You could easily devote your entire time in Memphis to walking in Elvis Presley’s footsteps, whether it be shopping at his clothier of choice, Lansky’s, or chomping down on fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches at Arcade Restaurant. (You can even sit in his favourite booth.) A Memphis unmissable is a visit to the surprisingly pokey quarters of Sun Studio. Owned and operated by Sam Phillips, he was on the hunt for fresh talent and invited Elvis along for an audition in 1954.
After recording “That’s All Right,” several nights later that local legendary Dewey Phillips, who would famously smash records on the floor if he thought they were a dud, played the song and it instantly triggered a flood of requests for the song to be replayed. Relentlessly. Within days, the astonishing career of the young man who would be King was born. Still operating as a recording studio, mainly at night, throughout the day a steady stream of small group 60-minute guided tours whisk you through the site.
An early highlight in the exhibition gallery is the recreation of the radio studio where Dewey Phillips held court. After playing “That’s All Right” endlessly, it’s from where Elvis was interviewed on-air, later that night. Descending down into the storied recording studio, the old floor tiles were all aglow from the original ceiling lights. Our guide vividly explained how an impromptu jam session took place in the studio in December, 1964. Dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis all happened to be in the studio at the same time, and the piano by the wall was the one Elvis famously played that evening.
We all got the chance to grab a selfie brandishing the original Shure 55 microphone used by Elvis and other legends. Strips of tape on the floor mark the spot where Elvis would stand. Our guide remarked that Bob Dylan was so overcome when he visited Sun that he dropped down and kissed that very spot. It was absolute thrill to stand in this revered space that has spawned so many smash-hits from a galaxy of stars, including Elvis, BB King, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. More recent artists to record at Sun include U2 and Bonnie Raitt. The Jonas Brothers have just been recording there in the past month. It’s a compelling encounter with one of music’s greatest shrines. www.sunstudio.com
But celebrity-inspired pilgrimages don’t get much grander than venturing to Graceland in South Memphis. Just over a year ago, dove-tailing with the 40th anniversary of the King’s death, Graceland’s NZ$70 million expansion project was finally completed. Directly across the road from the famed mansion, the new 40-acre complex of museums, shops and restaurants, called Elvis Presley’s Memphis, has accentuated the entire experience, without turning it into a glorified theme park. It’s a riveting walk-through Presley’s life story, from humble beginnings to mega-stardom.
Personally overseen by Lisa-Marie Presley, who is also sole owner of the Graceland mansion, the 200,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art complex features the largest Elvis museum in the world: Elvis The Entertainer Career Museum. Hundreds of iconic items are stirringly displayed, including his collection of gold and platinum records, movie memorabilia and those rhinestone-studded jumpsuits. The Elvis in the Army exhibition is also very popular. Only 10% of the stash of the Graceland Archives is displayed at any one time. The entire collection consists of over 50,000 photographs, 3,000 textiles, thousands of documents and a warehouse-load of furniture, musical instruments and awards.
At Presley Motors, I jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with over 20 of his showy cars, including the iconic Pink Cadillac, a 1975 Dino Ferrari, 1973 Stutz Blackhawk, not to mention his trove of gleaming motorbikes. The new facility also features two themed restaurants named in honour of his parents. Wrap your laughing gear around some grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches at Gladys’ Diner, while Vernon’s Smokehouse is a salute to classic Memphis BBQ, smoked in-house. Adjoining the new complex are two custom airplanes designed for Elvis, the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II.
But the it’s the Graceland Mansion that beckons as the piece de resistance, twinkling at the top of bucket-lists the world over. I joined a guided tour, whereby you’re shuttled by bus across the road from the entertainment complex into the 14-acre grounds of Graceland Mansion, bracketed in lush gardens. Standing at the front door of the house that Elvis purchased in 1957 for $102,000, goggle-eyed, a frisson of excitement rushed over me. Shortly after purchasing the property, he spent $500,000 installing the pink Alabama fieldstone wall surrounding the estate and those gorgeous wrought-iron gates, shaped like sheet music. Armed with an interactive iPad, with on-demand commentary, our wander through the mansion began in the entrance hall, adjoined by the living room, dining room, his mother’s bedroom and the sweeping white staircase. The décor is distinctly retro, circa late 1960s-early 1970s.
