Their Kind of Town
Two West Berliners share their appreciation of Memphis with a monthlong exhibition.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Clemens Gubernath remembers when he first discovered Elvis. He was 10 years old, jumping around on his mom’s bed and listening to “Saved,” from The King’s ’68 Comeback album. Soon the kid was grooving to rock-and-roll, ’60s soul, ’50s rhythm-and-blues. He got down with Clyde McPhatter, Little Richard, Booker T. and the MG’s.
In 2007, he came to Memphis and “fell in love from the beginning,” says Gubernath, a 48-year-old native of West Berlin. He loves us so much that he and his business partner, Jacqueline Mende, are presenting “Memphis Exhibition Berlin,” which opened in late September and runs through October 28th at Berlin’s Gibson Guitar Showroom. “We have been visiting Memphis several times a year for the past few years and are fascinated with the amount of music and history that happened here,” says Gubernath. “There’s a lot of interest for American culture in Europe, but very little knowledge, especially that so much culture comes from Memphis. We want European visitors to experience this and learn what a unique city Memphis is.”
His partner, Mende, agrees, recalling that as a teenager in the eastern part of Berlin, she could rarely lay hands on any records by American stars. “You had to know the right people and pay a lot of money to get a poster, magazine, or record,” she explains. “So you can imagine how excited I was to visit places [where the music originated].” She recalls visiting New York City and being blown away by a performance by soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples of Stax Records fame. “It was so powerful I had goose bumps the whole time,” she says. “I realized there’s much more to Memphis than just Elvis.”
The exhibit — which will include live entertainment from the Bluff City’s own Stax Music Academy — will display photographs, clothing, films, and other memorabilia, not only about our music but about the city’s role in the American civil rights movement. “I learned a lot about civil rights and the connection to music when I first visited the Stax Museum [of American Soul Music],” says Gubernath. “I talked to a lot of people, especially older ones, and tried to understand what life was like in Memphis in the last 50 to 60 years.”
Gubernath and Mende, through a nonprofit organization, operate a private school for small children in Berlin and offer educational programs for students and parents. That organization is also organizing the exhibit, whose sponsors include FedEx, Gibson Guitar, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Stax Museum, and the Ernest Withers Collection.
In obtaining memorabilia, Gubernath received assistance from various locals, including representatives of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Graceland, the Ernest Withers family, and specifically Tim Sampson of the Stax Museum. “‘Timcat’ — that’s what I usually call him — was a huge help,” says Gubernath. “He really loves Memphis. He showed us around and made many connections for us.” Asked about unusual items displayed, Gubernath says, “Besides the great stage clothes and photos, we’ve got bar tabs from Otis Redding.” Seeing those receipts, he says, gives a sense of “being at that club between shows in 1966, where Otis had just done his paperwork.”
While staying in Memphis, Gubernath and Mende have toured most museums, savored all kinds of food, and boogied to the music. He likes “South Main in the morning” for its small-town feel, lunch at the Fourway Grill, Midtown in the evening, especially concerts at the Levitt Shell, and “the city’s nice people — very relaxed.” Among Mende’s favorites are B.B. King’s Blues Club and sunset on the river.
Through the exhibit, they hope to spread the Memphis story and “to forward tolerance among young people,” says Gubernath. “It’s all about bringing people together.”