Huey Lewis once told us the heart of rock 'n' roll is in Cleveland. However, if you want to go to where rock 'n' roll was born, Memphis is it. After all, this is the city that created Elvis, and without Elvis there would be no rock 'n' 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—but not necessarily so at Sun Records. At the label founded by Sam Phillips in 1952, the motto was that they would record anyone. According to some accounts, Elvis went to record a short album for his mother and that’s where it all began, as Elvis eventually captured the "Memphis sound" Phillips was looking for.
Sun Records still functions as a recording studio, but the tour is its biggest draw these days. In addition to the King, Sun was also the first studio to record and promote other legendary performers such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. 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, however, Elvis was jamming with two other studio performers and he suddenly started gyrating and singing—a departure from his usual ballads—and Phillips realized that he’d found the sound he’d been looking for. Sun Records got his album some airplay and sold his contract two years later to RCA Records in Nashville.
With RCA’s national distribution and management from Colonel Tom Parker, the King’s career soon spiraled out of control. Elvis continued to live in Memphis and bought a house in a residential community until the constant siege of fans forced him to look for something a little more private. Although it's located today at 3764 Elvis Presley Blvd., Graceland was built in 1939 and already possessed its famous moniker courtesy of the original landowner’s daughter, Grace Toof, when Elvis purchased it. He made the Colonial Revival-style mansion his own and, since his death, it’s been preserved in its entirety as the mecca of rock. To make your own pilgrimage, start at the sprawling visitors' center across the street.
There, you'll see the Graceland complex has become much more than just Elvis’s former home. As of March 2, 2017, “Elvis-land”—which already houses the King's classic cars and private planes in addition to a large gift shop and several restaurants—will expand into a a $45 million 200,000-square-foot center called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. However, the mansion is where the entire experience really begins.
Once you’ve secured admission, you'll hop on a small bus to be whisked past Elvis’s golden gates to the front door of Graceland. The tour includes an audio portion 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 retro-chic bar and kitchen. The decor and furniture have been preserved like a '70s time capsule and one can’t help be impressed with Elvis’s TVs, cameras and other technology that must have been cutting-edge at the time.
You never get to see the bedrooms—the second floor of the house is closed to visitors—but you can visit the guesthouse where his parents lived, as well as an entire building full of Elvis's 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, allowing you to pay homage to the King before you board the bus back to the visitors' 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 exactly as you'd imagine a plane would be set up for a '70s rock star. Walk the length of the plane and you'll begin 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 more than a few—the gold lamé suit, the Aloha costume, his famous leather jacket, some black and blue jumpsuits—but the collection 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 Caddy are on display in all their chrome-coated glory. There’s a also Mercedes-Benz limo, a few motorcycles and various other cars the King liked to drive, but if you want to see his famous gold Cadillac, you’ll have to visit the Country Western Hall of Fame in Nashville. After all, Elvis wasn’t just known for rock 'n' roll. He was also famous for country, gospel, and blues, with two out of his three Grammys awarded for his gospel albums.
Visiting Elvis’s 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 visitors' center and taste his favorite treat: a peanut butter and banana sandwich. You can even stay a night or two at the 250-room Guest House 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 hours drive, you can even visit his childhood home at 306 Elvis Presley Blvd. in Tupelo, 100 miles away. That should help quench your thirst for all things Elvis.
The 40th anniversary of Elvis's death on August 16 will take place this year, making 2017 a pivotal time to visit Graceland. Even if you have only a passing interest in his music, you’ll be impressed by Elvis’s Memphis, the originator of rock 'n' roll, as well as all the other great things the city has to offer, from the famous blues joint-lined Beale Street to the Smithsonian's glorious Rock 'n' Soul Museum.