“Before Elvis, everything was in black and white. Then came Elvis. Zoom, glorious Technicolor.”
Memphis and Elvis are an indissoluble duo; one cannot mention the city without thinking of the King and his voice. Here he grew up, was born a singer and lived until the end in his Graceland.
To visit Elvis’ places in Memphis is to pay true homage to the singer, to fully discover his story, to better understand his life and image and to immerse oneself in that magical aura that only he had and no one else ever will.
Their story is captivating told by the biopic “Elvis” starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, a film about the life and career – dramatized for entertainment needs – of The King, in which Memphis plays a relevant role, being the city where he grew up and which influenced the singer’s tastes, passions and even abilities. What would Elvis have been without Beale Street, without the approach to Soul and Blues music, Sun Studio and Club Handy? Without the influence of B. B. King and the friendship he had with the Black Community? Fortunately, we will never know.
Second only to Bohemian Rhapsody at the box office, with its 8 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Cinematography, Best Set Design, Best Costumes, Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Makeup), 1 Golden Globe won by Butler as Best Actor in a Drama Film, 4 BAFTAs won (Best Casting, Actor, Costumes and Makeup), 1 Critics Choice Awards as Best Makeup, 1 Costume and Designers Guild Award as Best Film Set in the Past, inclusion as the American Film Institute’s Film of the Year 2023, and 22 other nominations in various awards, ‘Elvis’ is considered the best film shot during the pandemic. It was precisely because of this detail, the COVID-19 pandemic, if the film was not shot directly in Memphis but inside the Australian Gold Coast Studios, where the city was reconstructed. This is why I talk about real places: I’ll tell you an itinerary to discover Elvis’ places in Memphis, the real one.
An Elvis-themed trip through Memphis: a day in the history of the King of Rock’n’Roll
Memphis is located in Tennessee, in the Deep South, on the Mississippi River, on the corner of the Arkansas border and the state of Mississippi. It is the city of the Blues, of barbeque, the one where Rock’n’Roll was born and where the struggle for Civil Rights took fundamental steps. And it all was in full swing during Elvis’ years. Memphis was a city pulsing with music and the desire for freedom, characteristics that found a perfect refuge in the soul of the King of Rock, who made them his own and lived by spreading them around him with his voice, his rebellion, his moves.
For us visiting Memphis was a bit like finding that soul again.
Elvis-themed trip through Memphis: Graceland
The itinerary can only begin at his home – declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006 – the place that in the film represents Elvis’s rise from poverty (also in reality it was his first investment, purchased with the first hundred thousand dollars earned from record sales) and his attachment to family.
Today, the real Graceland – the second most-visited private residence in the United States, surpassed only by the White House – is a museum that holds everything that made Elvis, Elvis: clothes, jewelry, photographs, the collection of cars and motorcycles, his personal airplane named after his daughter, and so much more.
And just as when he was alive, access to the upper floor, where the family’s private rooms are located, is forbidden to visitors. Because privacy was essential to him, that’s why it’s important to have the utmost respect in there, we have to understand that what we’re visiting is more about the man than about his public persona as an artist. It is precisely this part that makes Graceland special, despite the fact that upon entry it may give the impression of being nothing more than an immense commercial operation, also given the “theme park,” if we can call it that, along Elvis Presley Boulevard, which is teeming with stores, restaurants, hotels (including The Guest House at Graceland, owned by the family, built – Priscilla says – at Elvis’s wish) and whatever else with Elvis’s name and image everywhere. Probably in part it is, and I don’t think Elvis, given how much he valued privacy, would have liked it, not at his house at least. Personally, though, I think that the visit to the house is about wanting to pass the image of Elvis on, keeping everything as it was when he lived there. The museum and the rest, that’s another matter.
The tour (here is the link to buy tickets) is divided into three areas: the house, the car and motorcycle museum, and the plane. The house is the most beautiful and intimate part, the only real area that tells us who Elvis really was, and it ends with an emotional and moving walk through the Meditation Garden, the garden where the graves of Elvis and his family are located.
I will tell you about the entire visit in more detail, in the meantime, to the question “Is it worth visiting Graceland?” I respond by saying, “Yes, it is worth it if you love Elvis and what he represented.”
Entering Sun Studio, for those who love Rock’n’Roll, is an indescribable thrill. To see, to touch, to breathe the place that gave birth to the greatest music in history is moving. We can say all that we want but for Sun Studio, a few simple words are enough: it is the temple of music. Period.
