Memphis — Elvis’ legacy and much more

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Glenda C. Booth

The living room of Elvis Pressley’s Graceland features a 15-foot-long sofa and stained glass peacocks. The white-columned mansion is the second-most visited home in America after the White House.
© Steve Kingsman | Dreamstime.com

Some teenage fantasies never die. For those who were teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” and millions got “All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley’s pioneering gyrations and velvety vocals. Swoon.

Making the pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s Memphis environs verges on a religious rite for many. After all, he was “The King.” Here, you can marinate in all that was Elvis as well as the broader Memphis musical mystique, the influences on him, and the forces that spawned other famous musicians.

It’s also a city of contrasts. Memphis offers the sweetness of the South — friendly, gentle people, and luscious cuisine like creamy banana pudding — against the dark backdrop of racism and slavery.

Many black musicians rose to their fame in Memphis, but Memphis is also the town where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Memphis offers highs and lows, the stars who made it and stars who didn’t; the thrill of Elvis’s amazing rise to stardom alongside glimpses of his inner turmoil and untimely end.

A city with spirit

Memphis is perched on the banks of the Mississippi, a temperamental river, languid or roiling. And its famous music is infused with those elements as well. As bluegrass musician Marty Stuart put it, “Memphis is a hard core Mississippi River town. There’s a lot of spirit in that town.”

That spirit seeps out of every crevice. Music put Memphis on the map — blues, country, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll and soul. A mid-city statue honors “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy, who fused Mississippi Delta gospel and cotton-field songs in the early 20th century with lyrics that lament everyday struggles, tempered with hope for a better tomorrow.

Memphians love to recall the day in 1954 when a six-foot, 19-year-old, side-burned, Crown Electric Company truck driver dropped in at Sun Studio, where anyone could record anything for $3.95. In his soft country accent, he asked to record a birthday song for his mother.

Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, was instantly wowed by Presley’s rocking rendition of “That’s Allright Mama,” which mixed country and blues, a sound Phillips had never before heard.

“It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s not pop, it’s not country,” Sam told his friend, disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who played it on his popular WHBQ radio show, “Red, Hot and Blue.” Call-in requests to replay it flooded in. Elvis Aaron Presley was on his way.

Along famous Beale Street


Blues singers — from B.B. King, with his own nightclub, to Muddy Waters to Bobby “Blue” Bland — got their start on Beale Street, Memphis’s most famous thoroughfare.
© Natalia Bratslavsky | Dreamstime.com

The town’s most famous thoroughfare, Beale Street, has clung to its historic, intertwined sacred and profane character. The dreams of many aspiring musicians began there.

When a young man named Riley King performed in Memphis in the 1940s, he became known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was transformed to B.B. King.

B.B. King’s Blues Club is still a popular, live- music nightspot that serves “lip-smackin’ ribs” and “Southern comfort food.” Blues singers Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie and many others started on Beale Street. Today it’s a seven-block entertainment district and host to an annual blues fest, next to be held May 1 to 3, 2015.

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, at 191 Beale St., traces the region’s musical evolution from southern cotton fields to contemporary performers. A 12-minute video reviews 60 years of “the Memphis sound.” There’s a 1946 Wurlitzer juke box; Ike Turner’s first piano, a black upright; Jerry Lee Lewis’s stage attire; Isaac Hayes’s mink coat; a Whitney Houston gown; and Elton John’s heart-shaped, baby blue eyeglasses.

Another video pulls your teenage heartstrings: Elvis’s first performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956, which Sullivan partly censored. Viewers saw Elvis only above the waist, blocked from watching those famous, jackhammer gyrations that unhinged millions of screaming fans.

The STAX Museum of American Soul Music, which claims to be the only {solely) soul museum in the world, traces the history of gospel music and the blues. Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “Try a Little Tenderness” provide a soft, background soundtrack. With racial school segregation the norm, Stax Records launched 1960s stars both black and white, like Redding, Hayes and Booker T and the MGs.

Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio, which Elvis put on the map as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, is a modest three-room building. “If music were a religion, then Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun Studio its most sacred shrine,” say promoters.

When Elvis showed up, he said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Phillips had instantly discovered a unique, new talent who could belt out uptempo rockabilly with gut-wrenching rhythms, croon sensual come-ons, and mix country, gospel and blues all into one. His sounds could be raw, emotive, wailing, tender or electric, and range over two octaves, Phillips recognized.

Phillips also recorded blues singers like B. B. King, Howlin Wolf and Rufus Thomas. At Sun, Carl Perkins recorded “Blue Suede Shoes”; Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I’ll Walk the Line”; Roy Orbison, “Ooby Dooby”; and Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire.”

