Memphis, Tennessee, January 2010:
Elvis Presley would have been 75 on January 8. So, as Graceland prepares for an extra wave of fans, Brian Hancill takes the tour…
The cops arrive in a blaze of flashing blue lights – four big guys in black leather on white Harley-Davidsons.
They roll in formation to the front of our coach, make a “wagons roll” signal, then lead us out of the hotel car park, stopping the traffic on US Highway 278 to let us pass.
Welcome to Tupelo, Mississippi, where our mini-motorcade is making a two-mile pilgrimage to a two-room shack: the humble birthplace of Elvis Presley. Tupelo is so happy to see Elvis fans that the local police provide a VIP escort for every coachload of tourists. And the guys on the Harleys expect a busy year as they get into gear for “Elvis 75”.
The town’s main attraction is the Elvis Birthplace Museum in East Tupelo, a small and peaceful place compared to Graceland. There’s the shack itself – spruced up and standing where it always did. But what used to be a ramshackle street full of hand-built cabins is now a pleasant park with shady trees.
After a turn on the front-porch swing, you walk slowly through the little home, shepherded by a Tupelo matron. Take as long as you like studying the scrubbed but shabby 30s furnishings and family photos.
Sadly, none of it is original and it all looks a little too respectable. Back then there was newspaper on the walls, no indoor plumbing and no electricity. The Presleys couldn’t afford to have it connected.
Across the park, past a statue of a solemn, dungaree-clad Elvis aged 13, is the Assembly of God pentecostal church where he worshipped as a boy.
Moments after you sit down at a pew, screens slide down on three sides and you’re at the centre of a virtual-reality church service, with actors playing the preachers and congregation – including Vernon and Gladys Presley and their boy.
Steered to the front by his proud momma, Elvis sings a solo spot as the Reverend Frank Smith plays guitar. And that’s when it hits you… this tiny clapboard building is where the world’s greatest entertainer sang his first notes in public. Where he learned the gospel hymns he loved for the rest of his life. And where Frank Smith showed him his first chords on the guitar. At that moment you forget the slick technology and the hi-definition screens and you’re there with these poor southern share-croppers, singing The Old Rugged Cross in their Sunday best.
The exhibit that grabs you in the museum itself (www.elvispresleybirthplace.com, tickets $12/£7.70) is a huge black-and-white picture showing a group of schoolchildren. It takes a lot of staring before you realise that Elvis is the skinny – almost puny – little blond boy in wire-frame glasses. It’s the only known portrait of the future King of Rock ’n’ Roll wearing specs.
The photo was taken during a junior talent show at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1945, when 10-year-old Elvis stood on a chair in front of hundreds of people to sing Old Shep.
Elvis was placed a disappointing fifth. The winner was a pretty 12-year-old named Shirley Jones. Now 76, Shirley gives talks to tourists about her day of glory. She finishes with a chorus of her winning song, My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time, and even today she has a magnificent, soulful voice. Let’s forgive her for beating Elvis.
It was around the same time that Elvis got his first guitar. It cost $7.75 (£5) from the Tupelo Hardware store (www.tupelohardware.com), an old-fashioned family business still on the same street corner. Its staff are steeped in Presley history and will talk all day if you let them – telling you how the man who sold the guitar (Forrest L Bobo) suggested it as consolation for Elvis when Gladys couldn’t afford the bicycle or rifle he wanted.
There’s a lot more Elvis history in Tupelo and visitors can get a self-drive tour leaflet from the birthplace museum or the town’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (www.tupelo.net). It takes you to the site of his long-gone second home, his first school, the drive-in where he bought cheeseburgers and cola, and the site of Mayhorn’s grocery store.
This was the focal point of a poor negro neighbourhood and Elvis would sit on the step with his black friend Sam Bell and listen to bluesmen play. Sam is still around to share his memories, too. “Me and Elvis didn’t know nothing about black and white back then,” he says. “We just had a lot of fun runnin’ around.”
The great thing about Tupelo is that people who really knew the young Elvis are still here, and they’re happy to talk to tourists. They tell you this is the friendliest place in the USA and I think they’re right… a gold ol’ boy in a pick-up truck
saw one of us drop a lens cap as we crossed the road and he drove all around the block to pull up at the kerb
and tell us. That’s friendly.
