ROCKIN’ ON THE ROAD: Memphis—Music (and Elvis) City USA

In which our Travel Editor—and resident Elvis authority—gives you the lowdown on where you gotta go and what you gotta see if you are serious about making your pilgrimage to one of the unquestioned cradles of modern musical civilization. Pictured above: Elvis is still rocking on Beale Street in Memphis.  (Additional reading: “Dancing Barefoot: The Great Waikiki Mai Tai Taste Off,” Gaar’s guide to Hawaii’s  finest mixology establishments.)

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

August 16 marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. By then, the annual event known as “Elvis Week” will be in full swing; a week’s worth of panel discussions, music events, and an immersion into full-on Elvis-ness. The biggest gathering of the faithful will come on August 15 at the annual Candlelight Service, when fans bearing candles will march solemnly up the driveway of Graceland to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother Minnie Mae are buried, to pay their respects. With this year expected to draw record crowds, it’s a procession that will last through the night.

Graceland is certainly the Memphis site most associated with Elvis. But there’s a lot more to experience in the city if you’re an El-fan — or simply a music fan, for Memphis is a city rich in musical history: the blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s take a look at some of the places in the city with an Elvis connection that a visitor shouldn’t miss.

Graceland  The King’s castle is pictured above (courtesy Graceland.com). Where better to start? You don’t have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy visiting Graceland (and certainly every El-fan should make a pilgrimage to Elvis’ home at least once in their life); I think anyone with an interest in pop culture will get a kick out of seeing the most famous of rock star mansions. Graceland was opened to the public nearly five years after Elvis’ death, on June 7, 1982, and was an instant success, going on to become the second-most visited home in the U.S., after the White House. On November 7, 1991, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

In the interest of managing the crowds, tours start across the street at the new Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex (more on that in a bit), where you board a shuttle which takes you over to the mansion. The mansion’s exterior looks like something out of Gone With the Wind, but what strikes you the most when you first go inside is how small the place actually is. The living room, to your right as you enter, is large enough to contain the pristine white 15-foot sofa, but it’s not much bigger than that. The dining room, to the left, whose most ornate touch is a chandelier, is of a similar size. The rooms are big, but not oversized; this is no mega-mansion.

Don’t touch that dial: the sharp color scheme of the TV Room:

The homiest place in a house is often the kitchen, and Graceland is no exception; it’s a room so cozy you can readily imagine sitting down at the counter for a snack of snickerdoodles and lemonade. But it also seems frozen in time in the ‘70s: brown-patterned carpet, wood-paneled cabinetry, Tiffany lamp shades (part of a vintage craze of the era). Though a bit more elaborate than the average kitchen (there are two ranges), it still has the kind of suburban look that wouldn’t be out of place on The Brady Bunch.

The comfy confines of the vintage ‘70s-era Pool Room:

No one’s allowed to see the other most personal area in a home — Elvis’ bedroom — but you are able to see the rooms that fully illustrate the excessive side of his nature. Climbing down a dizzying stairwell lined in mirrors (hold on to the handrails), you’ll find the TV Room, starkly decorated in yellow, dark blue, and white: a dark blue couch with white and yellow sparkly accent pillows; a yellow wet bar; Elvis’ trademark “TCB” logo — a lightning bolt — zigzagging down one wall; a mirrored ceiling. You barely notice the three TVs amidst all the bright primary colors. Next door is the Pool Room (as in pool table), swathed in yards of gingham-style fabric that hangs from the walls and the ceiling. Back up on the main floor is the famed “Jungle Room” (which only got that name after Elvis’ death), with its heavy, elaborately carved wooden chairs, waterfall that trickles down one wall, numerous animal figurines (a tiger, a ram’s head, a lion), and green shag carpet, both on the floor and the ceiling (Elvis actually recorded two albums in this room, From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and Moody Blue).

The kitschy delight of the “Jungle Room” (Photo courtesy Graceland.com):

That’s the most dazzling — if somewhat claustrophobic — part of the mansion experience. The rest of the tour encompasses the office used by Elvis’ father, Vernon, and the Racquetball Building that Elvis had built in 1975 (trivia: early in the morning on the day of his death, Elvis hit a few balls in the court along with his cousin, Billy Smith, then sat down at the piano and played a few songs, the last being Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”). And there’s a new display in the Trophy Room building, which previously displayed artifacts from Elvis’ career; now it focuses on the Presley family and items related to Graceland itself — everything from his grandmother’s passport to the silver Tiffany cups Lisa Marie received as a birthday present.

