Next stop: Sun Records and, for rock fans, guaranteed goose bumps.
It's easy to miss the Sun Studio as you head down Union Avenue toward downtown because it's in an ordinary, two-story brick structure that sits at an angle. Just start looking for tourists with cameras when you approach the 700 block of Union.
The entrance to the museum is actually in an adjacent cafe where Sun owner Sam Phillips relaxed or held business meetings between recording duties. Sit in one of the booths, and you can imagine a young Johnny Cash telling you all about this song he's just written about a prison out in California.
The tour starts upstairs in a room detailing the history of the studio, which specialized in blues artists, including Ike Turner and Howlin' Wolf, before Phillips found Presley. But the heart of the tour is the 18-by-32-foot studio, pretty much untouched since the '50s.
For me, in fact, the Memphis trip turned from Elvis fun to musical legacy when I looked at the tape on the floor marking the spot where the 19-year-old singer stood the night in 1954 he recorded "That's All Right," the single that largely defined rock 'n' roll as we know it today. The Sun guide also told us that Jerry Lee Lewis recorded "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On" in one take with the same primitive equipment, a reminder that great music is based more on imagination and passion than on technology and polish.
The sense of musical mission was equally strong at our next stop, the home of Stax Records, whose '60s and '70s glory days are saluted in a run-down stretch of McLemore Avenue. This museum, with more than 2,000 artifacts, is much larger than the Sun site. It's also easy to spot, thanks to a large theater marquee.
Stax's focus, oddly enough, was country and pop until co-founder Jim Stewart moved to the mostly African American neighborhood on McLemore, where he converted an old movie theater into a studio and record shop. Not only did Stewart start stocking albums his customers requested, which meant R&B and soul, but he also began making records to appeal to those customers.
Stax's classic sound was a gritty, Southern-fried R&B and funk served up by such artists as Redding, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. The label folded in 1975 and the original building was razed. The new facility opened in 2003, and it conveys well the early spirit of brotherhood among the black and white artists at the label.
If the Sun and Stax tours focus on what happened inside studios, two other essential museums in Memphis tell you about high-impact cultural and historical factors outside the studio.
Start downtown with the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, across from the Gibson Guitar Factory (which offers yet another tour).
Then head a few blocks southwest to the National Civil Rights Museum, which addresses the wider story of racial struggle in this country.
The museum is at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The first thing you see when you walk up to the museum is the balcony where the shooting occurred (the motel is closed and part of the museum).
Inside, you can look through a window at the third-floor room where King spent his final hours. I'm betting it's a scene you'll never forget.
Authentic duck walk
For our second night in town, we stayed at the Peabody Memphis Hotel, a place with such a history that it has its own mini-museum, although the downtown hotel may be best known for its novelty "duck walks." Twice daily, five or six ducks march through the hotel lobby as hundreds of tourists watch in amused fascination.
The Peabody is just a block from the trolley line that takes you to the civil rights museum and the Arcade. It's also across from AutoZone Park, the home of the Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League. It's a lovely baseball park, where the opponent was the Nashville Sounds the night we were in town.
We assumed there would be a fierce rivalry between the two teams, but we couldn't find anyone who cared that Nashville was playing — despite the potential cross-state rivalry.
After the game, we walked to Beale Street, which once hosted one of the most active African American music scenes in the country. There are still blues and funk clubs galore, but the level of talent is pretty pedestrian.