Graceland, Elvis Presley’s iconic mansion, has been a billboard for tourism in Memphis, Tennessee, for the past 41 years.
After the White House, it’s the United States’ second most visited house, with more than 650,000 visitors annually.
Diehard Elvis fans have been making the pilgrimage to Memphis for decades, especially after Graceland opened to the public in 1982 (when tickets went for $5 instead of $79.50 today), but new Elvis fans are now showing up thanks to the biopic Elvis.
Released in June, the movie, starring Austin Butler as Elvis, has been garnering film awards in the run-up to the Oscars, fuelling a renewed interest in the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and his hometown of Memphis.
Although Elvis’s birthplace is in nearby Tupelo, less than two hours away, he moved to Memphis with his parents at age 13 and lived there until his death
The singer bought Graceland for $100,000 in 1956, a year after getting his first No. 1 hit, Heartbreak Hotel. He was 22 years old.
Elvis, throughout his nearly three decade career, would always return to the eight-bedroom Colonial Revival home, which was once considered one of the grandest homes in the state. Named by its original owners in honour of a beloved aunt called Grace, it was just over 10,000 sq. ft. but the King expanded it to more than 17,500 sq. ft., including adding a memorial garden behind the pool.
Taking the house tour today is like stepping into a time capsule, showing off what life was like for the well-to-do in the 1970s, when green shag carpets and wood wall panelling were all the rage.
Graceland is also a monument to Elvis’s unique aesthetic, from his Polynesian-inspired den, to his billiards room covered in pleated paisley, to the TCB Band-themed media room. For anyone not familiar with Elvis’s band, TCB stands for “taking care of business.”
Only the upstairs rooms are off limits. These include the bathroom where Elvis died at the age of 42, and his daughter’s bedroom.
Elvis is buried in Graceland’s Meditation Garden, alongside his parents, grandson and most recently his only child, singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Presley, who died Jan. 12 at the age of 54.
Lisa Marie spoke at Graceland just days before her death, at the annual Elvis birthday celebration that takes place on the 5.6 hectare estate every Jan. 8.
The birthday celebration, complete with a huge, multi-layer cake for the fans, always has a special guest on hand to make a speech recalling the life and career of Elvis.
When I visited Graceland, the guest of honour was his former wife Priscilla, who was married to Elvis from 1967 to 1973. While I didn’t get to speak directly with Priscilla that day, my visit to Memphis did bring me in touch with someone who knew the King of Rock ’n’ roll personally — Hal Lansky, the son of the man who sold Elvis many of his outfits and who visited him at Graceland with his dad.
“People can come to Memphis now and shake the hand of people who knew the man who shook the world,” says Lansky, the owner of Lansky Bros.
Clothier to the King store.
“Memphis is like a mecca for Elvis fans. You can walk on the street where Elvis walked, eat where Elvis ate and shop where Elvis shopped.”
Lansky’s father dressed Elvis from the beginning of his stardom, in the early 1950s, until
Lansky’s store, overflowing with stylish, colourful men’s clothing and Elvis memorabilia, is located in the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
When I first saw Lansky, he was busy shaking hands with a lineup of fans and telling a few stories of his personal interactions with Elvis. But what stood out for me upon meeting Lansky, who knew Elvis well, was his shoes — blue suede, of course.
If you plan on walking in Elvis’ steps here’s where to go:
• Beale Street, in downtown Memphis, is where Elvis would go to hear blues and rock ’n’ roll from early morning till late at night. Be sure to stop at the entrance to see the life-size, bronze statue of a young Elvis
at the Elvis Presley Plaza.
• Eat like the king at The Arcade (540 S. Main Street), one of Elvis’s favourite diners serving classic American dishes. His favourite — a classic peanut butter ’n’ banana sandwich is on the menu.
• Sun Studio (706 Union Avenue) is where an 18-year-old Elvis recorded his first song, That’s All Right Mama, in 1954 in just four takes. The studio is the same as it was when Elvis first recorded there. It even has the same old-fashioned, silver microphone that visitors are allowed to pose under a photo taken in 1956 of Elvis at the piano alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
• Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex is a 200,000 sq. ft. attraction, that opened in 2017 across the street from Graceland. It’s the largest and most comprehensive Elvis museum in the world. Here’s where you’ll see his bejewelled jumpsuits, car collection and
private jet, named after his daughter Lisa Marie, to name just a few of his many treasures.
• Tupelo, Elvis’s birthplace, is an hour and a half drive away. The humble, two room “shotgun” house is where Elvis was born on Jan. 8, 1935. It was moved to its present location along with the gospel church the Presleys attended in the 1940s — the Pentecostal Assembly of God Church. The house was built by Elvis’s father and grandfather and had no running water or electricity.
Where to stay:
In Memphis, stay at the Central Station Hotel (545 S. Main St.) in the arts district of downtown Memphis, within blocks of Beale Street, the Memphis Rock ’n’ Roll Soul Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. This is a music lover’s dream, with a listening/lounge where you can make requests to the
in-house DJ, overseeing a record wall of 3,500 vinyl albums.
A popular choice for Elvis fans is The Guest House at Graceland (3600 Elvis Presley Blvd.), a 450-room hotel within steps of Graceland. It was designed to complement the mansion, with its southern Colonial architecture and interior details that take cues from Elvis’ style, from the lobby ceiling inspired by one of Elvis’ capes to theme suites reminiscent of Elvis’s time in Las Vegas and Palm Springs.
Other top Memphis attractions:
The National Civil Rights Museum is at the site where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the historic Lorraine Motel, just a day after giving his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. This is the only museum in the United States providing an overview of the American Civil Rights Movement, from the 17th century to the present. Located on the south edge of downtown Memphis, the museum also encompasses the former boarding house where James Earl Ray is believed to have fired the fatal shot.
STAX Museum of American Soul Music features the music and artifacts of such well known soul singers as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin and Ike & Tina Turner to name a few. But it’s Isaac Hayes, with his custom gold, fur-trimmed Cadillac with a television and built-in refrigerator that can’t help but be a museum stand-out here. Once a small movie theatre turned recording studio, this is where a string of soul music hits were produced, like Mr. Big Stuff by Jean Knight, Soul Finger by The Bar-Keys and I’ll Take You There by the Staple Singers.