Last Stop on the Road in 2007: Memphis

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Flag of United States  , Tennessee
Friday, July 6, 2007

by Eric Huntsman of the Baritone Section

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, July 1, 2007, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, for the last stop on the Canada-Midwest Tour. It was the Choir’s first visit to Memphis, the largest city in Tennessee and the second most populous in the southeastern United States. The city sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in Shelby County in the southwestern corner of the state in a region first inhabited by the Chickasaw Indians. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first known European to visit the area, and around 1860 the French established Fort Prudhomme nearby. English settlers soon followed, and Andrew Jackson was among the Americans who in 1820 later founded the city of Memphis itself.

An important regional river and railroad center, Memphis was captured by Union forces early in the Civil War (1861–65). While Memphis quickly recovered after the war, its site along the Mississippi and its sultry climate were often unhealthy, leading the city to be largely depopulated by yellow fever epidemics in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Once again, however, the city rebounded. In addition to becoming an important commercial and urban center of the Midsouth, in the twentieth century, Memphis also became a musical center, especially of Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, and later Rock 'n’ Roll. Modern Memphis was also an important center of the American Civil Rights movement.

LDS Church history in Memphis began in early 1835 when a young Wilford Woodruff became the first LDS missionary to visit the city. In the face of local opposition, the Church grew slowly and consisted of a single small branch meeting in a converted house as recently as forty years ago. Since that time, however, it has grown to two stakes, and the Memphis Temple was dedicated April 23, 2000.

Choir and Orchestra members, staff, and guests had one of their most tender experiences Sunday evening when they had an opportunity to sing to 10-year-old cancer victim, Chase Burch, and her family in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel where the Choir was staying. Her immune system still weakened from radiation and chemotherapy for a brain tumor, Chase wore a mask and sat on a chair in the center of the lobby with her parents while members of the touring group stood largely on the balconies, from which they sang to this sweet young girl.

Choir and Orchestra members had free time until mid-afternoon Monday. Many enjoyed the sight of Craig Jessop serving as honorary “duck master” at the famous Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. The original Peabody was established in 1869, being replaced by the current opulent hotel in 1925. Perhaps more famous than the hotel’s luxurious accommodations are the “Peabody Ducks,” five ducks who are brought down from their penthouse on the roof each day by elevator, from which they make a grand march along a red carpet to an ornate fountain in the lobby, where they spend their afternoon. Choir members who were present sang “Singing in the Rain” and “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” as Doctor Jessop led them in with a duck-handled cane, which he later suggested he might present to Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. All will be watching in October conference to see whether President Hinckley’s cane sports a brass duck head!

Many members of the touring group also visited Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, where he often lived, where he died on August 16, 1977, and where he is buried. As tokens of the visit, one choir member wore an Elvis mask to sound check that afternoon, and administrative manager Barry Anderson wore a brightly colored Elvis t-shirt over his dress shirt and tie.

Members of the tour also walked along the famous Beale Street, an important area in African-American history that sports many blues clubs and Southern restaurants, such as Blues City Café & Band Box, where many enjoyed lunch.

Monday evening’s concert was held in the large FedEx Forum, which opened in September 2004 as the home of the Memphis Grizzlies, a team of the Southwest Division of the Western Conference of the NBA. Prior to the concert, the VIP reception in the Opus Restaurant of the FedEx Forum hosted community, civic, cultural, and religious leaders from the wider Memphis area. During the reception, A. C. Wharton, Jr., the mayor of Shelby County, gave a gracious speech welcoming the Choir. Choir President Mac Christensen responded in kind and other members of the administrative staff addressed the gathering.

Some 5,000 attended the concert itself. The audience received each number enthusiastically, clapping appreciatively only a few measures into “Betelehemu” when the Choir began its usual swaying motion and giving the Choir and Orchestra a standing ovation at the end of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second half of the concert was as good as it had been anywhere on the tour, and the strong religious and patriotic sensitivities of the local audience led to additional standing ovations after “God Bless America,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the encore “Amazing Grace.” This last number, which the Choir also sang in Nashville, provided an electric connection between the performers and the audience.

It was a fitting ending to an enormously successful tour, which saw the Choir sing to rave reviews for nearly 50,000 people at nine concerts in seven different cities over a two-week period. With the strains of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” ringing in their ears, Choir and Orchestra members returned to Salt Lake City happy to be done with touring for now but looking forward as ever to their next experiences on the road in 2009!
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