Full Circle Sunday
I love a good brunch, but I’ve discovered that Sunday in Memphis sometimes requires a cool adventure to go along with something great to eat.
First up, church — but not just any church — Al Green’s church. Founded in 1976, The Full Gospel Tabernacle is about a fifteen-minute drive from Midtown, just a bit further down the road from Graceland. The congregation is more than welcoming, as tourists and music loving locals are frequent visitors to the Sunday service. Bible study/Sunday School starts at 9:45 am in the chapel, and the morning worship begins at 11:30 am. Reverend Green usually arrives at noon.
Sometimes Rev. Green is in a colorful robe and sometimes he’s in a suit and sunglasses, but don’t expect him to bust out any of his top 40 hits — it’s not a concert. Don’t worry, he will most assuredly break into song with a seven-piece band (drums, piano, guitar, bass, keyboard, bongos, maracas) and colored-coordinated choir ready to join in and back him up.
There are no bibles (I’m guessing they’d get snagged under the guise of souvenirs), but each week there’s a lovely program with the day’s events. Last year, I visited the church for the Reverend’s birthday celebration as well as the 40-year anniversary of the church’s founding. Though it seems there is always something to celebrate, the Reverend takes his job very seriously. One week he told us that President Obama invited him to come to the White House to sing “Love & Happiness,” but he had to decline since the event fell on a Sunday.
Depending on his mood, the Reverend may preach from one to two hours. He typically has an inspiring message, with a few tales from his childhood. (As to the election, he said, “Let God lead the way.”) There’s some praying, a little dancing in the aisles, and a plenty of “amens.” It isn’t uncommon to see people leave before the service is over, but be sure to stay for the collection. Everyone tithes, and that should include you.
Once you nourish your soul, go ahead and nourish your belly. On the way, do a little drive-by to see where Al Green recorded many of his hits. Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios is one of the oldest, continuously operating, recording studios in the world, and is home to the famed Hi Records. Across the street is Hattie’s Grocery where tamales are made fresh every day. Made from beef and wrapped in paper, the Delta-style tamales are meant to be eaten like popsicles (or yogurt tubes). Get a dozen to go — half mild and half hot — for later.
Stop at The Gay Hawk Restaurant for the lunch buffet (11 am–5 pm) — it features soul food favorites like fried chicken, greens, yams, and peach cobbler. Owned by Louis Bobo, his daughter, Terica, is the woman running the show both inside and outside the kitchen.
Now a sit down restaurant, The Gay Hawk used to have an awning out front. Cars would park and waitresses would come out. Charlie Pride met his wife here and Ike Turner was once a regular. Today the focus is on making good food and treating customers like family.
Terica says when she cooks, she “puts a big toe in it,” meaning she gives it her all and uses a lot of love. The food is authentic and made from scratch. “We don’t just open a can,” she says. Sometimes when the food is gone, she locks the door and lets the customers stay until she’s ready to go home. “The customers make me feel like I’m at the house. They sit all day,” she says with a smile.
Sit and visit awhile, then make time for a nap. Once it’s dark, it’s time to hit the Big S Lounge and start sinning and cutting up again.
This little juke joint is down the tracks from Stax. It’s small, dark, and sparkly thanks to the red twinkle lights. Sam Price, now 92, purchased it in the ’60s when he retired from the Post Office. You can find him most nights dressed to the nines, at the end of the bar. His daughter, Aniece, can be found behind the bar (chances are, she’ll give you a hug). Forties are served with chilled glasses and set-ups come with your very own ice bucket and tongs.
The Big S doesn’t serve food, but they don’t mind if you bring some in. (This is where the tamales come in.) Don’t worry about a thing, not even your car. Dave Brown (not the weatherman) will watch it for you. Bring cash and tip big. And as Mr. Brown told me, “When you watch the news and they talk about South Memphis, remember there’s good people here too.”
More often than not, DJ Quick is here on Sundays and he’s sure to get you onto the dance floor, most likely by way of Al Green’s music. (In his absence, play it on the jukebox.) When you are out there swaying to “Let’s Stay Together,” you’ll know you’ve come full circle.
If You Go:
Full Gospel Tabernacle
787 Hale Road
1320 Willie Mitchell Boulevard (at Lauderdale)
1293 Willie Mitchell Boulevard
3576 Kirby Parkway
The Gay Hawk Restaurant
685 S. Danny Thomas Boulevard
Big S Grill
1179 Dunnavant Street