Tourism: The Flip Side

Sure, Graceland is great and the Rendezvous rocks, but there's so much more to the Bluff City.

Leaning over the bar on the two-story-high balcony and looking down at the stage, it's hard to tell whether the ring on James Govan's finger is made of diamonds, rhinestones, or some other shiny objects that dazzle when the colored lights catch them. But it's easy to see the shape -- a big dollar sign. And it's apropos because, to quote the ever loveable characters in the film Swingers, Govan is "so money." With his longish hair tucked into a baseball cap, a pack of Kools on a shelf beside him, and the band around him, he belts out song after song sounding much like Otis Redding, or what Otis Redding might have sounded like had he lived past the age of 26 and just gotten better with age. By the time this article appears, Govan and the band will have represented Memphis well, along with some other homegrown talents, at the annual Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Terme, Italy, wowing the fans in Rufus Thomas Park. The residents in that mountain town and the people who fly in for it will have anxiously waited for a year to see and hear him. But here in Memphis, you can see and hear James Govan, one of the best soul music singers in the world, four nights a week. He and the Rum Boogie Band have been playing at Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street every Wednesday through Saturday for more than a decade. They specialize in "the Memphis sound," and the club serves up some good barbecue sandwiches and barbecued ribs, among other things.

So when was the last time you went? Or at least steered a visitor to Memphis in that direction?

Not far across town, on Vollintine Avenue, there's a tiny little club called Wild Bill's adjacent to a grocery store. The Memphis Soul Survivors with Miss Nikki, who play there every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, are equally as get-down raucous as Govan and his band. Although they don't have a keyboardist like the Boogie Blues Band's Don Chandler, who plays a Hammond B-3 organ with one hand while the other hand simultaneously hammers away on a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, the band is made up of musicians who collectively have played with all of the R&B and blues greats, including Little Milton Campbell, Bobby "Blue" Bland, B.B. King, and dozens of others. Miss Nikki is as much a powerhouse on vocals as the band is on their instruments and the always eclectic crowd of neighborhood folks, tourists, bar-hoppers, and the occasional celebrities gathers together at long tables covered in bottles of beer and buckets of chicken wings and on the tiny dance floor for one of the best nights of live music found anywhere, period.

These are just two examples that represent something unique Memphis has to offer -- to both its residents and tourists -- and help give the city something to which tourism experts are now paying more and more attention: a "sense of place" that doesn't necessarily fall into a profit margin on a budget spreadsheet. It's called "civic tourism" and, according to the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Memphis has the chance to be on the forefront of this emerging movement because it has become a tourist destination without forfeiting the authenticity that lies at the heart of its civic character and international reputation.

In the spring of 2006, the MCVB established the Memphis Tourism Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization to assist it with engaging the local public to make sure our own citizens see tourism as a force that ultimately improves Memphis' quality of place and quality of life. Its emphasis is aimed at portraying Memphis' ethnic and racial diversity and connecting the reality of Memphis to those who live here. It also is intended to educate the approximately 50,000 front-line service workers whom MCVB President Kevin Kane says are "the best sales people we have in the city to help promote what we have to offer. You don't want a visitor to Memphis asking a cab driver or a restaurant server what there is to do in Memphis," he says, "and have them either not know or care and tell the visitor that there is nothing to do."

In its new media kit, the MCVB is now touting "The Hits" and "The Flipsides," letting people know that for every major event and attraction in Memphis there are some that might be a little lesser known but just as interesting and important to the city's character, and definitely worth checking out.

Based on the MCVB's information and other sources, here's a short quiz for all of you Memphians to test you on your knowledge of what's going on in your own hometown. If you get them all right, you are in the minority. If you get some of them right, you are in the majority. If you miss them all, you might want to get out a little more, and the MCVB and the Memphis Tourism Education Foundation would be proud of you.

1. At what Midtown restaurant/bar can you find live music every Sunday night that includes the chef of a very well-known fine-dining restaurant cooking on stage as part of the act?

2. At what store can you purchase a faux-leopard skin 1970s style "apple hat" across the aisle from pickled beets?

3. How many times do you have to turn when driving to and from Theatre Memphis and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music?

4. What tiny restaurant that serves up just one main dish has been featured in GQ, Vogue, Saveur, USA Today, and on the Food Network's $40 a Day with Rachel Ray ?

5. Where can you have your wedding reception in the same room that houses unusually shaped scholars' rocks, a 100-million-year-old dinosaur egg, and a 210-million-year-old fossil of a prehistoric four-legged bird?

6. Which local nonprofit organization brings in an artist from another country to live in Memphis for one month and give at least one presentation of his or her work to a live audience?

7. Where inside the Memphis city limits can you walk through a forest on a three-story-high boardwalk while viewing a meadow and a lake?

8. Who was born at 406 Lucy Street in Memphis, where the house is still standing?

9. Where can you find a bowl of soup that comes with squid, quail eggs, pork liver, and clear noodles?

10. How much does it cost to hear one of the most famous soul and gospel singers in the world almost every Sunday? 

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