By Renée S. Gordon
ABOVE PHOTO: skphotography/Shutterstock.com
“At Sun Studio in Memphis Elvis Presley called to life what would soon be known as rock and roll with a voice that bore strains of the Grand Ole Opry and Beale Street, of country and the blues.”
–1986 David Fricke, Rolling Stone Magazine
Elvis A. Presley was born, along with a stillborn twin brother, in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935 and died in Memphis, Tennessee on August 16, 1977. During his 42-year lifespan, he changed the face of music globally and in the ensuing years family members, musicians, fans and historians worldwide have nurtured his legacy.
A series of events are planned in 2012 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his death. The programs and exhibitions are varied and are scheduled throughout the year at sites connected with his life and career. The most celebrated events will take place at Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis estate, but there are several other locations that figure significantly in his career that offer tours and exhibitions and should be noted.
Elvis was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley in a two-room wooden house that his father had built a year earlier. The single story shotgun house was originally in a row of similar houses and consisted of a small kitchen and living room that also functioned as the bedroom. Two years later poverty necessitated that the Presleys move out of the house and in with their parents. Elvis would live in Tupelo until the family moved to Memphis when he was 13. As an adult, he returned to purchase and preserve the home.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum is a 15-acre complex that consists of the birth home, a bronze sculpture of a teen-aged Elvis complete with guitar, and the relocated Assembly of God Church in which Elvis worshipped and heard gospel music. In 1948, Vernon drove out of Tupelo in a 1939 Plymouth in route to Memphis and a similar vehicle is on display. www.elvispresleybirthplace.com
For his 12th birthday, Gladys purchased her son’s first guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Company. The store continues to operate and visitors can step in to purchase souvenirs, hear the story of the sale and see similar guitars. The store is just one of 10 sites on the Tupelo Elvis Driving Trail. www.tupelo.net
The Presleys resided in at least eight residences in Memphis, many of them no longer standing, the first of which was 370 Washington Street. In 1949, they moved to 185 Winchester Avenue’s Lauderdale Courts Apartments. The apartments were home to those with lower incomes at a monthly rent of $35.00. The family lived there for more than three years and this would be Elvis home longer than any other until he purchased a home for himself. To the delight of fans, apartment 328 is available for overnight stays and has been revitalized to look as it did in the ’50s.
Lauderdale Courts, now Uptown Square, was significant in the development of Elvis’ music. He practiced there, gave impromptu performances in the complex courtyard and walked the mile to Beale Street to listen to the blues musicians who populated the area. These were also the years he spent in Humes High School, Class of 1953, where he would perfect his personal style and persona. Lauderdale Courts is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1956, Elvis purchased a home for his family. The home at 1034 Audubon Street cost $29,000 ($233,000 in 2010) and is today privately owned.
Sun Studio, “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll,” offers guided tours of the studio where Elvis made his first recording on July 5, 1954. The studio tour is wonderful and pays homage to not just Elvis but also to the African American roots of rock and roll through displays and music audio tracks. Your visit begins on the second floor where displays relate stories of Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, B. B. King and other seminal blues, gospel and rock and roll artists. It was at Sun that Ike Turner recorded “Rocket 88,” considered by many to be the first rock and roll recording. An entire case is dedicated to Elvis memorabilia on loan from Graceland.
The original, and still active, studio on the ground level is filled with instruments, recording devices and the microphone used by Elvis and other greats. On December 4, 1956 Elvis was a participant in the legendary recording session that included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The “Million Dollar Quartet” session was, unbeknownst to them, recorded and we hear both the music and conversation. Elvis comments that he heard a black singer in Vegas while watching Billy Ward and the Dominoes, sing “Don’t Be Cruel” better than his version. He would later learn that the singer was Jackie Wilson and they would go on to become good friends. The tour ends with photo ops and an opportunity to make your own recording. Sun Studio is a National Historic Landmark. www.sunstudio.com
Shreveport, Louisiana has earned a place on our commemorative tour because it was there, on Oct. 16, 1954, that 19-year-old Elvis Presley first stepped onto the Municipal Auditorium stage as part of the radio broadcast Louisiana Hayride. He performed weekly for over a year and after his final appearance, in December of 1956, the announcer stated, “Elvis has left the building.”
In 1955, Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ record contract to RCA for $35,000. He took his blend of black blues, gospel and country to international audiences with the backing of his new company. He would star in more than 30 films, win three Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and sell more than one billion records.
Bad Nauheim in Germany was Elvis’ home during his military career from March 1958 to 1960. The city has hosted the “Elvis European Festival” for 10 years and schedules regular walking tours of sites associated with his stay here. In 1959, his father and grandmother joined him and one of the most important locations on the tour is Goethestrasse 14. This was the private house he lived in and where he courted Priscilla. www.european-elvis-festival.de
In 1957, Elvis purchased Graceland from Ruth Moore for $102,000. This mansion was his home for 20-years and is the residence that best preserves his legacy. He died here on August 16, 1977 and was interred in Forest Hill Cemetery. A failed attempt to steal his remains resulted in his being reburied in the Meditation Garden on the grounds of Graceland. www.Elvis.com
A visit to the Graceland complex requires a minimum of four hours to experience the mansion, auto museum, custom airplanes “Sincerely Elvis” and “Elvis Presley Fashion King”. There are also restaurants, 14 shops and even the Heartbreak Hotel complete with Elvis themed suites and a 24-hour Elvis movie channel. (877) 777-0606
The same year Elvis purchased Graceland, “JET Magazine” investigated the allegation that Elvis was a racist and had stated, “The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music.” They found both allegations to be untrue. Periodically this urban legend raises its head but several of Graceland’s exhibitions provide information that goes a long way to putting these rumors to rest and helping visitors understand the link between Elvis’ blend of musical genres and the breaking down of musical and racial barriers of the mid-20th century. www.snopes.com/music/artists/presley1.asp
Visits begin with an audio-guided tour of the mansion. Highlights of the home are the 15-foot white sofa in the Peacock Room, the Pool Room with 350-yards of multicolored fabric on the walls and the carved furniture and green shag covered floor and ceiling of the Jungle Room. In other galleries on the grounds trophies, costumes and memorabilia are displayed with interpretive panels and audio and video information.
“Elvis Presley: Fashion King” is a great exhibit with an accompanying video narrated by Priscilla Presley. Early on, Elvis personal style was a result of time spent on Beale Street, the capitol of black Memphis. He bought his clothing in shops traditionally reserved for the black population. His use of hats, capes, form-fitting outfits and conspicuous jewelry is reminiscent of many of the African American acts of the era.
The Automobile Museum is filled with 33 of his most loved cars. My favorites are a black Silver Cloud, a Stutz Blackhawk and the Pink Cadillac that he gave his mother. The 51 Drive-In Theater shows Elvis’ movie car scenes and the souvenir shop is housed inside a facsimile gas station.
Elvis’ two planes, the Lisa Marie and the Lockheed Jetstar Hound Dog, are both available for self-guided tours. The Lisa Marie dazzles with gold-plated seatbelts and 24-karat gold-flecked sinks.
Complete tour and planning information is available online and you can download a free Elvis Mobile iPhone application for real-time info. www.Elvis.com/ElvisApp
It has been said that the truth of things lies in the aftermath. In order to understand Elvis’ life, legacy and contributions to multiculturalism there is no better time than this 35th commemorative year to visit the sites and reflect on his impact.
I wish you smooth travels!