Visitors can feel the vibes in the broadcasting booth and by caressing the actual microphone that Elvis poured his soul into.

Elvis’s Graceland

“Graceland was the perfect expression of Elvis’s universe because it existed closest to his roots,” his wife, Priscilla, once explained.

The 14-acre estate, bought for $102,500 in 1957, symbolizes the instant catapult of Elvis from near poverty to instant fortune. The two-story, white-columned mansion, which hosts 3,000 visitors a day, is the second most visited home in the U.S. after the White House.

Japan’s President Junichiro Koizumi, an Elvis fan, had Graceland on his bucket list. When former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2006 escorted him there, Koizumi sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in.” En route on Air Force One, they dined on Elvis’s favorite food — grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

 Describing Graceland, Priscilla also said, “Elvis never did anything halfway.” Floor-to-ceiling, stained glass peacocks greet visitors upon entry. The living room has a white, 15-foot sofa. The pool room’s walls and ceiling are swathed in 350 yards of fabric. The Jungle Room, laden with Polynesian décor, has images of monkeys, tigers and cougars plus furry furniture and green shag on the floor and ceiling.

“’Bring it on!’ he wanted his rooms to say,” wrote Pamela Clarke Keogh, a biographer.

The Trophy Room showcases his gold records, flamboyant jump suits spangled with sequins and appliqué, his Army uniform, a video of his 1967 wedding, wedding clothes, the movie script for “Jailhouse Rock,” and a tender telegram to his beloved mom, Gladys.

A Graceland visit is a journey through the twists and turns of the “explosion in Memphis that changed the world.” Visitors’ awe of the material trappings is tempered by the fact that Elvis was found here in his bathroom, unconscious. His lifestyle caught up with him, some say.

Behind the mansion, at his grave in the Meditation Garden, an eternal flame burns near a quotation in German: “Life is fleeting, but you will remain in our hearts.”

Beyond the mansion, Graceland has a crammed, hyper-commercial side, with shops hawking every conceivable Elvis souvenir and trinket.

You can also visit an Elvis car museum, which includes a 1960 pink jeep and a 1955 pink Fleetwood Cadillac with white sidewall tires, and tour the Lisa Marie — his custom-made, Convair 88 jet with suede and velvet sofas, brass faucets from Spain, and gold-plated seat belts, named for his daughter. 

Memories of MLK

The Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, is a must visit. It’s a mostly unchanged 1960s motel with turquoise doors. On its balcony, in 1968, civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King was gunned down at age 39 when James Earl Ray fired a high-powered rifle from a rooming house across the street. 

Exhibits tell the story of five centuries of civil rights struggle, from slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, to King’s death.

Videos recount the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, the Freedom Riders, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, and the 1963 March on Washington. Seeing room 306, where King stayed, is certain to stir the emotions.

For a picker-upper, try the Peabody Hotel lobby for the famous “Peabody ducks.” With regal pomp and circumstance, the “Duck Master” introduces the permanent “residents” and “marches” mallard ducks to the lobby’s Romanesque fountain at 11 a.m. daily. At 5 p.m., he “directs” them back to their rooftop “room.” Oprah, Larry King and Jordan’s Queen Noor have been honorary duck masters.

“The hardest part is getting them into the elevator,” quipped a recent duck master.

Memphis is music and more. When 19-year-old Elvis exploded with “That’s Alright Mama” in Sun Studio, the legend began. Today, the legend not only lives, it looms.

If you go

The historic Peabody Hotel has hosted every U.S. president since Harry Truman. The public spaces have marble columns and burnished woodwork. The hotel is themed around the Peabody ducks — duck soap, toilet paper and mints. For January, prices are $230 and up. For details and reservations, call (901) 529-4000 or visit www.peabodymemphis.com/peabody.

For Elvis nostalgia, try the Heartbreak Hotel near Graceland. There are four suites inspired by The King’s life. On your second honeymoon? Try the “Burning Love” suite and the heart-shaped pool. Room prices range from $115 to $650/night. Call (877) 777-0606 or visit www.graceland.com/visit /heartbreakhotel.aspx.

Hush puppies seem ubiquitous in Memphis, but the city is truly famous for its barbeque. Memphians would never “spoil” their BBQ with vinegar, like those rascal North Carolinians. Instead, chefs specialize in a dry rub, tomato-based sauce.

At the One and Only, http://oneandonlybbq.com, (901) 751-3615, try the hickory smoked chicken, ribs or pulled pork, and the twice-baked potato salad. The luscious, light banana pudding with whipped cream is to die for. Another option is Central BBQ, at (901) 672-7760, http://cbqmemphis.com/.

The lowest roundtrip price for a mid-January flight from BWI to Memphis is $196 on US Airways.