This Place Used to be Great…

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A photographic response to It Came From Memphis by 
Robert Gordon.

Last month, I discussed It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon’s wonderful 1995 book about the misfits of the Memphis music scene.  I wrote that I wanted to drive around town and take pictures of the locales mentioned in the book–the bars, clubs, recording studios, and hangouts that incubated the artistry of the time.  Gordon himself left a comment on my blog, leading me in the direction of the Bitter Lemon.  So I grabbed my Nikon, rolled the windows down, and headed for Midtown.

I found many places mentioned in the book, but I also found some other spots that were important to me in a more personal way.  Below are some of the pictures I took, most of them on a pitch-perfect March afternoon.

This isn’t, of course, meant to be an inclusive list–it couldn’t possibly be.  All of Memphis is a historical site, and just about every other building in town can claim a connection to something significant that happened in this town.  The apartment building Renee and I lived in downtown, for instance, was where Stax held a massive 1969 party to celebrate that they were releasing 27 albums at once (Bowman).  Renee and I held our wedding reception at the Hi-Tone Cafe, which any good Memphian will tell you was once Elvis’ karate studio.  When we bought our new house this summer, we did so not realizing that Elvis bought his first house just a mile or so a way.

Memphis history surrounds us.  If you have a concern or correction about anything you see, please feel free to comment below. If there is a favorite spot that I missed, let me know.  Perhaps I can add it.

(I’d like to say that I listened to Flies on Sherbert or Furry Lewis while taking these pictures, but that would be a lie.  It was all Springsteen, all the way. But try not to let that get in the way of your enjoyment.)

1. The Bitter Lemon

The Bitter lemon is the heart of It Came From Memphis, and it seemed to be the one place, above others, where the artists, musicians, misfits, and cretins could call home. Read the book for lots of stories of late nights there, featuring beatniks, hippies, rich kids, and bluesmen all thrown in together, many running on pills and too much booze.

The Bitter Lemon was located on the south side of Poplar, at that viaduct where Poplar turns into Union. I asked Memphis music maven Andria Lisle to have a look at my pictures, and she convinced me that this is the location, if not the building, of the old Bitter Lemon.

2. “Beatnik Manor”

The proprietor of the Bitter Lemon was John McIntire, the professor at what is today known as the Memphis College of Art.  He was patron and impresario of the music scene in Memphis, and his home, a few doors down from the intersection of Madison and Cooper (picture the Yo-Lo Airstream and you’re in the right neighborhood) became the destination for anyone of the artistic bent who needed a place to crash.  It was known as “Beatnik Manor,” and Gordon notes that “At one time, there were fourteen people and fourteen cats living there.”

Beatnik Manor is gone, of course.  It was replaced with the French Quarter hotel, which later closed down and is a gigantic, falling-down mess that has been deteriorating on Madison Avenue for years.  It’s just awful.  It’s a fitting emblem for Memphis, where we put up buildings to watch them rot.

3.  American Studios (827 Thomas Street)
Quick, what was Memphis’ most important recording studio?  Sun?  Sure.  Stax?  Definitely.  Ardent?  Royal?  Easley-McCain?  These are all correct answers, but you may be forgetting one major player who turned out some of the biggest hits of the late-1960s–American.  
Did you know that “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” was recorded in North Memphis?  And Neil Diamond, late of those Brooklyn roads, recorded “Sweet Caroline” there?  
The Box Tops recorded here, as did the Gentrys, and the really good late Elvis singles (“In the Ghetto,” “Only the Strong Survive,””Suspicious Minds,”) were done at American.  
And now, nothing remains of it.  There’s not even anything interesting to point a camera at, just a Family Dollar store and a gas station advertising discount cigarettes.
4. Poplar Tunes, 308 Poplar
Even I remember Poplar Tunes.  In fact, I still have a copy of The Beatles “White Album” (reissued) that I bought there when I was a teenager.  Back in the 1950s, Pop Tunes was a sponsor of Dewey Phillip’s radio show, and Phillips himself would stop in the store from time to time to cause havoc and beleaguer the store’s owners. (One of those owners, Joe Cuoghi, went on to establish Hi Records.)
Elvis allegedly shopped at Pop Tunes, but now it is also gone, replaced by something called Happy Tummy Wings or something.  You can read Andria Lisle’s heartfelt obituary of the shop here.
5. Procape Gardens 

Procape Gardens was an “acoustic nightclub” (Gordon) that nurtured the folkier side of the Memphis scene in the mid 1970s.  Alex Chilton, Sid Selvidge, and William Eggleston were regulars there.  This has been one of the harder locations to nail down.  The only tip I have to go on is that it was on Madison, west of Neils (itself now-defunct!), and is now a laundromat.  I found two locations that fit the description, but something tells me that neither one is correct.  

