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MEMPHIS: Music, BBQ, History, More Music ... and Ducks

March 7, 2010
By PHYLLIS R. SIGAL Design Editor

Mention Memphis to many and they'll ask if you're going to see the ducks.

Ducks, you say? What ducks?

Well, the world-famous Peabody ducks, of course!

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It all started as a joke in 1933, when Frank Schutt, general manager of The Peabody hotel, and a friend of his, decided to put their live duck decoys into the lobby fountain.

Apparently, the men had just a bit too much Jack Daniel's - helping them to stay warm while hunting - when they came up with the plan.

Lo and behold, the next morning, a crowd had gathered to see what is now considered one of the top three attractions in the city.

In 1940, Edward Pembroke, who was a bellman at The Peabody and former Barnum & Bailey circus animal trainer, volunteered to train the ducks. He continued as The Peabody Duckmaster until 1991.

Every day, the ducks - four hens and a drake - leave their "cushy" digs of their $200,000 Duck Palace on the rooftop, come down the elevator and march up the red carpet for a splashdown in the gorgeous lobby fountain. Hundreds gather - old and young alike - to watch the spectacle and to take photographs.

The ducks swim around the fountain all day, and just before 5 p.m., the red carpet is rolled out again, a little staircase is placed against the fountain, and as soon as the music begins - John Philip Sousa's "King Cotton March" - the well-trained ducks begin lining up and swimming around to exit. They make their way down the steps, march across the red carpet and into the elevator, back up to their penthouse.

The current duckmaster, Jason Sensat, is the fourth duckmaster in the history of the hotel. He trains the ducks - which stay in their capacity for just four months before going back to the wild - and is responsible for their daily care. He also serves as an ambassador for The Peabody, conducting tours, taking the ducks to visit area schools and making media appearances.

Prior to becoming the duckmaster, he worked in the human resources department as training manager. "It's easier training ducks," he noted. "They don't talk back. They don't question your reasoning. They just do what they're supposed to do," he said.

"It's exciting to see how excited the people get about the ducks," Sensat said.

The current Peabody Hotel opened in 1925, having moved a couple of blocks from the original structure built in 1869.

The Peabody is, and always was, a kind of "be and be seen kind of place," noted Kelly Earnest, director of public relations. Lots of country music stars like to stay at The Peabody.

"You never know who you'll see at the duck march or having cocktails," she said. The beautiful lobby in the "south's grand hotel" is considered the "living room of Memphis."

"It's where people gather," she said.

What can you eat at the hotel? Well, what you can't eat at any of the hotel's restaurants - Chez Philippe, Capriccio Grill or The Corner Bar - is duck.

Also located in the hotel are several shops - one of which is Lansky Bros., owned by Bernard Lansky, "the clothier to the king" - Elvis Presley.

According to his son, Hal Lansky, Bernard outfitted Elvis for his high school prom, the Ed Sullivan Show and throughout his career, including the suit in which he was buried.

"Dad was the first one to give him credit. He was poor. The sports coat he wore on the Ed Sullivan Show, he let him buy on credit," Hal Lansky said

There's much more to Memphis than The Peabody ducks and their exquisite abode, however.

There's music, music and more music. And lots of history. And food.


The city bills itself as home of the blues and the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.

Visitors to Memphis can take in Graceland, Sun Studio, Soulsville Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Beale Street, the Smithsonian Rock 'n' Soul Museum, the Gibson Guitar factory, W.C. Handy House/Museum and several recording studios.

I visited Sun Studio, the studio Sam Phillips opened at the age of 27. That's where Elvis walked into at the age of 18 with the hopes of recording a song for his mom's birthday. Phillips' secretary Marion Keisker, asked Elvis who he sounded like.

"Well, ma'am. I don't sound like nobody," he told her. He recorded "My Happiness." Marion liked Elvis, our tour guide Jayne White, told us. But Phillips wasn't too crazy about him. He didn't think Elvis was "bluesy" or "edgy" enough, she said. A year later he invited Elvis back. A good move on his part.

