Sun Studio, Mom, & Po' Monkey's
Day 7 - Friday, April 24, 2015
We woke up to a delicious breakfast made by our Airbnb host, Katie; fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, freshly baked biscuits, bacon, tomato jam made by her friend, and Vermont maple syrup all ready with coffee for us to greet the day. We showered, packed up, and searched for Katie and Jon to say our goodbyes. We found them with their two Pointer pups on the back porch. There was a vegetable garden growing in the back and large, beautiful trees surrounding the perimeter of the yard. We learned that they had done most of the yard work and gardening themselves. Our feelings for our first Airbnb experience were solidified. We loved them, it was perfect, and we hoped every other experience was similar with equally wonderful people.
We had some time to kill before picking up our mother at the airport. There were a few options of things to do, but we had a short amount of time and thought we’d do something small – and small we got. We decided to go to Sun Studio. The tours are fairly small groups to fit into the small upstairs area and the small recording studio attached to what is now a small café. The café is covered in records, pictures, and posters. Our tour guide led us upstairs to the small museum. He told us who Sam Phillips was, the kinds of things he recorded, and the overall history of the place back to when it was still called Memphis Recording Service. Sam had a lot of recording machinery that he used to record anything from a dance recital to a personal ceremony to political campaigns, but what Sam was truly interested in recording was music. He was specific about the kind of music; he was not into pop music of the time. For a small studio, Sam ended up recording very big songs by very big names. He started with artists like Jackie Wilson, Muddy Waters, and B.B King. When Elvis came in as young kid and paid to record a demo, it was Sam’s receptionist, Marion Keiske, who was in the studio that day running the machinery. Sam had no interest in Elvis Presley because of the kind of music he had chosen to record. It is to Marion’s credit that The King was brought back in to record a year later. It is always so interesting hearing about the women behind the men who played key roles in shaping history. After our guide played us a few song clips of some of the music that had been recorded just a few feet below where we stood, we went downstairs to see where Marion worked.
Our guide was very well informed and is an aspiring musician that records music in the studio. He told us that Elvis’s “Hound Dog” was actually Big Mama Thorton’s “Hound Dog”, and he played us Rufus Thomas’s response song that Sam had recorded called “Bear Cat”. I was reminded of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” and Christina Aguilera’s “Will The Real Slim Shady Please Shut Up” response. A completely unworthy comparison, and yet exactly where my mind went as a reflection of the decades in which I grew up. The upper level of Sun Studio is a very cool exhibit, but the still functioning recording studio downstairs was the most appealing part of the tour. Though Sam only owned the property from 1950-1960, which he could not have sustained without selling Elvis to RCA Records for $35,000, the studio’s skin and bones were never altered. The acoustic sound boards are still all in place as they were through the number of different store fronts and owners that tried to profit from the property until it was reclaimed as Sun Studio much later. On the wall of the studio hangs a picture of the Million Dollar Quartet: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis Presley. Someone was smart enough to hit the record button as they fooled around in the studio together. As we were played a clip of that recording, everyone in the room fell silent, stared at the million dollar photo on the wall, and felt the chill of greatness in the room. As the studio is still functional and used for recording at night when tours aren’t going on, we were asked not to touch anything except one authentic, antique piece. The microphone all those miraculous artists and many others had used in that room was there for photo ops. Allison and I waited until the last of our group had had their chance with the microphone. We then proceeded to take turns recording videos of ourselves singing into it. I sang “Unchained Melody” in my best possible Elvis impersonation, and Allison sang “Sunny”.
In preparation for having our mom in the car, we had unloaded half of our filled car into our father’s rental car the day before. We would be seeing him again in Mississippi, and, thanks to the help of friends, we had ordered a top rack for the car that would be shipped to our aunt’s. The plan was to pick her up at the airport, drive down to Cleveland, Mississippi, and then drive together to Montgomery after the weekend. She would catch a bus from there to Atlanta to visit her family and lead laughter yoga through her business, Serious Giggles, and we would continue on to New Orleans. We had given our dad as much as possible, and it still seemed she and her luggage would scarcely fit. Living out of the car was proving to be much more difficult than we had initially anticipated.
