500 Miles to Graceland

Huey Lewis once told us the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland. However, if you want to go to where rock and roll was born, Memphis is it. It’s the city that created Elvis, and without Elvis there would be no rock and roll.

Elvis was born in Tupelo,Mississippi and moved to Memphis as a young boy with his family. He was shy, unpopular in school and seemed an unlikely choice to become the most popular recording artist in the world. Memphis had a vibrant music scene, but because of the racial tension at the time, it was difficult to promote black artists. Sun records motto was that they would record ANYONE. According to some accounts, Elvis went to record a record for his mother and that’s where it all began. He was able to capture that Memphis sound that the owner of the studio, Sam Phillips, was looking for.

Sun Records still functions as a recording studio, but it’s tour is the big draw these days. You can visit the actual studio where Elvis recorded his first singles and even pose with the microphone he used. Elvis recorded quite a few demos over a year’s time, but nothing really clicked for Phillips (who was looking for a white performer to reproduce the rhythm and blues music that he loved from the black clubs of Memphis). One night, Elvis was jamming with two other studio performers and he suddenly started gyrating and singing  (a departure from his usual ballads) and Sam realized that he’d found the sound he’d been looking for. Sun Records got his record some airplay and sold his contract two years later to RCA records in Nashville. The studio also “discovered” Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and a string of other well known artists. The studio does regular tours hourly.

With RCA’s national distribution and management from Colonel Tom Parker, the King’s career spiraled out of control. Elvis continued to live in Memphis and bought a house in a residential community until his constant siege of fans forced him to look for something a little more private. Graceland had been built in the 1939  and already had it’s moniker from the original landowner’s daughter, Grace Toof. King made the colonial revival style mansion his own and since his death, it’s been preserved in its entirety for Elvis fans as the mecca of rock. It’s located at 3764 Elvis Presley Blvd. To get it, you just go to the sprawling center across the street.

The Graceland complex has become much more than just Elvis’ former home. It’s now a visitor’s center full of devotees from all corners of the globe. As of March 2, 2017, “Elvis-land” will expand into a a $45 million 200,000 sq ft. center called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. However, the mansion is where the tour begins. Once you’ve secured your admission, you hop on a small bus to be whisked past Elvis’ golden gates to the front door of Graceland. The tour includes an audio headset that covers each area of the home from the front entry and living room areas, to the family piano and other themed rooms. There’s a interesting  game room with fabric covered walls and ceiling, the famous jungle room, several lower lounge rooms as well as the bar and the kitchen. The decor and furniture have been preserved like a 70s time capsule and one can’t help be impressed with Elvis’ TVs, cameras and other technology that must have been cutting edge at the time. You never get to see the bedrooms, but you can visit the guesthouse where his parents lived, as well as an entire building full of Elvis clothing, gold records, movie posters and personal items that would make Hard Rock Cafe owners salivate. Elvis and several family members are buried in a small garden at the end of the tour, so you can pay a small visit to the King before you board the bus back to the visitor’s center.

Graceland is pretty cool, I must admit. However, the icing on the cake is a visit to Elvis planes- his private jet, the Lisa Marie, is set up perfect for a 70s rock star and you can walk through the entire plane and try to imagine what it must have been like to take a ride with Elvis. The smaller plane, a Lockheed Jet Star is not as impressive but still worth a quick look.

There’s another small museum full of more Elvis costumes and memorabilia. Unless you’re a die hard fan, you’ll probably be surprised at all the costumes he used in various concerts. I thought I could name off a few such as the gold lame’ suit, the Aloha costume, his famous leather jacket, some black and blue jumpsuits, but it goes much deeper than that. Some of the outfits are so preposterously gaudy, it’s imponderable how even the legendary Elvis pulled them off. He did, though and they are perfectly preserved.

The final attraction is Graceland’s car collection. Elvis liked his Cadillacs and the famous pink one he gave to “his mama” as well as his purple one are on display in all their chromed glory. There’s a Mercedes limo, a few motorcycles and various other cars that the King liked to drive. If you want to see his famous gold Cadillac, you’ll have to visit the Country Western Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN. Elvis wasn’t just known for rock and roll. He was also famous for country, gospel, and blues.

Visiting Elvis’ home and museums can easily take half a day or more. If you’re still craving more, you can visit one of his restaurants at the visitor’s center and have a peanut butter and banana sandwich. You can even stay a night or two  at the 250 room Guesthouse at Graceland. What many visitors don’t realize is that you can also stop by the apartment where he lived with his parents when he first moved to Memphis and even rent it out for a night. The address is 185 Winchester, Apartment 328. If that’s not exciting enough, you can also visit The first home he bought before Graceland at 1034 Audubon. If you don’t mind a couple hour drive, you can visit his childhood home at 306 Elvis Presley Blvd in Tupelo, 100 miles away. That should help quench your thirst for all things Elvis.

Elvis’ passing is 40 years ago on August 16, 2017. Even if you have just a passing interest in his music, you’ll be impressed by Elvis’ Memphis, the origins of rock and roll, as well as all the other great things the city has to offer.

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