Memphis Jones revs up the P.A. system on the bus, pulls out his red-white-and-blue guitar, hands out tambourines, bongos, and other instruments to the mostly tourist riders, and begins a three-hour "Hound Dog" tour through the city.
Jones is just one of the performing musicians for Backbeat Tours, a company founded in the spring of 2006 by two Memphis transplants from Washington, D.C., husband and wife team Bill and Deborah Patton. Bill explains that he and his wife began vacationing in Memphis some years ago. "We got this idea to move here and start a company that offers different kinds of tours with actual live music. And then we found the bus on the Internet and decided to do it."
The bus is "Miss Clawdy," a bulbous, maroon and butter-yellow, fully restored 1959 General Motors transit bus. The Backbeat Tours brochure explains that "Miss Clawdy occasionally needs to rest, but while she's away, her thoroughly modern cousins will make your ride just as comfortable and fun."
On this day, Miss Clawdy is indeed resting, waiting for a special part to be shipped in to get her up and going again. And the brochure's promise couldn't be truer. As the modern cousin begins to roll away from Blues City Café at Second and Beale Street, the show starts and Jones is on.
"Born in the same hospital where Elvis Presley died," as he explains, Jones is a native Memphian who performed for the first time in public at the age of 12 on Beale Street. Music and his love of Memphis have been two of the main motivators in his life and it shows in the almost-over-the-top enthusiasm he exudes on the tour. Starting off with Elvis' "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," with the riders already singing along, clapping, and snapping photos of him, he never stops talking, singing, cracking jokes, and working in bits of trivia that most Memphians likely don't know. "You see that school right there?" he asks when the bus stops in front of Immaculate Conception on Central. "Right there is where Priscilla Presley graduated from high school." He explains that she was adamant about Elvis not attending her graduation because it would have become a circus, and then tells his captive audience, "so when the graduation was over and Priscilla walked out, there was Elvis with his limousine surrounded by nuns!"
And for all of his quips and jokes (he loves to talk about imaginary Tennessee ground monkeys taking tourists' wallets, and peppers his tour with dumb elephant jokes), he is also reverent at times, particularly when talking about how the death of Elvis' mother changed the singer so much and about the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, when the bus eases by the National Civil Rights Museum.
This "Hound Dog Tour" is just one in a group that Backbeat Tours offers. While it covers other artists, including Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and makes a stop at Sun Studio, their "Big Muddy Blues to Superfly Soul" tour includes the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the street where Aretha Franklin was born, and Royal Studios, where producer Willie Mitchell turned Al Green into a superstar. Other tours visit gospel churches, homes of the stars, Graceland, and other locations of interest.
Patton says he will soon add more tours to the schedule. In the meantime, Memphis Jones is there to entertain you -- and to make sure the Tennessee ground monkeys don't get in your way.