Take a Rockin’ Ride around Memphis in style with Brad Birkedahl’s ‘Rock n Ride’ tours
When Brad Birkedahl isn't on stage singing the songs that made Memphis famous, he can be seen riding around town in his 1959 Ford Skyliner sharing the stories behind the music with tourists. The Tacoma, Washinton, native regularly performs on Beale Street as the front man for the Brad Birkedahl Band, and has been playing Memphis music in the city and around the world since coming here in 1998. So not only does he know the music, he also lives it.In 2015, Birkedahl co-founded 'Rockabilly Rides,' a tour company featuring 1950s cars that was consistently rated No. 1 on Trip Advisor. The company closed last December due to the high cost of maintaining four vintage cars on the road, but Birkedahl is back at it again showing out of town visitors the sites that put Memphis on the map with his own tour company, “Rock n Ride Tours of Memphis.” The new company offers the same great experience.
“I really didn't want to see this idea of taking people around Memphis in a 50s car go away,” Birkedahl said. “The tours were always full. It's just that the insurance and maintenance was getting ridiculous. The tour I'm offering is in this car. It's still private with up to three passengers. It's just a little different.” The tour is as unique as Memphis itself.
Customers get a private two hour tour of the city and get to experience Memphis like Elvis did in the 1950s at the birth of Rock n' Roll. “Birkedahl takes you by some of the more well know sites like Lauderdale Courts, where Elvis and his family lived after moving to Memphis from Tupelo; Sun Studio, where Rock n' Roll was born; Lansky Brothers on Beale Street, where the future King of Rock n' Roll bought his clothes; and Humes High School, where the teenaged Elvis began to blossom and developed his flamboyant style of dressing and wowed his classmates his senior year with his musical talent. There are also a few places along the way that are lesser known sites with Elvis connections that Birkedahl likes to surprise visitors with like Overton Park Shell, where Elvis made his first live professional appearance after recording “That's All Right‚” on July 30, 1954; 1034 Audubon Drive, where Elvis lived before buying Graceland and was purchased with the money he made from “Heartbreak Hotel” and Plastic Products, a quonset hut where a lot of the early vinyl 45 Rock n' Roll records were pressed.
“It's like having a backstage pass to history,” Birkedahl said. “The whole idea is to take people back in time for a little while and relive that fun era in our history. You're seeing the sites and hear the stories behind them. We stop and you can get out and take pictures. And if they want to see something specific, I will take them there. That's the beauty of it. I can customize it. It really is the only way to discover Memphis.”
While Memphis may be best known for its musical roots, Birkedahl also tells stories about the history of Memphis from its days as a booming cotton center, the Yellow Fever epidemic, the birth of Blues music on Beale Street, and the city's role in the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s.
“So many people come here on vacation for the music and the food, but a lot of people don't know that Dr. King was assassinated here, or that the cotton industry was here, or that FedEx was founded here,” Birkedahl said.
“They know the Elvis history and the Blues history, but they don't realize that there is a lot more in Memphis. So my job is to take all of that history and make it come alive in a unique way.”
Birkedahl said he loves seeing the expression on people's faces when he pulls up to their hotel to pick them up for the tour and they see the car for the first time. The Skyliner has a unique history of its own. Ford produced the hard top two-door convertibles from 1957 to 1959. Only 12,915 were produced in 1959.
“There is definitely a big ooh ahh factor,” Birkedahl said. ‚ÄúFord was the first company to do a hard top convertible. So they see it and they are like 'that tops folds into the trunk electronically?' And that's really the fun of these tours.
Elvis was a car guy. And when he was coming up in the 1950s, these were the cars that were on the road.
Rock n' Roll and the 1950s and cars go hand in hand.” And if you're lucky, Birkedahl may even have his guitar with him and play you a tune or two. Or, when the tour is over you might be able to hear his band later that night at Blues City Cafe or other spots around Memphis.
“I usually bring my guitar with me,” Birkedahl said.
“And I tell them if they don't have any plans that night to come check it out.”
By Mark Randall