6. The Antenna Club 

Now, I definitely know where this place is.  The Antenna was the punk club you’d go to to see maybe The Oblivians, or Impala, or the band fronted by the weird kid in your chemistry class.  It closed when I was a senior in high school, so I missed out on most of the fun, but I did get to see a small share of great bands there.  I even got to play there one time, in the brief period when it was known as The Void.  We played for about five people, but it was a good time and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Before going to a show at the Antenna, we’d drop in at “Punk Rock Donuts”across the street.  That place is now Tucker’s wings shop, where my teenage students sometimes get takeout.  It all comes full circle in Memphis.

7. Rockopolis (Madison and Tucker)

Though not mentioned in It Came From Memphis, I thought I would take a picture of this apartment building.  When we were kids, we called this building “Rockopolis”because of all the rock stars that live there. Today, I can’t remember who any of them were.  Still, every time I drive by it, I think to myself in hushed tones,  Hey.  There’s Rockopolis.

8. The Taliesyn Ballroom (Union Avenue)

The Taliesyn Ballroom stood at or near this Taco Bell on Union, just west of the post office.  This is where the Sex Pistols played on January 6, 1978.  This is not touched upon in It Came From Memphis, but you can read a first person account of the night by Tom Graves here.

9.  Elvis’ House, 1034 Audobon

Elvis bought this lovely house in 1956, with the money he made from “Heartbreak Hotel.”  He only lived here for 13 months, before moving out to the mansion that everyone today knows as Graceland.  Give me the choice between those two houses, and I’ll take this one every time.
Elvis’s 1956 house is only about a mile and a half from where I write this.  Sometimes I feel that we are almost neighbors.
10. Ardent Studios (2000 Madison Avenue)

Let us conclude with a building that has not been bulldozed, torn down, abandoned, or turned into a daiquiri bar.  Ardent Studios stands yet, right there on Madison Avenue across from the Kwik Check sandwich place.   There have been too many beautiful songs and albums recorded in this building to list, so put on the Big Star album of your choice and just listen.
Works Cited

Bowman, Rob. Soulsville U.S.A. New York: Schirmer
Trade Books, 1997.
Gordon, Robert. It Came From Memphis. New York:
Pocket Books, 1995.

(If you liked this, you should check out my memories of Barrister’s.)

12 thoughts on “This Place Used to be Great…

  1. Hey Aaron – Thanks for all the interesting pics. I'm Don Crews's son. Don was co-owner of American with Chips Moman. One minor correction. While BJ Thomas recorded at American, he did not record "Raindrops" there. At American, he recorded two full albums and material that appeared on the "Butch Cassidy" soundtrack along with "Raindrops". The big hits he had out of American were "The Eyes of a New York Woman", "Hooked on a Feeling" and "I Just Can't Help Believing'. I host a Facebook group dedicated to the memory of American. You can find it here:!/groups/277351542280444/

    Thanks, – Erick Crews

  2. Thanks for posting this. So much bulldozed history I pass by weekly. I don't know how many times I drove down Madison really slowly after I read Gordon's book, looking at house numbers to locate Beatnik Manor. I gave up. 🙂

  3. Beatnik Manor, I never heard it called that until "Memphis Afternoons" came out, was at the corner of Court and Watkins. It was a one story Victorian with a veranda and floor- to- ceiling windows that disappeared into the attic. It survived until an unfortunate Press Simitar story about a yard sale, Memphis's first, called it a commune. Building inspectors condemned it a week later.

  4. About your pics of the procape, youre on the right side of the street, but the procape sat about half a block back west(in the vicinity of the 3 story apt building shown in the background)and the front door did not open directly to the sidewalk, but opened at an angle to the sidewalk.The second pic appears to be the coin laundry at the corner of madison/belvedere across from the p&h lounge. Hope this helps

  5. I lived in Memphis 1980-1982 and used to visit it every other weekend 1977-1979. I'm pretty sure the Taliesyn Ballroom was later called the High Cotton Nightclub at some point. It was then torn down and they built a 'Sister's Chicken & Biscuits' by 1981, which now seems to have been replaced by Taco Bell.

  6. Procape Gardens was at 1782 Madison for sure. It’s now Bar B Q Shop.
    Great info, I’m reading the book now and will stalk these haunts when I’m done

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