Elvis and kin in the Meditation Garden:

The tour ends at the Meditation Garden, a tranquil area next to the (again, surprisingly small) swimming pool, designed by a friend for Elvis in the mid-1960s, when he took up what we’d now call “New Age” interests. After his death, Elvis was initially interred in a mausoleum in nearby Forest Hills Cemetery with his mother. But because of security concerns, Vernon petitioned the city to have their bodies moved back home to Graceland.

Dipped in leather: the fabulous black suit Elvis wore during his 1968 “comeback” TV special, Elvis:


It’s well worth the time to see more than just the mansion, for the full Elvis Experience. Ticket packages offer the opportunity to get inside Elvis’ planes (the famous Lisa Marie and the smaller Hound Dog II), and inside the Elvis Presley’s Memphis complex, where you’ll find museums dedicated to every aspect of Elvis’ life. It’s a story of great fame, and great consumption, with Elvis apparently hanging on to everything he ever owned (not to mention the thousands of items that were added to the collection when Elvis Presley Enterprises acquired the archives of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker).

The most famous Cadillac in the world:

The new complex is five times as large as the previous Graceland Plaza exhibit area, so there’s much more to see. Of course it’s a thrill to see such iconic items as Elvis’ famous pink Cadillac, the black leather suit he wore during his 1968 TV special Elvis, or the bejeweled jumpsuit he wore for his “Aloha From Hawaii” live broadcast. There’s poignancy too, in seeing the jumpsuit he wore for his very last show, on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis, Indiana. This is the only place in the world that has as many artifacts to draw from in illustrating Elvis’ life story. Revel in the bounty.

Elvis has left the building: Elvis wore this Mexican Sundial jumpsuit for his last ever concert, June 26, 1977:

Tip: Most mornings, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., you’re allowed to walk up Graceland’s driveway to the Meditation Garden, for free; well worth doing if you want to miss the crowds. During Elvis Week, there’s also an evening walk up, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., when you’ll find the gravesite overflowing with floral tributes sent in from around the world.

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The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll:

Sun Studio  This is the Memphis site most associated with Elvis after Graceland — though of course he wasn’t the only one admitted into that hallowed space. Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Rufus Thomas were among the legendary talents that recorded in this unprepossessing room, which has been open to the public since 1987. Tours are offered every hour on the half hour, where you first go to a small museum above the studio, which displays such choice artifacts as the tape deck Sam used to record all those great sounds, while the tour guide relates the history of the studio (with appropriate sound clips).

 

The Elvis Microphone:

Then it’s back downstairs to the room itself, where it’s no hyperbole at all to say rock ‘n’ roll was born; what many historians consider to be the first rock ‘n’ roll single, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (including one Ike Turner) was recorded in this very space. There’s a framed photo of the “Million Dollar Quartet” (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash) on the wall, but otherwise the room looks much like it did back in the 1950s. A vintage microphone, said to have been used by the King himself, is on display, inspiring a flurry of selfie-taking. You don’t get inside the control room (it’s still a working studio), but you do see the outer office, where owner Sam Phillips’ business partner and office manager, Marion Keisker, held court. She’s the unsung hero of Elvis’ story, the one who kept urging Sam to give him a call, after he’d come in to make a few personal acetates. After recording him when he made his first acetate (of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”), she took down Elvis’ name and number and added the note, “Good ballad singer. Hold.”

Tip: There’s a free shuttle that leaves from the taxi stand at Graceland at the top of the hour, that stops at Sun, then goes on to the Memphis Rock n Soul Museum.

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The gates of 1034 Audubon Drive, Elvis’ home prior to Graceland:

Memphis Road Tours  The hands down, best book on Elvis sites in Memphis is Memphis Elvis-Style, by Mike Freeman and his then-wife Cindy Hazen (sadly out of print, but readily available used on amazon.com or abebooks.com; yes, I urged Mike it’s time for an update!). No site is too small to be overlooked in this book (like the former site of the grocery store where Elvis used to hang out while visiting his cousin who worked there), but if you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, Freeman offers private tours, and he’s an expert guide (as he likes to say, other tours offer you an “Elvis 101” experience; his is the graduate level course). Freeman knows his subject literally inside out — he and his former wife lived for a time at 1034 Audubon Drive, the first home Elvis ever bought, just prior to moving into Graceland. He’s also a member of the Shelby County Historical Commission and has had a hand in writing a number of the historical markers in front of Elvis-related sites, such as Humes High School, and Lauderdale Courts (his next marker will honor Marion Keisker).

