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The Vintage Cadillac With The Memphis Soundtrack

Aug 14, 2013
Originally published on August 14, 2013 9:16 am

In the town where I grew up — Memphis, Tenn. — Tad Pierson has made a career out of his love for cars and American music by working as a tour guide. We meet in the grand lobby of the Peabody Hotel, the downtown landmark famous for its ducks and Southern elegance. But it's also considered the starting point of the Mississippi Delta, a region steeped in the blues.

Parked along the curb outside is not just any '55 Cadillac. It's pink and authentic, with fading leather bench seats and no air conditioning. So we head out, windows down on a thick, steamy August morning. Before we've made it a block, the scent of wood-smoked BBQ wafts into the front seat.

"Man, you know I love the smell of Memphis," Pierson says, "and the sound of Memphis."

Blues, soul, funk, gospel and rock 'n ' roll all have roots here, but one name is by far the biggest draw: Elvis Presley. Pierson's Cadillac might be pink, but don't expect him to take you to Graceland. His American Dream Safari starts at Lauderdale Courts, the former housing project where Presley lived as a young teen, sharing a bedroom with his grandma Minnie.

"Elvis is sort of a prism through which we can look at the American Dream," Pierson says.

After seeing the King of Rock 'n' Roll's humble beginnings, we head to the south side, home to the legendary Stax Records and some Memphis originals. We pass the church where Aretha Franklin's dad was a preacher, and the boarded-up clapboard house where she was born.

"What I have to deal with in my business is what I call 'cultural collateral,'" Pierson says. "I rely on real things in real culture to inspire my customers."

But he's seen some of it fading in the 18 years he's been giving tours of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

"There's fewer and fewer real-deal places to go and hear the real stuff," he says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're meeting tour guides this summer in our series The Nickel Tour. Today, NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to Memphis, Tennessee where a man has made a career out of his love for cars and American music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAIN)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This nickel tour begins at a Memphis landmark, the fountain in the grand lobby of the Peabody hotel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAIN)

ELLIOTT: It's famous for its ducks and Southern elegance. But it's also considered the starting point of the Mississippi Delta, a region steeped in the blues - a fitting start for my tour.

TAD PIERSON: My name is Tad Pierson. I have a tour company called American Dream Safari. I have got an old '55 Cadillac and I give tours around Memphis. So I say let's go get in the car and go cruise.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAR DOOR)

ELLIOTT: Not just any '55 Cadillac. It's a pink Cadi.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGNITION)

ELLIOTT: This is an authentic ride, fading leather bench seats, and no A/C. So we head out, windows down on a thick, steamy August morning. Before we've made it a block the scent of wood-smoked BBQ wafts into the front seat.

PIERSON: Man, you know I love the smell of Memphis and I love the Sound of Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ELLIOTT: Blues, soul, funk, gospel, and rock and roll all have roots here, but one name is by far the biggest draw.

PIERSON: But speaking of Elvis...

ELLIOTT: His Cadillac might be pink but don't expect Pierson to take you to Graceland. His American Dream Safari starts at Lauderdale Courts, the former housing project where Elvis lived as a young teen.

PIERSON: We'll stop in and get the key. I'll show you Elvis' apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

ELLIOTT: From here we head to the Southside, home to legendary Stax Records and some Memphis originals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GREEN ONIONS JAM")

PIERSON: This neighborhood: Booker T. Jones, Memphis Slim, Aretha Franklin, Al Green records here.

ELLIOTT: We pass the church where Aretha Franklin's dad was a preacher and the boarded up clapboard house where she was born. A few blocks away, tucked into a residential neighborhood, is an old movie house that is Royal Studios.

PIERSON: But this recording studio here on the left is an obscure one. Willie Mitchell was a record producer here in town and he met Al Green in the late '60s, on tour down in Texas, and said: Al, you write some songs and come to my studio and we'll record some records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S STAY TOGETHER")

ELLIOTT: Pierson cues a musical soundtrack as we cruise through town. We stop in front of Stax Records. The old-school funk of Rufus Thomas, as he points out neighborhood blues clubs where you can cue up the Memphis Sound on the juke box. It's what he calls anthro-tourism.

PIERSON: What I have to deal with in my business is what I call cultural collateral. And I rely on real things in real culture to inspire my customers.

ELLIOTT: But he's seen some of it fading in the 18 years he's been giving tours of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

PIERSON: There's fewer and fewer real-deal places to go and hear the real stuff.

ELLIOTT: But he keeps cranking the pink Cadillac for travelers seeking the real-deal.

PIERSON: If I were just a tour guide in a tour bus and: Ladies and gentlemen, on the right - I would be out of this business in a heartbeat.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, DO THE PUSH AND PULL) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.