It was born in 1950, at 706 Union Avenue, in a red brick building, as the Memphis Recording Service. In July 1953, a very young haulier parked outside that building and went inside to record 3 tracks, at a cost of about $4, on vinyl to give to his mother. Marion Keisker, the studio secretary, was so impressed by the boy’s voice and charm that she took his telephone number and a year later called him back for an audition in the presence of Sam Phillips, before whom he performed “That’s All Right” in his own way, and from that day on everything changed, for him and for music. From that day the world discovered Rock’n’Roll.
That boy’s name was Elvis Aaron Presley, and in July 1954, in the recording studios of Sun Records, the legend was born.
Two years later, also inside those studios, a jam session of what came to be called the Million Dollar Quarter was held by pure chance: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lewis and Carl Perkins played and sang (right underneath their picture that’s now hanging on the wall) together for an unforgettable moment that went down in music history. It happened on December 4, 1956: Carl Perkins, who had scored a recent hit with “Blue Suede Shoes,” was there with his band to record new material. Sam Phillips called upon his latest protégé Jerry Lee Lewis, back then still unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano. In the early afternoon, a 21-year-old Elvis Presley came to visit his old label, and he and Johnny Cash listened back to the recordings and decided to join together for an impromptu jam session. Jack Clement, the sound engineer at the time, thought he would have been negligent not to record the performance, so he set to work. In 1969 Shelby Singleton bought Sun Studios and discovered the recording among 10,000 hours of tape. It has since been released several times under different names, but the most complete version was produced by RCA in 2006 as a 50th anniversary special.
In the very room where the quartet played, you can hold up one of the studio microphones, the same one that – it is not given for certain, but it is nice to think so – Elvis and many others sang with.
I recommend taking the guided tour, which lasts about 45 minutes, and uncovers stories and anecdotes about the history of Sun Records, the artists who were part of it, and the historical period – from 1950 to 1960 – that saw it as a major player in the music scene.
The baseball stadium that hosted one of Elvis’ earliest – and most rebellious – performances is unfortunately no longer open to visitors today: it was completely destroyed by fire on April 17, 1960.
Here, on July 4, 1956, Elvis performed with other artists for a charity concert. The moment he took the stage, fans went into raptures and stormed the stage in hopes of being able to touch him, see him up close or have a handshake from him. Elvis graciously begged them to return to their seats so the show could continue and allow those in the back to get a good look as well. When calm returned – sort of – Elvis shouted to his publicist that he would show who the real Elvis is and the show began. He sang “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Hound Dog” amongst others. Thanks to him, as much as $13,500 was raised for the cause. And not even two years had passed since his first recording at Sun Studio.
Today all that remains is a memorial plaque at the stadium, 914 Madison Avenue. I will, however, link you to a video of a comparison between the performances: both the real one and the one from the film, so you can at least imagine being there.(Small note: in the real concert, Elvis did not sing Trouble, that song that was not written until two years later as the soundtrack to the movie “The Way of Evil”. The audio in the video is that of the movie, but the way Austin Butler imitates Elvis in my opinion is outstanding. The actor “lived on bread and Elvis” for two years to give the best performance he possibly could).
This restaurant is not seen in the movie but it was Elvis’s favorite, so it is definitely worth being included in a tour to discover his places. It is also the oldest restaurant in Memphis still in operation, opened in 1919, although it adopted the classic American diner look only in the 1950s.
Elvis always sat in the back, in front of the mirror, so when he saw fans coming in and he didn’t feel like stopping to talk to them, he would get out from the back. Today the table where he used to sit is marked (although they don’t advertise it as much as I would have imagined), as well as the table where J.F. Kennedy ate and photos of all the stars who came by to taste its very famous dishes.
We ate very well, so I recommend you try it and also try Beale St. Brewing’s beers. To stay on topic, try “King’s Ransom”, the beer dedicated to Elvis.
The Arcade concludes our itinerary to discover Elvis’s places in Memphis, but I cannot fail to mention the place where he was born: Tupelo, a small Mississippi town about 186 km from Memphis. Today the house where he was born has become a museum, precisely to preserve the place where the legend was born. Elvis’ parents were forced to leave for Memphis, hoping to find better economic conditions…and I would say that never a choice was more fortunate!
I want to end with a small note about the film.
Judging the film ‘Elvis’ based on its commitment to historical authenticity is a mistake. Above all, the film aims to capture the King’s energy and the vitality of his performances. Almost always the film adaptation of a biography or a book needs changes for entertainment needs. However, for completeness’ sake, I would like to point out all the untrue things said in the film and those things about Elvis’s life that were not said, while pointing out that the biopic had the full approval of Elvis’s family, especially from Priscilla and her daughter.
The most striking differences with reality are that Elvis did not fire Parker from the stage and that he was actually arrested twice…but these are small things that do not change his biography by much. I’ll talk about those in the podcast!