Because Manny and I are on a musical odyssey, of course we wanted to explore the Elvis phenomenon. I must admit, I was never an Elvis fan. After all, his rise to fame began in 1955 when I was 7, a little too young to appreciate his gyrating hips and outrageous new style. I wish I had seen the Milton Berle show in 1956 when Elvis’s flamboyance caused such controversy that in his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show the following year, he was shown only from the waist up.
It began for us —and Elvis— in Tupelo, Mississippi. We visited the tiny two-room shot gun home where Gladys and Vernon Presley raised Elvis, their only living son, born in 1935. Although the family was very poor, Elvis never did without. Unlike many artists that live tortured childhoods, Elvis was surrounded by tremendous love and affection.
Probably the most auspicious day in Elvis’s life came on his 10th birthday, when Gladys took him into the Tupelo Hardware Company to pick out his gift. The old fashioned hardware store hasn’t changed much, and the moment Manny and I entered, we felt like we were back in 1945. Wooden floors and glass cases displayed everything from fishing hooks to cast iron cookware.
A charming woman named Connie greeted us and told us the “birthday present story”. Apparently, Elvis’s first choice was a bicycle, and his second choice a rifle. Lucky for us, the Presleys couldn’t afford a bike and Gladys wouldn’t let him buy the gun. It’s fortunate too that the Tupelo Hardware Store also sold guitars, and that Forrest Bobo, a salesman that was a friend of the family, was quick on his feet and distracted Elvis handing him one.
After that, Elvis was seldom seen without his guitar. Although he never took music lessons and never learned to read music, Elvis said he learned by watching his uncles play, and was mentored by Mississippi Slim, who ran the local Tupelo radio show.
Here is the Tupelo Hardware Company birthday present story, as Connie told it to us:
Connie’s enthusiasm for Elvis was contagious, and by the time we left Tupelo Hardware, I was intrigued by the allure Elvis still conjures. I was also a little sorry I hadn’t paid more attention to Elvis as he ascended to fame. Too young to appreciate the young Elvis and too busy with college and career when Elvis peaked in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I felt like I had missed out on one of the world’s great artists, a man who changed music forever.
Wandering around town, Manny and I noticed some advertisements for the upcoming Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in Tupelo the first weekend in June. Hopefully, this would be an opportunity to experience the magic of Elvis.
The Tupelo Bancorp Arena was packed with fans. We watched in awe as Elvis after Elvis hit the stage. By the way, we learned that they prefer to be called Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs), not Impersonators. These ETAs love Elvis, have studied him and know his moves, his mannerisms, the way he caressed the microphone, how he talked to the band accompanying him and how he flirted with the audience. There were young Elvises and old Elvises, fat ones and slim ones.
All the Elvis periods were represented. A couple of ETAs chose the early years, when those loose pants flapped wildly as Elvis gyrated his hips, another picked the cowboy Elvis, and one ETA wore the black leather outfit Elvis favored for his comeback in 1968 after a ten year movie career with few live performances. But the era most represented at the ETA event was the Las Vegas years in the early seventies, when Elvis chose to shun the typical tuxedo worn by most performers and became known for his white one-piece, jewel-studded, comfortable jumpsuits.
Although the crowd at the Bancorp Arena was a bit more subdued and no screaming women had to be ripped from the stage, the atmosphere was electrifying. I found myself joining many other women recapturing our youth, dancing in place to that glorious Rock and Roll. I closed my eyes and I was in 1956, 1968 and 1972. For two hours, we watched 15 guys walk on stage and become Elvis. And that’s when I became a fan.
Check out our video of the competition and see if you too catch the Elvis fever.
Originally, I didn’t care about seeing Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. But after the ETA competition, I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted to know more about the man, the legend that so many loved and who tragically died much too soon.
We were lucky enough to find the Graceland RV Park and Campground on Lonely Street, off Elvis Presley Blvd, directly behind the Heartbreak Hotel, which was right across the street from Graceland. About 20 minutes from the renowned Beale Street in downtown Memphis, the park had one huge convenience. Sun Studio offers an hourly free shuttle that runs until 6:00 pm that picks up from the Heartbreak Hotel and takes you to Sun Studio, The Rock and Soul Museum downtown, or Graceland. The Heartbreak Hotel has return shuttles that run from downtown hourly until 11:30 PM on the weekends for a mere $5.00 per person.
