Sherman Willmott stands at 1746 Chelsea, where Plastic Products once operated. Plastic Products mastered and pressed many of the early Sun, Meteor, Stax, and other various independent rockabilly, blues, and soul records.
When Sherman Willmott owned Shangri-La Records in Midtown, customers would peruse the popular store’s collection of vintage Memphis music — blues to rockabilly, indie rock to punk — and happily plunk down cash or credit cards for a rare single or limited-release LP. Then they’d tell Willmott something he really hated to hear: “We’ve been to Graceland. We’ve been to Beale Street. I guess that’s it. There’s nothing else to do."
He’d ask them, “Have you been to Green’s Lounge? Did you go by Aretha Franklin’s house?” Met with blank stares or murmurs of excitement, he’d draw up maps and directions for his visitors.
That was more than 20 years ago, and since then Willmott has been sharing with tourists not only his nuggets of Memphis music history, but restaurants and lodging, thrift shops and free attractions, and tell-it-like-it-is tidbits about life in the Bluff City, through his self-published Kreature Comforts: A Low-Life Guide to Memphis.
It started out in 1988 as a “fanzine” for people who came to the record shop, and its name sprang from its goal: “To share all the things you would need for a happy life,” explains Willmott, “like important record reviews, pop culture products, cool movies, bands you should know about.” And although many people and places have come and gone through the years — including Green’s Lounge, the best live-blues juke joint in Memphis till it burned down in the late 1990s — Willmott finds more to fill the gaps.
The “low-life” adjective “is to let people know this isn’t your normal tour guide, with chamber of commerce attractions,” he explains. “It’s got its rough edges; it’s for people who don’t mind getting a little dusty.” The guide — which has sold nearly 20,000 copies in 23 years — complements the tours he’s conducted since 2004 through Ultimate Memphis Rock N Roll Tours. For awhile he used his own van, but more recently he’s been accompanying visitors on tour buses or in their own vehicles.
“Memphis can offer two types of vacations: the best, and the worst. It’s up to you. Magical things happen here and nothing happens here. You just have to look around the right corners.” — from Kreature Comforts
“Most people get the overview: 100 years of Memphis music in an hour and a half, starting with Memphis Minnie and W.C. Handy,” says Willmott. “And if folks want something customized, we’ll give them that too, all tied together with really good soul food or barbecue.” Tours usually end, he adds, with a visit to the tourist’s pick of Graceland, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, or the Rock ’N’ Soul Museum.
While most people have some knowledge of Elvis and the blues, the guide gives ’em plenty they don’t know. “They’ve heard ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,’” he says, “but they didn’t know Otis Redding recorded it here. They know all the Stax hits, but don’t know it’s Memphis music. So that’s the beauty of it. They hear the music right where it was made, and that brings it home. People have no idea what they’re getting into and they’re blown away.”
International tourists hail from Australia and Japan, Germany and England. Americans roll in from the corn belt — Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota. “Iowa is a big feeder market for Memphis,” says Willmott. “We’re close enough for them to drive, but we’re different culturally and that makes us interesting. And they’ve all heard the music.”
A Connecticut native himself, Willmott moved to Memphis with his family in 1974. Growing up, he says, “I really didn’t appreciate the history here. Stax was going down, Elvis was nearly dead.” It took going off to school — Pomona College in California and Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied filmmaking — to stir a deep and abiding passion for his city’s heritage, as savvy friends there wised him up to the blues, the rock band Big Star, and other cultural jewels.
Coming home in the late 1980s, Willmott landed his first job as a production assistant for the award-winning indie film Mystery Train. “I wound up being a driver for [director] Jim Jarmusch and other stars on the set.”
You can catch Cedric Burnside on Sunday afternoons and evenings jamming the blues near the Stax Museum at the tiny Callie & Burnside’s Bar & Grill.
While in Memphis — for a period he thought would be fleeting — he spent time in the public library’s Memphis Room reading up on Stax Records. “They were tearing it down at that point [in 1989],” recalls Willmott, “and I was astounded. Stax, the greatest record label that came out of Memphis, a really important place, just demolished. Seeing the bricks, the memorabilia, photos of the Bar-Kays, all that spurred my interest. I think that was the genesis of Kreature Comforts.”
