As one of the country’s prime music cities, Memphis’s rich history of blues, soul and rock n’ roll is proudly on display in just about every corner. Tourists flood in to visit Graceland, Sun Studio, B.B. King’s Blues Club, Stax Records and the historic Levitt Shell all year round, hoping to relive some of the most iconic years in music history.
Nearly 15 years ago, one man saw the potential to tell the story of Memphis in a new, innovative way. Author and historian, Bill Patton, started Backbeat Tours after finding that the hidden gems and style of Memphis were missing from typical city tours.
“In 2005, my wife and I took a tour of Memphis — just an ordinary, general city tour — and it was awful. I stepped off the bus and said ‘I can do better than that,’ and Backbeat Tours was born,” said Patton. “Memphis is such a fascinating, complicated, complex city — with the possible exception of New Orleans, there’s no other city in America that’s had a bigger impact on our music — and the tours, at least, just weren’t doing it justice, in my opinion. At the time, I had been a lawyer for close to 20 years and while I enjoyed it, I was also feeling kind of stagnated. I wanted a new challenge. I love history, and I love music, and here was this city with some pretty incredible stories that just weren’t being told. So we started seriously thinking about starting a tour company, and the more we thought about it the more it seemed, ‘why not?’ I just knew it was one of those things that if we didn’t do it, we’d regret it down the road. So we leapt right in, bought an old bus and hired some musicians as tour guides. We haven’t looked back since.”
While a lot happened between the Pattons’ realization and their first tour in April 2006, there’s no doubt that Backbeat offers some of the most unique tour options in the city. From the most popular Mojo tour, which focuses on the music history of Memphis, to the captivating ghost tours, which offer a full scope of Downtown Memphis’s most haunted sites and stories, there is something for everyone.
When asked about the impact of the Mojo tour, Patton said, “So much of what makes Memphis so cool and what makes Memphis so internationally known is its music. Not once, not twice, but at least three different times Memphis musicians created new genres of uniquely authentic American music, and we want to share with everyone the fascinating stories behind it all and the people who made it happen.”
With a loaded staff of top-notch musicians, Backbeat Tours offers a fully immersive Memphis experience. From the comfort and style of the Backbeat “Love and Happiness” bus, guests meet on Beale Street and are guided through the city, hearing stories and songs that shaped each iconic location. It’s one thing to hear someone talk about Johnny Cash’s legacy in rockabilly music, but it’s another to hear about it and then sing along to “I Walk the Line” in front of his early home.
“This idea that we wanted to share the history of Memphis with people in a unique way is really what drives us,” said Patton. “We want people to not just see the places we’re talking about, but to get an opportunity to really explore and touch and experience it with all their senses. You can play the tambourine along with the live music on the Mojo tour; you can smell the barbecue and taste it at Central; you can shine the shoes of the W.C. Handy statue on Beale Street and walk the same path that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took during the Sanitation Strike. That means something to people, and it leaves a lasting impression. We want everyone to leave the city feeling like they have a friend in Memphis — that they could come back and bring friends or family and know that we will be here and be ready and happy to see them again.”
If you want the full Bluff City experience, there are also extended tour options, where guests can step out for a guided tour of Sun Studio. Here, you’ll have a chance to hear more about how Sam Phillips and this Memphis music hub launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison and more. There’s also the Hound Dog Tour for all the Elvis fanatics, and the Discovery Tour for those who want to learn more about the historic parts of the city’s story at stops such as the Lorraine Motel, the Peabody Hotel, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and historic Cotton Row.
“We work with so many other companies in town in order to give our guests the most immersive experience possible,” said Patton. “Outside of just working together in a professional setting, lots of these people are our friends personally. There is a real sense of camaraderie among hospitality workers in Memphis that you just don’t find in other cities. All the attractions, the hotels, and the restaurants really work together to make sure that Memphis is always putting its best foot forward. We can call almost any attraction or restaurant and feel good about sending our guests to them to further their Memphis experience.”
Bill and the Backbeat team have left no stone unturned in Memphis. Visitors are left with a sense of having a home away from home after stepping off the bus – a place they can always return to and feel welcomed back; and Memphians are left with a sense of pride and enlightenment after learning more about their beloved city.
“One of our secret missions is to make Memphians fall in love with Memphis. We’re in the tourism business, sure, so most of our customers are visitors to Memphis. And that’s great. But I love having locals on our tours. You can tell sometimes they’re kind of skeptical at first, but at the end of the tour the comment we hear time and time again is ‘I had no idea!’ I think we do a good job of showing locals that there is so much great stuff to do without ever leaving the 901. We’re honest about Memphis and the city’s sometimes painful history, but if you get off the bus without having at least a little more pride in what Memphis is all about, we’re not doing our job.”
There’s no doubt that with all of the innovation and positive change happening throughout the city, tourism is changing and stories are being added to the Memphis archives. However, it takes a true lover of Memphis to embrace the past, present and future of a place like this with equal love and care, something Bill has showcased profoundly in the Backbeat business model.
“One thing that’s changing in tourism generally is the blending of residential life and tourist life. It used to be you’d have two very separate areas: where the tourists visit, and where the locals live. These days, though, with the rise of AirBnB and VRBO, it’s blurring those lines between local and tourist,” said Patton. “The South Main Arts District is such a great example of how that’s impacting Memphis — you’ll see locals hanging out at the bars or restaurants or going to a yoga class, but then right alongside them you’ll see a table of visitors to Memphis who are planning out the rest of their day. And we as locals are more than happy to jump in and help them plan it out! I hear it so often from guests: ‘Memphis has the nicest people!’ and I think that is what really sets us apart from other cities — our ability to recognize that we do live in a tourist city and it’s up to everyone to make sure that visitors are having a great experience and keep people coming back year after year.”