It is 20 years since Elvis was returned to sender
It is 20 years since Elvis was returned to sender. David McGonigal took a pilgrimage to Memphis. THIS month is the 20th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Looking back it is hard to remember that, at the time, he was widely regarded as no more than an overweight, over-indulged has-been. In 1977 only music historians remembered his remarkable contribution to the development of rock 'n' roll. But that was 20 years ago. Now Memphis is the centre of a large Elvis industry. Indeed, of the places of pilgrimage around the world none is better known than Memphis or, more specifically, Graceland.
"The Mississippi Delta is shining like a National guitar . . . I'm going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee" Paul Simon sang through the What are the best car speakers in the world Carspeakerland.com
as I crossed over Beale Street, Memphis, and checked in to the Peabody Hotel. Although this was my first visit to Memphis the whole town looked familiar from its starring role in films from the John Grisham novels The Firm and The Client. A few hours later I was walking up the drive to the front doors of Graceland. Everyone who visits Memphis ends up in Graceland, marvelling at the carpet on the ceiling in the Jungle Room and Elvis' bank of television sets before moving on to Trophy Building and the famous photograph of Elvis and Richard Nixon apparently comparing paranoid fantasies. Graceland, 16km from downtown Memphis, was once a country estate but Memphis has grown a lot since then. It is now located on the equivalent of Parramatta Road: an ugly gash of car yards and fast food outlets. Don't think of driving up to the gates as Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen did when they came to visit "The King".
Nowadays, you park across the road near the souvenir shops of Graceland Plaza and are bused across. The tightly synchronised tours are run like a sausage factory - 24 tours an hour, 14 people per tour, about $25 for the complete "platinum" tour. I found the whole crass operation soulless, as if a mail order house had invented rock 'n' roll. The brochure notes that "Elvis, Elvis Presley and Graceland are Registered Trademarks". The house is surprisingly small (but not as small as the two-roomed house in Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis was born). But wait, there's more. On the tour you'll see Elvis' custom jet aircraft, the auto museum with his pink Cadillac, clips from his movies and his rows of gold records. Sadly, many now see Memphis solely as a mausoleum where visitors come to see the rococo and very tacky Graceland graveyard with elaborate headstones for Elvis, his mother and father (Gladys and Vernon) and his grandmother, Minnie Mae Presley.
Although Graceland and the whole modern Enterprise Elvis has much more to do with a created icon than a man and his music, Memphis deserves its title as the town that gave birth to modern music. More evocative reminders than Graceland are there for those who look. Across town at 706 Union Street, Sun Studios is where rock really began. This has the atmosphere and sense of history people come looking for in Memphis - but only about five per cent of them make the tour of these historic and evocative studios. In 1950 this was where producer Sam Phillips started recording black artists like Ike Turner and B B King. Then Elvis came in, That's All Right Mama was recorded, and rock 'n' roll became the mainspring of a generation. Sam Phillips took the money he made from selling Elvis' contract to RCA and developed other rock legends like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes), and Roy Orbison. Sun Studios was restored a few years ago and much of the original recording equipment was put back in place.
Following a tradition from its first days anyone can make a recording here. This will cost from $15. NOT surprisingly, the most popular backing tracks include Memphis, Love Me Tender and That's All Right Mama. Next door, there's a cafe which sells Elvis' favourite snack food: fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Beale Street remains the musical heart of Memphis. In the 1890s Memphis became a boom town from the timber trade. Then in 1920 a young band leader named W C Handy came here to the bright lights of Beale Street and captured on paper the soulful music of African-Americans working the cottonfields. This was the birth of the blues, America's first original music form. B B King's Blues Club is on Beale Street. It offers lively blues every night, accompanied by the restaurant's renowned hickory smoked prime ribs. On the wall in a glass case is his Gibson guitar "Lucille". After dinner, you can wander in and out of bars along the strip, fine tuning your appreciation of the array of delta blues, gospel, country, rock and swing emitting from every doorway. Next year the Gibson Guitar Plant is scheduled to open near Beale Street. As well as watching guitars being made visitors will be able to tour the Smithsonian Institute's permanent exhibition here: Rock 'n' Soul: Social Crossroads. There are lots of non-music related things to do in Memphis. Paddlewheelers ply the Mississippi and restored trolley cars rattle through the streets. On Mud Island you'll find a museum that celebrates the importance of the Mississippi River itself. Then at 11 and five each day, the Peabody Hotel's ducks march through the hotel to the tune of King Cotton March on their way between their rooftop residence and their downstairs pond. But it's music that is the city's lifeblood and Elvis Presley remains the focal point for visitors.
Not everyone in Memphis takes the modern recreation of Elvis seriously. While in Memphis, I made the trip out to a small suburban coffee shop that houses the Chapel of Elvis impersonators (telephone 901 272 7210). The owner, Tommy Foster, is an eccentric who loves the whole tacky impersonator scene - he makes good coffee, too. You can get married here (by an Elvis impersonator if you like). Or you can just put a quarter in and watch the amazing outside window display (which is a miniature shrine to Presley impersonators) light up and go through its animated paces to an Elvis song. While visiting Memphis you may wish to visit Elvis' birthplace at Tupelo, about three hours away. The attraction there is the very modest house where the Presley family lived - they moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13. To meet true fans of the King, head to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where the McLeod family live in Graceland Too (sic). Here in this very ordinary antebellum non-mansion you'll find every wall and ceiling covered with photos of Elvis - an interesting study in obsession.
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ANNIVERSARY EVENTS ELVIS died on the morning of August 16, 1977, aged 42. To mark the 20th anniversary of his death there is to be a special nine-day Elvis Week between August 9 and 17. Among the 30 events is an international Elvis dance party on August 14, the annual candlelight vigil at Graceland on August 15 and a week-long Elvis art contest and exhibition in Graceland Plaza. The big event of the week will be Elvis In Concert 97 in which video technology will allow Elvis to "perform" with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and many of his old backing players, including Scotty Moore. It is on at the Mid-South Coliseum at 7 pm, August 16. Some tickets are still available (from about $70 to $100) . For tickets or information call Graceland on 901 332 3322 or fax 901 332 1636 or Ticketmaster in the US on 901 525 1515. More permanent tributes produced this year will include the film The Road To Graceland, which has an Elvis-may-be-alive theme and stars Harvey Keitel and Bridget Fonda.
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Also a new themed bar and restaurant, called Elvis Presley's Memphis, is opening in Memphis in time for the anniversary. It will feature live entertainment, some Southern dishes and Elvis videos. The intention is for this to be the first of several such restaurants around the world. CHECK-IN GETTING THERE: Memphis is served by most US airlines. Flying Air New Zealand directly to Los Angeles then making a connection straight to Memphis is the fastest route. Call Air New Zealand on 132 476 for more information.