We decided to take the Sun Studio tour and see where the Elvis legend began. We walked into the Heartbreak Hotel and stepped back in time. Manny and I sat on the glitzy velour vintage sofas and chairs, watched Elvis movies on an old wooden console television, and gazed at Elvis posters that decorated the lobby while we waited for the shuttle.
When I inquired about the hotel, I found out that it came from the song Heartbreak Hotel. The song was inspired by a newspaper article about a man who committed suicide, leaving behind a note that said “I walk a lonely street”. One of the composers of the song added a hotel at the end of that lonely street and Elvis’s first million selling record —and a hotel— were born.
Everywhere we turned that day, Elvis was present. On our ride to the studio, we were entertained by more Elvis movies shown on the shuttle’s monitor. One of the passengers, a gentleman from England, even looked like an ETA.
On the guided tour of the Sun Studio that Manny and I took, our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, Curry Weber, regaled us with stories of Elvis’s fateful first visit and the success that followed.
Some say Elvis stopped in to cut a record for his mom’s birthday; others say he wanted a chance to audition. Whichever story is true is of little consequence, as the producer Sam Phillips wasn’t there that day. But lucky for Elvis, Marion Keisker —Sam’s secretary and right hand person— was. She recorded the two songs, collected his $3.98, and cut his vinyl. But more importantly, she also switched on a tape recorder and made a copy to play for Sam. She was impressed with what she heard and wrote down Elvis’s name and number. Although Sam wouldn’t take the time to listen to the demo, Marion was persistent. About a year later, when Sam needed a ballad singer, she suggested calling the cute kid with the long sideburns. Curry told us that Elvis was through the door before Marion even hung up the phone.
But the recording session went poorly. Sam was always looking for the unusual, and Elvis just wasn’t showing him that. A little annoyed and frustrated, Sam walked into the back. Elvis picked up a guitar and started messing around singing a hyped up, highly charged version of “That’s All Right, Mama”. Sam liked what he heard and had him do it again and again.
And that’s how it all started.
The Sun Studio tour made Elvis and his contribution to music more real for us.
I got a tear in my eye when Curry, our tour guide, showed us where Elvis recorded his first hit, telling us that artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have made pilgrimages to Sun Studio, and have bent down on their hands and knees to kiss that spot, marked by an X on the floor. Curry even allowed time for photo ops, each person on the tour given the opportunity to hold the microphone that Elvis used.
We are glad that we left Graceland for the very end of our stay in Memphis, where we originally had planned to stay for two days, and ended up extending our stay to five. Elvis has fans from all over the world. There were people from Australia and England and as far away as Japan on the shuttle. The crowd was quiet as we drove through the music motif wrought iron gates up to the colonial style mansion that Elvis bought for his parents in 1957.
An audio self-guided tour is provided as you enter, and you are allowed to go through the first floor at your own pace. Along with a professional narrator, Lisa Marie —Elvis’s only child— often relates sweet, intimate anecdotes of life with her famous father. Apparently, Elvis was incredibly generous. It is said that he often paid the debts his friends and gave away Cadillacs like other people dole out candy.
The modest mansion on 13 acres now houses all the accolades Elvis accrued during his short life. A stroll through the Hall of Gold, an 80ft hallway lined with all of Elvis’s gold and platinum records is overwhelming. To this day, with over a billion sales, Elvis still holds the record for most audio recordings sold.
Elvis’s movie career was chronicled in videos, posters, and the costumes he wore. You can experience his happiness when he married Priscilla, and when Lisa Marie was born.
But the most touching part of the tour is at the end, when you are led to the Meditation Garden that Elvis had built in 1964, a place he enjoyed for peaceful contemplation. The entire Presley family is buried here: Elvis, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon and his grandmother Minnie Mae. There is even a marker for Elvis’s still-born twin brother Jesse Garon, who remains buried in Tupelo.
As we stood by the fountain pool, all of the feelings I had been experiencing welled up and I was overcome with a sense of loss for a man who not only changed the course of music history, but was a kind, sweet and generous soul.
Join us in this video of a photographic tour of the place Elvis Presley called home until his death in 1977: