RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're meeting tour guides this summer in our series The Nickel Tour. Today, NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to Memphis, Tennessee where a man has made a career out of his love for cars and American music.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAIN)
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This nickel tour begins at a Memphis landmark, the fountain in the grand lobby of the Peabody hotel.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAIN)
ELLIOTT: It's famous for its ducks and Southern elegance. But it's also considered the starting point of the Mississippi Delta, a region steeped in the blues - a fitting start for my tour.
TAD PIERSON: My name is Tad Pierson. I have a tour company called American Dream Safari. I have got an old '55 Cadillac and I give tours around Memphis. So I say let's go get in the car and go cruise.
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ELLIOTT: Not just any '55 Cadillac. It's a pink Cadi.
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ELLIOTT: This is an authentic ride, fading leather bench seats, and no A/C. So we head out, windows down on a thick, steamy August morning. Before we've made it a block the scent of wood-smoked BBQ wafts into the front seat.
PIERSON: Man, you know I love the smell of Memphis and I love the Sound of Memphis.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) Whew, shucks...
ELLIOTT: Blues, soul, funk, gospel, and rock and roll all have roots here, but one name is by far the biggest draw.
PIERSON: But speaking of Elvis...
ELLIOTT: His Cadillac might be pink but don't expect Pierson to take you to Graceland. His American Dream Safari starts at Lauderdale Courts, the former housing project where Elvis lived as a young teen.
PIERSON: We'll stop in and get the key. I'll show you Elvis' apartment.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
ELLIOTT: From here we head to the Southside, home to legendary Stax Records and some Memphis originals.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GREEN ONIONS JAM")
PIERSON: This neighborhood: Booker T. Jones, Memphis Slim, Aretha Franklin, Al Green records here.
ELLIOTT: We pass the church where Aretha Franklin's dad was a preacher and the boarded up clapboard house where she was born. A few blocks away, tucked into a residential neighborhood, is an old movie house that is Royal Studios.
PIERSON: But this recording studio here on the left is an obscure one. Willie Mitchell was a record producer here in town and he met Al Green in the late '60s, on tour down in Texas, and said: Al, you write some songs and come to my studio and we'll record some records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S STAY TOGETHER")
AL GREEN: (Singing) I, I'm so in love with you. Whatever you want to do...
ELLIOTT: Pierson cues a musical soundtrack as we cruise through town. We stop in front of Stax Records. The old-school funk of Rufus Thomas, as he points out neighborhood blues clubs where you can cue up the Memphis Sound on the juke box. It's what he calls anthro-tourism.
PIERSON: What I have to deal with in my business is what I call cultural collateral. And I rely on real things in real culture to inspire my customers.
ELLIOTT: But he's seen some of it fading in the 18 years he's been giving tours of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.
PIERSON: There's fewer and fewer real-deal places to go and hear the real stuff.
ELLIOTT: But he keeps cranking the pink Cadillac for travelers seeking the real-deal.
PIERSON: If I were just a tour guide in a tour bus and: Ladies and gentlemen, on the right - I would be out of this business in a heartbeat.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, DO THE PUSH AND PULL)
THOMAS: (Singing) Hey, Everybody, Mr. Rufus is in town. Came here to take care of business, ain't going to mess around...
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