Sun Studio offers guided tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but is still a recording studio in the evenings.

Others who have recorded at Sun Studios include Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Matchbox 20, Ringo Starr, John Mellencamp, Billy Bob Thornton, U2 and many, many more.

There are great artifacts to see at Sun Studio, but the best part of the tour are the stories related by the guides.

For example, Bob Dylan has visited the studios, White said. He walked in, kissed the "X" marked on the floor in the studio where Elvis once stood during a recording session, and walked back out, White told us. Just last month, she took Styx on a tour of the studio.

Live music is everywhere in Memphis. On Beale Street, "the historic center of the Memphis music universe," you can get in the groove at B.B. King's Blues Club, King's Palace, Alfred's, Rum Boogie Cafe, the Black Diamond, Hard Rock Cafe and others. There are several large concert venues in the city as well as Mud Island Amphitheater, a 5,000-seat outdoor venue on the Mississippi River bank.

I happened to be visiting during the International Blues Challenge, where inside and outside you could hear blues almost round the clock.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. The exhibits bring the stories of civil and rights to life with interpretive exhibits and audio/visual displays. (See accompanying story by The Associated Press.)

King's assassination is just one of the important events in the story of the African American in Memphis. There are many more, and lots of places help to preserve the significant chapters in American history: Heritage Tours, Beale Street, Tom Lee Park, Alex Haley House and Museum; First Baptist Beale Street and Slave Haven/Burkle Estate.

To experience Memphis history, several tours can be taken.

The Memphis Riverboat Tours take you on a cruise of the Mississippi for a perspective on the lives and stories of Native Americans, explorers, Civil War battles, Mark Twain and more. Heritage Tours take visitors on a journey through time to experience the struggles, triumphs and cultural impact of African Americans in Memphis. There are also trolley tours, carriage rides and the amphibious duck tour - all offering various glimpses of the city's past and present.



I don't each much fried chicken or barbecue. But I did during the four days I spent in Memphis.

Gus's Fried Chicken was the first eatery we tried out. For just a little over $6, you can get a three-piece chicken dinner, cole slaw and baked beans. The best fried chicken ever.

I had cravings for the chicken for the next three days ... And still do. It was crispy, well-seasoned, and when you broke through the skin, steam billowed out. And the baked beans? Oh, my. So delicious, with little bits of bacon.

There are lots of places known for ribs in Memphis. You'd have to visit for more than four days to try them all, but on our way out of town at the airport we tried Corky's. They were delicious. The Rendezvous is the city's most famous barbecue restaurant, while others of note include Interstate, Neely's, Tops, Payne's, the BBQ Shop, Central, A&R and Cozy Corner.

I actually had a salad one evening for dinner. Topped with shredded barbecue pork. Yum.

Other fun foods: fried bologna sandwich; a fried green tomato BLT; fried apple pie; fried oysters.

Do you sense a theme here? Health food it's not.

Shrimp and grits. Gumbo. Southern eggs benedict. (It's the cornbread bed that makes it Southern.)

At the Blues City Cafe, tamales taste pretty good at midnight. And so do the chunks of sausage and cheese served with Saltines and hot cherry peppers on a paper plate. In the kitchen here is a sign that says, "Danger: Men Cooking."

At the Flying Saucer, where the phone number is 523-PINT, you can choose beers from 80 taps. They also sell 125 varieties of bottled beer. You can order flights, and even create your own. I created my own flight of wheat beers.

For Elvis' favorite dish, try the Arcade - Memphis' oldest restaurant - where you can order a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Try Huey's for great burgers. Pearl's Oyster House for ... you guessed it, oysters (especially the char-grilled ones with garlic butter and parmesan cheese). Oh, and did I mentioned Gus's Fried Chicken has the best chicken on the planet?

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