During the two decades since he started and later sold Shangri-La Records, Willmott launched other projects that deepened his appreciation and knowledge of Memphis music. In the early 1990s, he learned that alternative rock bands — groups such as The Hellcats and Panther Burns, who often played at the Antenna Club — were recording at Doug Easley’s studio. But because no outlet carried independent labels, the music was being released in France. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’” says Willmott. “‘You can’t even get these records that are made down the street.’ So Shangri-La started carrying the records as imports and that gave an impetus to people to release their own music here and have an outlet for it.”
He also started the Shangri-La Projects label, recording The Grifters, a group that achieved national fame. “We had some really good bands touring for Memphis in the early 1990s,” says Willmott. “The Grifters, Big Ass Truck, 68 Comeback. . . . That was the beginning of spreading the word that Memphis had a big scene going on.” And his record shop was a hub where bands could put up flyers for their shows, sell their records, and move the wheels of music distribution. But if audiences were expecting blues or rockabilly they were in for a surprise. Says Willmott: “The Grifters started touring and they’d say, ‘No, we’re from Memphis, but we’re not what you think.’”
“You can eat in Memphis for weeks without having a bad meal and never repeat a restaurant. Diet when you get home.”— from Kreature Comforts
In the late 1990s, Willmott was drawn back to that “sweet soul music,” when he got a call about an attraction to be built at the former site of Stax studio. Hired as the first curator of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, he spent four years mining the South Memphis neighborhood for memorabilia. “I got help from Henry Nelson of FM 103.5 Soul Classics, a big supporter of the museum and the neighborhood,” says Willmott. “I went on the air and told listeners I was looking for musicians’ clothing, photos, any private possessions.”
Shortly after the show aired, he hit the jackpot. A Memphis Police Department sergeant called and said he had something he was willing to sell — Isaac Hayes’ customized gold-plated Cadillac El Dorado. After Hayes’ bankruptcy in the 1970s, all the singer’s possessions were auctioned. Someone bought the car and donated it to the Orpheum, and each year the Orpheum would auction it again. The high bidder would drive it a year, then give it back for re-auction. But the police sergeant chose to keep it for himself. “He stored it in a garage in South Memphis,” says Willmott, “kept it oiled, drove it around town now and then.” He told Willmott he’d part with it — for $20,000, a fairly steep price for a museum that was just getting off the ground. But the “Shaftmobile,” as it was lovingly called, would serve as the symbol of an era and the centerpiece of the museum — and Willmott wrote the check and drove away in the famous car.
On the way back to the museum, steam started rising from the El Dorado’s hood. “There I was on Third Street, almost to Mississippi, and everybody in the area knew whose car it was. At every stop light, it’s smoking, people are staring and hollering, and I’m saying, ‘Please don’t let me get towed in Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac.’” The car made it back to its destination, where it was painted and replated, and is now “one of the jewels of the museum,” says Willmott. “And the best part of the story is that it came about as a community thing, as we worked with the radio station and the owner who was willing to sell it.”
Willmott’s years as curator yielded “a wealth of hidden Memphis” that tourists can find in Kreature Comforts. “All this history on the south side of town I didn’t know about,” he says. “Like Aretha Franklin’s house. It’s run down now to the point I can’t believe it hasn’t been bulldozed. She was born in the house, and her daddy went to LeMoyne College and had a church here. As soon as he graduated he got a better job and they moved to Detroit when she was only 2 years old. But on my tours when I point out her house, people are always surprised.” Other famous South Memphis musicians mentioned in Kreature Comforts are jazz greats Phineas and Calvin Newborn, Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, and Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White.
The north side of town doesn’t lack for history either. For instance, Elvis grew up in Lauderdale Courts, worked at Crown Electric (now an Exxon) at Poplar and Danny Thomas, and sold his first records at nearby Pop Tunes. Although both those landmarks are history, tourists can imagine Elvis walking catty-cornered across Poplar to cash his paycheck at Pop Tunes and stealing shy glances at fans who bought his records. “There’s enough in that area that’s exciting,” says Willmott, “that gives you a scope of how things were.” And farther north at Chelsea and Danny Thomas is the former home of American Recording Studios, where, as Willmott writes in the guide, “Elvis recorded his amazing comeback album in 1969 (“Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto”) while Dan Penn and Chips Moman molded the Box Tops and resurrected many other fading pop careers, including Dionne Warwick and Neil Diamond, as well as soul stars like . . . Wilson Pickett.”