Graceland. (Photo: Mike Yardley)
Leading to the second floor of the house and Elvis’ bedroom and bathroom, it’s firmly off-limits to visitors. Supposedly it has been untouched since his death and is only seen by family members. Wandering through Elvis’ expansive dark-wooded kitchen, we then headed downstairs to the TV room and pool room. I loved the TV room, with three built-in television sets on the south wall, which Presley would famously watch all at once. The west wall is painted with Elvis' 1970s logo of a lightning bolt and cloud with the initials TCB, for 'taking care of business in a flash.' As a passionate billiards player, he bought the pool table in 1960 and during one of his numerous renovation projects, he covered the pool room walls and ceiling in pleated cotton fabric in 1974.
Reading many stories before my visit, Graceland is routinely derided as a décor disaster; tacky, garish and kitschy. I couldn’t disagree me more. It’s certainly an eyeful and screams 1970s, but it also exudes a distinctive sense of warmth and personality. The fabled Jungle Room, with its carpeted green ceiling, exotically carved wood and Polynesian vibe was one of Elvis’ final renovation projects. It pays homage to his love-affair with Hawaii and the room was a family-favourite. We also sauntered through Vernon’s Office, where a tsunami of fan mail constantly flooded Graceland, before taking in the recently enhanced Trophy Building.
Freshly updated, the room is so poignant, brimming with thoughtfully presented insights on family life, from Elvis and Priscilla's wedding attire, to Lisa's childhood toys – and even Elvis' keys to Graceland. The King was a resolute supporter of the police and law enforcement agencies, from all over the world would send him badges, which are displayed here, as well as furniture from Graceland's "red period."
Also recently restored to its 1977 condition is Elvis’ racquetball court, which he installed and loved nearly as much as his kidney-shaped swimming pool, overlooking the Meditation Garden, where the King would often retreat to reflect. It is fittingly the final and most emotional stop on the Graceland tour, because its where the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll now rests, buried alongside his parents and grandmother. A small stone memorialises Elvis' twin brother, who died at birth. It’s profoundly moving. Sporadic sobs filled the air as we paid our respects, before farewelling this truly wondrous estate. www.graceland.com
Just down the road from Graceland, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, Marlowe’s Ribs & Restaurant has been a local institution since 1974 when Tony Gigliotti first opened the business. Still operated by the same family, it’s packed with Elvis memorabilia and serves championship BBQ. Elvis bought a pink Cadillac for his mother with his first royalty check, so the Gigliotti’s followed suit. In fact they now have seven pink limousines, providing free transport for diners from all Graceland-area hotels. Rumour has it that Elvis used to dine here, disguised as a cop. It’s a must-try.
I stayed at the brand spanking Holiday Inn Express Elvis Presley Boulevard, which boasts a complimentary breakfast, spacious accommodations, and restorative outdoor swimming pool. A god-send in the blazing Memphis heat! Wherever you choose to stay in Memphis, lock in your accommodation through www.Hotels.com, which is packed with sizzling deals. Hotels.com Rewards gives you one free night after 10 nights booked– which you can store up. Rewards members and mobile app users also enjoy exclusive access to Secret Prices. Booking a perfect hotel on the go? I found the Hotels.com mobile app to be fast, simple and secure.
Air New Zealand will start operating non-stop services between from Auckland and Chicago flying up to three times a week from 30 November 2018. One way Economy fares start from $1,019 (including taxes). Fares are also available via Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston with onward connections to Chicago on partner airlines. Visit www.airnewzealand.co.nz to book or for more details.