Taking the ‘Red, Hot & Blue’ tour with Rockabilly Rides
By Mark Randall
As many of you know from reading my stories over the years. I’m a big Elvis fan. My car radio stays pretty much tuned to Elvis Radio on Sirius XM.
I've read just about every book there is to read about him. I have just about every song he ever recorded on CD. I’ve seen his movies. I've written articles and given lectures about Elvis. I’ve been to Graceland, heck, too many times to count now. So yeah, I know a little bit about the guy.
I recently celebrated a birthday and was treated to one of the best presents ever. A gal pal of mine booked us on a “Red, Hot & Blue” tour with Rockabilly Rides, a tour company out of Memphis founded by two Beale Street Musicians, Brandon Cunning and Brad Birkedahl. Rockabilly Rides is unique in that Brad and Brandon take visitors on a musical tour of Memphis in vintage 1950s rides. Our tour guide was Brad, who picked us up at the Hard Rock Café in a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere. I’ve known Brad and Brandon both personally for several years. I was a groupie, you’d say, of Brandon’s old band “Stunning Cunning.” But I’ve been going more lately to hear Brad play when he’s on Beale at Blues City Café or at Jerry Lee’s Honky Tonk. They’re both a lot of fun to listen to. Brad has been making music on Beale since the 1990s and can be seen in the 2005 Johnny Cash bio-pic “Walk the Line” with Joaquin Phoenix where he played Elvis’s guitarist —-r- i Scotty Moore. The ’55 Plymouth was used in the 1983 movie “Christine” and can also be seen in “Walk the Line.”
The “Red, Hot & Blue” tour is a 90 minute journey along the streets of Memphis that takes you by the landmarks that Elvis frequented both before and after he became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Brad knows that I know a lot about Elvis and Sun Records and all the Rock ‘n’ Roll history in Memphis. So he was nervous about where he would take me because I already know so much of the history. It was his mission to stump me and to show me a few places that I might not have seen before. Yeah, good luck with that, right?
Well, sure enough. Brad managed to find three or four places that I had never been to.
He drove us by some of the more familiar places like Lauderdale Courts on Winchester, the housing project where Elvis lived from September 1949 to January 1953; Humes High School, where Elvis graduated in 1953; the Levitt Shell in Overton Park where Elvis performed his first professional live show; and of course. Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded the song “That’s All Right Mama” on July 5, 1954 and changed American music forever.
But Brad managed to take me by some lesser known places like Jim’s Barber Shop next to the Orpheum, where Elvis got his hair cut until he became too famous to go out in public without causing a mob scene. Brad also stumped me with two other sites that I had never been to before. There are four Quonset huts located on the north side of Chelsea Avenue near McLean Boulevard which used to be the home of Plastic Products. Buster Williams started a juke box business there after WWII and later expanded it to include a record pressing plant.
Plastic Products pressed the vinyl 45 records for Sam Phillips and Sun Records, Stax, Hi, Chess, and other major record labels. Those huts turned out many of the early 45s that defined Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s and 60s. Brad also drove us by Crown Electric on North Dunlap where Elvis drove a truck before he became famous.
My favorite spot though, was the former Southern Motors, Inc. on Union Avenue, That’s where Elvis bought his Cadillacs from.
Back in the day, if you %Lg¿ owned a Cadillac, you had reached the pinnacle of living the American dream. It was the ultimate in luxury.
Brad showed us two pictures from this site. The first one shows Sam Phillips handing the keys to a new 1956 Cadillac Sixty-Special to Carl Carl was the first Sun recording artist to sell one million copies of his record. The song was none other than “Blue Suede Shoes.” The other picture was from 1975 and shows Elvis and his girlfriend Linda Thompson walking up the back alley to Southern Motors. What’s interesting is that the site still looks the same as it did in 1975. You can see the wall and the fence where they walked up in the picture. So this was another nice piece of histoa ry that I was unaware of that Brad pointed out to me. If you’re ever in Memphis, I would highly recommend this tour. How 1950s classic car?
And as if that wasn’t cool enough, after the tour ended we made our way to Alfred’s on Beale to listen to another friend, Gary Hardy and the Memphis Two. Gary does a Sun Records and Johnny Cash music tribute and played my favorite song “Walking the Dog” just for me because he knows I like it.
We ended the night at Blues City where Brad serenaded me with one of my favorite Elvis songs, “Burning Love,” and “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers. I’m telling you, I sure was spoiled. I stretched the whole week into a birthday celebration just about – dinner and a movie (Jurassic World) on Wednesday, Hillbilly Casino (my favorite band!) at the Peabody Rooftop Party on Thursday, dinner at Broussard’s on the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau on Friday, then Memphis on Saturday.
Birthdays should come more often. But oh boy is this one going to be hard to top!
Darn Yankee By Mark Randall