In Kreature Comforts, Willmott shoots straight about some of Memphis’ flaws, from crime to “bums.” “People leave cameras and records lying on the front seat,” he says, “and they come back and find their windshield busted. We aren’t going to gloss that over.” On panhandlers, he writes, “No one in Memphis needs bus (or gas) money to get to either Arkansas or Mississippi. These bums come to Memphis to get away from those places, and now their job is to get money from you to do nothing.” In this interview, he says that description may not be true of every street person, “but the aggressive ones are really good salespeople. If they’ve got the gumption and energy to beg, they could wait tables or drive a bus.” And he bristles with scorn for Beale Street, stating in the guide, “If good times for you means ‘Mustang Sally’ covers ad nauseam and drinking til 5 a.m at theme bars, this is your place.”
“The glory in Memphis is its second hand shops — thrift stores, used record stores, antique shops, garage sales, guitar stores, and recently its cool art galleries. Like the music, all the good stuff in town is old!” — from Kreature Comforts
Willmott — who is called and sometimes quoted by such sources as The Boston Globe and the BBC about Memphis music, movies, or travel — says it’s easy to sell his tours to people from Iowa or Amsterdam. “But I do get quite a few locals, too,” he adds. “They’ll bring a friend from out of town, and say, ‘My kids would love this.’ And they’ll come back again with the whole family.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of his job is driving home the impact of Memphis music. “I’ll mention a song or record, and somebody might sit up and say, ‘Hey! My uncle played on that record! Is that important?’ It’s like we need outside affirmation or acknowledgment,” says Willmott. And he remembers when Wayne Jackson of The Memphis Horns — a group that played on countless Stax records — told of the group’s first trip to Europe in the 1960s. Says Willmott: “They didn’t know their music had touched the world, yet there people were, dancing and going nuts for it. The musicians were making forty bucks a day. It took them going to Europe to realize their impact.”
This New England transplant, who after nearly 25 years considers himself a “native Memphian,” smiles when he says the Convention and Visitors Bureau “has started moving closer to us with their Flip Side Memphis tour. For years we’ve been doing that with Kreature Comforts. But that’s okay. We want visitors to discover something besides Beale Street. We want to keep it edgy and real. Otherwise people see right through it. I tell people about places where I’d want to eat or visit.”
Willmott didn’t expect to stay in town this long, figuring he’d go back to California and make movies — but he’s glad he put down roots. “I wish a lot of places were still standing. I wish local businesses had more opportunities. But I’m proud of Memphis. I’m proud of a lot of things here. I knew all along it was a cool place. That’s why I stayed."
Kreature Comforts Tips:
Most Likely Place to Run into Al Green: Krispy Krème on Elvis Presley Blvd.
Ellen's Soul Food: Awe-inspiring. . . !
Cozy Corner: Do yourself a favor before you die and try the cornish hen.
Dixie Queen: Try their great orange freezes.
Interstate Bar-B-Q: Their large sandwich is a lovable mess.
Marlowe’s: A big favorite of Elvis fans since the 1970s. They smoke their tasty ribs & cue right in the middle of the restaurant.
Spindini: Tasty wood-oven pizza and other fancy Italian dishes.
Great Movies Besides The Firm Set and Filmed in Memphis
1. Mystery Train (1989) — directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Rufus Thomas, Joe Strummer, and Steve Buscemi.
2. The Rainmaker (1997) — directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Matt Damon, Danny Devito, and Claire Danes.
3. Hustle & Flow (2005) — directed by Craig Brewer, starring Terrence Howard, Taryn Manning, and Isaac Hayes.
4. Walk the Line (2005) — directed by James Mangold, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and Ginnifer Goodwin.
5. Forty Shades of Blue (2005) — directed by Ira Sachs, starring Dina Korzun and Rip Torn.
Among 10 free things to do:
Check out the cemetery next to Piggly Wiggly on Madison Ave.
Take a picnic lunch to Furry Lewis’ grave.
Check out chitlin’ circuit blues at the West Memphis dog track.
Willmott has published two books on Memphis garage bands in the 1960s, and produced and directed two documentaries, including Memphis Heat, about local wrestling legends. He’s currently working on an iPhone app for Kreature Comforts. For more information go to ShangriLaprojects.com or call (901) 359-3102.