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Touring the Southern Blues Trail

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© R. Crumb, from R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, Abrams Books

Memphis, TN

There’s nothing like the Handy Band that played the Memphis Blues so grand. —W.C. Handy, “Memphis Blues”

In 1948, author David Cohn wrote that the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (rooms, from $180; 149 Union Ave.; 901-539-4000; peabodymemphis.com) in downtown Memphis. The grand lobby, with its high wooden ceilings, dates from 1925, and the fountain is home to the five famous ducks that make their stately way from the bank of elevators to the fountain, where they pass the day. Guests assemble every day at 11 in the morning to watch the parade.

Blues arrived early in Memphis, dug in deep and gave birth to rock ’n’ roll. Elvis Presley, who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and moved to Memphis, was influenced early on by the blues, as were Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Lee Perkins and Johnny Cash, all of whom recorded at producer Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio (sunstudio.com). The legendary venue is open daily for tours, and a number of clubs, like the B. B. King’s Blues Club and the Rum Boogie Cafe, keep Beale Street lively. Though the real work of the blues begins roughly 130 miles south, famous early bluesman W. C. Handy’s words still ring true: “Take my advice,” he sang in the 1916 classic “Beale Street Blues,” “and see Beale Street first.”

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