His connections will also get you into places other tours can’t. Lauderdale Courts (above) was once public housing, and was the first place the Presleys lived where they had their own bathroom. The apartment the family lived in, #328, is now available for overnight stays (and tours are offered during Elvis Week), but if the apartment is unoccupied on the day of your tour, Mike can take you inside.

Elvis played one of his first shows here, on July 30, 1954, when the venue was known as the Overton Shell. Memphis Road Tours owner Mike Freeman is on the left:

During my recent visit to Memphis, we roamed all over the city, taking in the First Assembly of God church (now the Alpha Church), where Elvis met his first serious girlfriend; the site where the much-missed Poplar Tunes record shop once stood; the Overton Park Shell (now Levitt Shell) and Lamar-Airways Shopping Center, where Elvis played some early shows; the site where the legendary American Sound Studio once stood (it’s where Elvis recorded “Suspicious Minds”); the Mid-South Coliseum, where he performed his last Memphis show in 1976; the mausoleum (pictured below) he shared with his mother at Forest Hill Cemetery, before they were both moved to Graceland.

It’s the closest you’ll get to walking in Elvis’ footsteps. And you quickly see that no matter how big a city is, the circles a person moves in are generally much smaller; it’s easy to imagine Elvis racing the short distance from his home on Alabama Ave. to Sun Studio when Sam Phillips called and asked him to come by, once you see how short the distance is between the two places. Unlike other stars, Elvis never permanently relocated to New York or LA when he made it big; though he had homes in California, Memphis was always where his heart was. When he returned from the army in 1960 and was asked what he missed most about Memphis, he said, “Everything.” And Mike’s tour gives you a real appreciation for the city that Elvis loved. (He also offers a daylong trip to Tupelo, where Elvis was born, among other tours).

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You’re on Beale St. — drink up!

Beale Street  At one time, Beale was known as the “Main Street of Negro America,” one place in a highly segregated city where blacks could come and go freely. It’s where Elvis would go to check out the hip fashions at Lansky Bros. clothing store, or take in the sounds wafting from the nightclubs.

It’s not quite like it was in Elvis’ day (though A. Schwab’s Dry Goods likely is; established in 1876, its motto is “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it”). Now it’s an entertainment district for tourists, closed to vehicles (with some exceptions; when I visited, a plethora of motorcycles lined both sides of the street), and with open carry — of alcohol — allowed. Yes, if you’re of legal age you can stroll on up to a window, order a “Big Ass Beer to Go” (32 oz. cup for $5.25), and ramble on down the street with your drink in hand as you partake of the sights and sounds around you. There are pieces of history all around. Musical notes bearing the name of a music legend are embedded in the sidewalk. You’ll find the original Stax Studio sign at Alfred’s On Beale. The work of legendary African-American photographer Ernst Withers can be found at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Elvis’ hep cat clothier, Lansky Bros., can be found in its original location (though now tucked inside the Hard Rock Café; other branches are in the nearby Peabody Hotel). W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” never lived on Beale, but his house was moved there as a tourist attraction nonetheless.

B.B. King’s Blues Club and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café & Honky Tonk are also on Beale; I enjoyed the Catfish Dinner (fried catfish, hush puppies, French fries, cole slaw) and “Jerry Lee’s Million Dollar Margarita” at the latter. Among the displays of Jerry Lee artifacts, the most startling is a 1983 Cadillac El Ballero, once owned by the Killer, cut into thirds, with one of those thirds mounted on the wall (you’ll find another third at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, pictured below). I also stopped in at Wet Willie’s, which specializes in alcohol-laced slushies; I chose the “Attitude Improvement” (“A tangy orange taste complemented by 190° grain alcohol, Bacardi rum, and Bacardi Select”).

The most intriguing place I found was the Absinthe Room, above the King’s Palace Café. As I maneuvered along the sidewalk among crowds similarly improving their attitudes, I spied a door lined with green neon that everyone else was simply passing by. Beyond the door, I spied a steep stairway, also lit by green neon. Curious, I made my way up the stairs, feeling like I was walking into a David Lynch film.

