved a kind of immortality.

The most tragic of all the king stories is that of the assassination of Martin Luther King  on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, where he had come to support Memphis Sanitation Workers during a strike. I was 17, a senior in high school, and his death changed the city in which I had grown up forever. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that lives of every person that lived in Memphis on that day and the lives of every person who has lived there since have been affected by his assassination. I imagine that one day in the far, far future, the city may not be defined by the fact that this event happened in that place, but it won't happen in my lifetime or in the lifetimes of my children.

Moving on from the tragically painful to the ridiculously painful, we come to Jerry, the King Lawler. Born in Memphis in 1949, Lawler has been associated with just about every wrestling association that there is. He achieved a bit of national attention in 1982 when he wrestled Andy Kaufman and in a subsequent appearance on David Letterman, slapped Kaufman, who was encumbered by a neck brace from their earlier wrestling match, out of his chair. To this day, nobody but Lawler knows how much of this was real and how much acting. You can read about it in the Memphis Flyer archives. Lawler was also one of 25 candidates in the 2009 special election to replace the Mayor of Memphis. He did not win.

Not all of the kings of Memphis were people. King Cotton reigned in the area from before the time of the Civil War until, I think, sometime in the late 20th century. During Reconstruction, Memphis initiated a Mardi Gras Carnival, but the Yellow Fever epidemic soon put an end to that. When the carnival was resurrected in the 1930s, instead of being a precursor to the Lenten season, it became the Cotton Carnival and took place in the Spring. No longer tied to religious observance, the carnival was a commercial event intended to promote the city's top commodity. Of course, the Cotton Carnival came with it's own King and Queen and court.                                                                              

And then we had a whole team of hockey-playing kings. The Memphis RiverKings are a minor league team that played in Memphis from 1992 through 2007. I think that the success of the team must be largely attributable to an influx of people from other parts of the country, because native Memphians don't come by ice-skating naturally. It's never cold enough, long enough that any local bodies of water freeze hard enough for skating and there wasn't even a rink until we had a short-lived hockey team in the 1960s and not again until the 1970s. The RiverKings are no longer the Memphis RiverKings having moved to northern Mississippi in 2007.

Whoever and whatever else may reign in Memphis, what Memphians love best is music. B. B. King (born Riley B. King) is not a Memphians but he opened his first blues club in Memphis on Beale Street and, really, where else should he have opened it? Beale Street, after having been almost completely deserted in the mid-20th century was coming back to life after a restoration in the early 80s.

But however many kings there may be in Memphis, if you mention king and Memphis in the same breath, there is one name that springs to mind and that's this guy's. Every January and August, hundreds of people flock to Memphis from all over the world to visit his home, Graceland, and to take part in all the activities surrounding the event, especially the candlelight vigil. Since the dates of his birth and death coincide roughly with the beginning of Fall and Spring semesters, we could always depend on seeing a few Elvi at the airport when we took our daughter to catch a plane back to college. This August being the 35th anniversary of his death, I'm sure the city will be overrun with fans, many of whom, perhaps most of whom, were not even born when he died. Walgreens will be selling more Elvis scarves, Pez dispensers, whiskey decanters and whatever than you can imagine. It's pretty remarkable.

Elvis was a man who obviously lost his way in many respects, but it seems like he never stopped looking for his way. He was known around here as a man of great charity. And while everyone else called him the king, he never took that name on himself. I doubt that you could find a photo of him in a crown, because he knew Who the King was. I've heard stories about incidents like the one on this video for a long time, but this is the first recording I've ever heard.



  1. I didn't realize Memphis was so stigmatized by the MLK assassination. I don't think of the city that way. But then I live in Alabama and Birmingham's stigma is a lot greater--it wasn't just one terrible thing perpetrated by one person, it was a whole campaign waged by the authorities. The state of Tennessee came out of all that a lot better than Alabama & Mississippi did.

    That Elvis quote is great. I'm trying to imagine him in heaven and having a bit of trouble with it. Not because he was so bad but it's just hard to imagine the perfected celestial Elvis.

    Minor league hockey teams seem to have been a civic fad for a while. *Mobile* had one. Naturally-occurring ice in this area is quite rare and is usually no more than a bit of crust around the edges of puddles. And folks marvel at it.

  2. Not so much stigmatized as traumatized.


  3. But do you have any Queens?

    Seriously, I didn't know all those things about Memphis: Elvis, B.B. King, MLK. I suppose my knowledge of the details of US history is not all it might be. I am somewhat envious of those who live in places with strong historical resonances, where the ghosts of the past hover. I've never lived in a place like that. A place you could write songs about without sounding silly.

    Recently I read that Charles Dickens came to Toronto on his first tour of North America. I tried to find out the details, because his having been in a place would be enough to give it an aura for me, but I couldn't discover much.

    Regarding minor league hockey teams being "a fad", well, I hardly know what to say. Aren't they just a fact of life?

  4. Except for the queens of the Cotton Carnival, I can't think of any--oh, except for this.

    We do have a prince, though. I was thinking about writing something about him.


  5. Minor league hockey teams are/were a fad in regions where not one person in a hundred has ever been on ice skates or has much of a clue about how the game is played beyond the scoring mechanism, and the average winter temperature is well above freezing. Although we do get the concept of fighting. That's quite popular.


  7. Thanks, Paul! That gives me something to go on.