After grabbing her at the Memphis airport, we went for some famous fried chicken at Gus’s. The kitchen got our order wrong and we ended up with way more food than we had ordered. We took the extras to go in search of the Memphis homeless population. Before we came across anyone who looked as though they’d appreciate a free meal, we came across the Lorraine Motel where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Just as we arrived the clouds darkened and wept. We had no umbrella accessible, but we stood and read the plaques in the rain. The motel appears unchanged since the 1960’s. It has two cars from that period on display in front and a wreath that marks MLK’s position when shot. Lorraine Motel is but one location that makes up the National Civil Rights Museum complex. While we would have liked to stay and walk through the whole museum, our budget didn’t allow for it, and neither did our schedule. We were due in Mississippi by early evening. As we drove away, we saw a protester, Jacqueline Smith, against gentrification in Memphis. She has been protesting there for decades. Through online research I learned that she allegedly worked at the Lorraine Motel at the time of MLK’s assassination. Unlike us, she was prepared with an umbrella. I imagine she sits on that corner, prepared for all types of weather.
It took us a few tries before we were able to find an area with an overt homeless population. I was adamant, however, and after asking a man where we might find a shelter, it took no time at all. We handed off the chicken and some water to three grateful men. I wondered what their stories were as we got on the highway, Mississippi bound. The rain continued for most of our drive. When we got to Tunica, we were compelled to pull over at a Mississippi Blues Trail Visitor Center. It looked random and interesting and just the type of place we wanted to frequent in the upcoming months. There was another miniature museum inside, another tour we hadn’t the room for in our budget. We listened the to blues music through the speakers, imagined southerners sitting on the front porch, and admired the autographed guitars that lined the upper walls. It became less and less difficult to recognize that we were in the South, the Mississippi Delta, specifically. The trees were much more tired and grand, and the heat and moisture were much more prominent.
We drove immediately for a congregation of our Aunt Terry’s closest friends and family. There was a short ceremony honoring her incredible generous, gregarious, and considerate nature; it was a formal celebration of her life’s work and her impact on the community and those around her. We respectively all drove to the Delta Meat Market for drinks and dinner. There was a talented group, Blackwater Trio, filling the place with lively covers and original songs, plenty of vegetables, fried and otherwise, and an assortment of specialty hard beverages. We were introduced to our host at this event and would be seeing her and meeting her husband later at Po’ Monkey’s Lounge.
Allison and I followed a car, which we assumed contained Terry and my mom to Po’ Monkey’s in the dark. We knew it would be out in the middle of nowhere, but there was supposed to be a caravan driving there for drinks and desserts. Keep in mind this is Cleveland to Merigold, Mississippi. There were only two cars on the road we were on as far as we could see. At about halfway I suggested we call one of them, as we were unable to plug an address into the GPS, and we hadn’t actually seen them get into the specific car we were blindly following out into rural Mississippi. We played a nice round of “Flash Your Brights” before agreeing we were in the car behind them on this vacant road. We decided to research the place we were heading to better appreciate it. Po’ Monkey’s is one of about four remaining original juke joints left in the entire country. It is covered in signs that ban beer and dope from the property. On Thursdays it is a hoppin’ joint with a regular DJ, but that night it had been rented out to celebrate our well-loved aunt’s 60th birthday and upcoming retirement. Upon entrance, there are wooden planks and doors and tarps and more rule-informing signs that intend to mislead. Opening the last wooden door invites you to experience the true Po’ Monkey’s. The first thing I noticed were the monkeys of every variety hanging from the ceiling. You would be hard-pressed to find a bare area of wall that wasn’t covered in pictures, toys, lights, or other fun-natured items. William “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, the owner, joined us for the evening (the juke joint is his home) except for every hour on the hour when he would disappear before reappearing with a wardrobe change or alteration. We squeezed around fifty people in a room meant for twenty. Some of our group had to bend down when walking due to the low height of the ceiling. This place clearly had a history as stimulating as the décor. The coconut cake we had brought in was better than any other I’ve ever had. We were exhausted and full by the end of the night. Many people stayed long after we did, but when our hosts announced their departure, we couldn’t have felt more ready to acquaint ourselves with what would be our bed for the next few nights.
Donna and Pete were wonderful people and equally wonderful hosts. We arrived at their home late at night and couldn’t tell how marvelous it was in the dark. When we opened the door to our room we transformed into Southern, Victorian royalty. Our phones started beeping and buzzing not long after we had gotten settled. There were flash flood and tornado warnings. I imagined what it must have been like in many of the previous decades to live in the Mississippi Delta; lemonade in rocking chairs on the front porch, both being and owning slaves, segregation, integration, growing up in a small town like Cleveland in the 1990’s or even now, what juke joints must have been like in the 1960’s – the whole night felt madly historical and yet was complete novelty to us.