Once I left the chaos of Beale behind, I found huge, cool rooms, and a mere smattering of patrons. The bartender, ensconced in another room watching TV, came back to the bar to serve me. When I noted how quiet it was, he told me, “Most people don’t get here until eleven.” I didn’t mind; it was nice to know I’d found a rare island of tranquility.

Tip: Don’t overlook the Elvis statue at the corner of Beale and S. 2nd St, pictured at the top of the page.

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The gold coat and colorful trunks of Memphis wrestler Sputnik Monroe at the Rock N Soul Museum:

Memphis Rock n Soul Museum  Not only is Beale St. central to downtown, there are a number of museums in the immediate vicinity to visit as well. This museum, created by the Smithsonian Institution, puts Elvis’ story in context, as just one of part of Memphis’ long and storied music history. The galleries start back in the days when the area was largely rural; as farm work increasingly became done by machines, people were then drawn to the city for work. The music created at Sun Studio helped bring the rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll to national attention, followed by the success of soul-based labels like Stax, Hi, and Satellite. There’s a terrific range of items on display from all these eras: a 1936 radio owned by Willie Smith, who played saxophone in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra; a spangly gold jacket and boots worn as a costume by the infamous Memphis wrestler Sputnik; a transmitter used by WHER, the first radio station with all female disc jockeys (“1000 Beautiful Watts”); a mink coat owned by Isaac Hayes. Audio guides allow you to access first hand interviews and play selections on the jukeboxes in each gallery, which really help bring the story to life.

Tip: If you want take a tour of Beale Street at your own pace, you can pick up an audio guide at the Museum, which will lead you through your own walking tour.

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 Mark James wrote Elvis’ classic hit “Suspicious Minds” on this organ:

Memphis Music Hall of Fame  This museum celebrates the cream of the crop of Memphis music folk; think of it as a “greatest hits” approach. There are plenty of interesting artifacts to examine: a black pinstripe suit owned by Johnny Cash, and purchased at the original Lansky Bros. shop that was once in this very building; a test pressing of the “Theme from Shaft”; one of Elvis’ karate outfits; and that other third of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cadillac. The most unique item has to be a baby grand piano, salvaged from Stax Studio and left fully exposed to the elements at producer Jim Dickinson’s “Zebra Ranch” in Coldwater, Mississippi. Be sure to check out the interactive displays, where you can listen to music of artists you’re not familiar with.

The beautifully disintegrating Stax piano:

Tip: If you’re planning to visit both the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, you can purchase a combo ticket that offers a reduced rate.

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Stax’s famous marquee was re-created for the new museum:

Stax  Stax was the last professional studio in Memphis that Elvis recorded in, in July and October 1973, when he recorded tracks for the albums Raised On Rock, Good Times, and Promised Land. The original Stax studio was in a former movie theater; when the label went bankrupt in 1975, the building was sold to the Southside Church of God in Christ, but due to neglect it was eventually torn down in 1989 — a sorry end to an enormously influential label. But a rebirth was in the cards, and after two years of construction, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was opened in May 2003 (the site now also hosts the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School).

The Stax historical marker:

The first exhibit brings you back to the real home of soul — it’s a replica of a turn of the century country church. There’s also a replica of Stax’s Studio A, featuring a sloped floor like the original studio had (remember, it was once a movie theater). It’s also one of the few museums that has a dance floor so you can get down and boogie a little, while clips from Soul Train are projected on the walls around you. The most notable artifact is Isaac Hayes’ 1972 Cadillac El Dorado (those Memphis musicians did love their caddys!). Check their website for other events, like live music concerts in Studio A.

Royal Studios, home of Hi Records:

Tip: The former location of Royal Sound Studio is in the same neighborhood, at 1329 S. Lauderdale St. Bill Black’s Combo, headed up by Elvis’ first bass player, recorded their hit song “Smokie — Part 2” here.

Bonus tip: Check out Boulevard Souvenirs at 3706 Elvis Presley Blvd. for a great range of Elvis items — and signed copies of my Elvis books.

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All photos by Gillian G. Gaar except where otherwise noted. Gillian G. Gaar has written three books on Elvis: Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback; 100 Things Elvis Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die; and Elvis: The Legend (previously published as Elvis Remembered). She loves introducing people to one of Elvis’ lesser known songs, “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”

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