But when Elvis was 13 the Presleys had to move 100 miles to Memphis. It’s rumoured that his dad, who had already been in prison for forging cheques, was on the run from the law again. From 1949 to 1953, they lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project called Lauderdale Courts. Apartment 328 was a big step up for a dirt-poor family and today it’s part of a well-heeled, gated community.
But twice a year (January 6-11 and August 10-17) visitors can tour the apartment, lingering in Elvis’ bedroom to strum a guitar kept by the bed or add to a wall full of lipstick kisses.
Outside by the front steps, grown men try to recreate a famous picture of teenage Elvis posing with a pistol. There’s a blue footprint to show you where to stand.
The apartment’s open from 10am-5pm. For the rest of the year, up to four visitors at a time can actually rent it out for $250 (£160) a night – it’s the only place in the world that lets you stay where Elvis lived (www.lauderdalecourts.com, tickets $10/£6.50).
There’s one more must-see stop before Graceland for Elvis fans in Memphis. Sun Studio (www.sunstudio.com, tickets $12/£7.70) was a small outfit best known for capturing the raw sound of the blues until 18-year-old Elvis, by now a truck driver, walked in and paid $4 (£2.60) to record two songs for his mother’s birthday.
Receptionist Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like and his answer was both truthful and prophetic. “I don’t sound like nobody,” he said. As he recorded two numbers by black vocal group The Ink Spots, Marion remembered what her boss Sam Phillips had told her: “If I could find a white man who has the negro sound I could make a million dollars.”
Marion thought this polite young man with the long sideburns and flashy clothes might be what Sam was looking for. She made a taped copy, played it for her boss, and lit the touch-paper on the most sensational music career the world has known.
A guided tour of Sun Studio takes just over an hour and if you love Elvis, rock ’n’ roll, blues or country music, it’s an experience you cannot miss.
This is my second visit and I still get the shivers listening to Elvis sing That’s All Right on the spot (marked with an X) where he recorded it on July 5, 1954.
Within three years Elvis was the biggest name in American showbusiness and had moved with his family to a mansion south of town: Graceland. He lived there until his tragic early death in 1977. With more than 600,000 visitors each year, to visit Graceland (www.elvis.com) is to experience tourism on an industrial scale. A constant stream of buses ferries visitors through the wrought-iron guitar gates and up the drive from US Highway 51 (renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard in 1972).
There’s a museum just for Elvis’ cars, his two private jets and so many 70s jumpsuits and gold records your eyes start to swim. But these are just sideshows. The main attraction is a slow shuffle with a long line of fellow-fans through the Presley family’s living and dining rooms, their kitchen, pool room, TV room, the famous Jungle Room and, finally, the Presley graveside.
The first thing that strikes you is Graceland is a surprisingly modest home for such a huge star. The second is that none of it is anything like as tasteless as the sniffy critics always claim – though the TV room and Jungle Room are shrines to 70s kitsch.
But it’s the commentary on the headphones which creates a moment of pure emotion that stops me in my tracks. As I pause to watch a clip from an Elvis concert, his daughter Lisa Marie talks about the day he died. As she lapses into silence, her father’s voice starts to sing these poignant lines from the song American Trilogy.
“So hush little baby, don’t you cry / You know your Daddy is bound to die / But all my trials, Lord, will soon be over.”
Get your Elvis albums and put the song on now. And shed a tear for the man who never lived to see how much the world still loves him.
Time zone: GMT -6hrs, currency: dollar £1 = 1.54, best time to go: Pay homage year round
Info: Arena Travel offers guided Elvis tours of Tupelo and Memphis from £1,448 for eight days. www.arenatravel.com or 0147 366 0800.
If you prefer to go it alone, you’ll find good hotel deals in Memphis at www.premierholidays.co.uk/hotels and hotels.trailfinders.com – incl Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel opposite Graceland, with rooms sleeping four from £27.50pp per night in January. To stay in Tupelo, view deals on www.expedia.co.uk including the downtown Days Inn from £12pp per night in January.
Heathrow to Memphis flights in January with KLM/Northwest via Amsterdam and Detroit start at £411 return, including taxes. Visit www.expedia.co.uk for info.
An edited version of this article was published in the Daily Mirror on January 2, 2010.