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Published: January 29th 2012
The famous Graceland gates, with music note ironwork. Graceland prohibits any distribution of photos from the house, so this is as close as it gets.
Today is my first day in Memphis, Tennessee
The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame may be in Cleveland, but the music was born here.
Before exploring that history, I had to make a call at one of the essential road trip sites. Graceland
is the former home of Elvis Presley
, the first major rock star.
Decades after his death, it still attracts fans by the thousands.
The welcome signs in the ticket building are in a dozen languages.
The place has become unbearably commercialized, but it’s still essential.
If nothing else, the place is one of the few rock star homes (dead or otherwise) open to the public, and Elvis set the pattern for all those that followed.
The house itself is almost unbearably gaudy.
Elvis loved Las Vegas (and Las Vegas still loves him in return) and that style carried over to his house.
The front room is covered in mirrors.
The back room is covered in animal prints, a working waterfall, and African sculpture.
Elvis called this room his “jungle room”, and finished redecorating it only a year before his death.
Fan tributes to Elvis
Fan's can't resist leaving tributes on the wall by the gates. Here are a sample.
Downstairs contains a lounge.
It’s made up in yellow and black leather and mirrors that have to been seen to be believed.
At the back are three TVs, which Elvis used to watch multiple soap operas simultaneously.
Next to the lounge is the pool room, which is done up in patterned cloth, even the ceiling.
The upper floors are closed to tours, so the public does not get to see the bed where Elvis died, reportedly of a drug overdose
The audio guide describes all of this in tones so non-judgmental, it feels like a PR piece.
Make no mistake, this house is a shrine, and the only allowed feelings are admiration and reverence.
Behind the house are several other buildings.
Elvis used one of them as his office.
It is filled with posters, records, and files, now all behind glass.
There is also a gallery of art sent by fans.
Next to this building is the Elvis Museum.
It describes all of the good parts of his career in numbing detail.
He started out playing country music, but then mixed it with the rhythm driven blues he
The Heartbreak Hotel
Graceland is the centerpiece of an Elvis tourist complex. Of course, the hotel would have this name :)
heard in Memphis clubs to create what became rock and roll.
He became wildly popular after that.
Teenagers loved him, and their parents could tolerate him.
He quickly discovered how to use television appearances to bolster his fame.
The displays push the idea that Elvis earned his rep, often playing four or more shows a day.
It should go without saying that the museum does not discuss any of the darker aspects of Elvis’s personality, such as the long history of drug abuse that likely killed him.
The museum has two displays that really try to put Elvis in the best light.
There is an entire wall dedicated to his gold and platinum records
, hundreds of them.
One section discusses an aspect of his career that has been lost in the pop culture noise; Elvis was very generous
to his adopted hometown and donated a lot of money to local youth groups.
In the late 1960s, he won an award from the local Jaycees club, which he then carried on every tour.
The final site on the tour is the meditation garden, a series of statues surrounding a fountain.
The famous Sun Studios in Memphis. Rock and Roll was born here!
Elvis created it soon after buying the house, and considered it his favorite spot on the property.
He, his twin brother who died soon after birth, and his parents, are now buried under it.
Each grave is marked with a bronze plaque.
Elvis’s grave is also marked with an eternal flame, donated by a local fan club.
A sign notes that fans still send flowers to the estate, and they are put on the graves until they become too brittle.
I enjoyed Graceland, but the hucksterism wore on me after a while.
The ticket counter is located in a strip mall, all of which is dedicated to Elvis stuff.
There are five museums, every one of which requires a separate admission.
There are four different Elvis gift shops
There are three Elvis themed restaurants.
There is even an Elvis motorcycle dealership.
If one really wants to, they can buy a picture of themselves in front of the house gates; only the photo is in front of a green screen with the gates added by computer!
I took the main tour, and then wanted to get out
Sun studio soda shop
Restored soda shop where many Sun Records musicians hung out between recording sessions.
After Graceland, I went to see a much more moving piece of Memphis music history, Sun Studios
One of the reasons that Memphis became the center of early rock and roll is that the city contained visionary promoters willing to touch music that nobody had ever heard before.
The most important of these was Sam Phillips
, whose Sun Studios became the most important of all the early rock labels.
The studio is located in an old brick building on a street corner.
It was pretty non-descript in the old days.
Today it’s impossible to miss, thanks to the large guitar statue out front, and the “Famous Sun Studios” mural on the wall.
Much of it is unchanged from its glory days a half century ago, and what had changed has been restored.
The first thing visitors see is a combination of soda fountain and gift shop.
Back in the days, this really was a restaurant (not owned by the studio) where many of the musicians hung out.
The walls are covered with old photos, yellowing newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia.
Founder of the studio, and one of the men without whom rock music probably would not exist
Behind this room is a tiny record shop that sells CDs of the many acts to record here, and actual vinyl records.
This is where the tours start.
The tours are led by knowledgeable guides who clearly love the place.
The first thing people see is a small museum covering the history of the studio.
Sam Phillips started out as a radio station engineer.
He loved blues music, and in his spare time recorded concerts in clubs.
The museum has examples of the equipment he used, which is almost unimaginably primitive and bulky.
Eventually, acts starting asking Sam to record them, and he opened the studio.
Originally, Sam recorded almost any act willing to pay enough.
He had to, to keep the doors open.
He developed a reputation as someone who was generous with his resources, and willing to keep his fees low and extend credit to acts he thought were innovative.
This reputation became very important when a young blues bandleader from Mississippi walked through the door. Ike Turner
may be better known for his domestic violence these days, but he was a
Sam Phillip's office
Sam Phillips used this desk as his office while running Sun Records.
highly innovative musician.
He wrote and played a rhythm heavy version of blues that nobody else was doing at the time.
The records his band recorded at Sun Studio are now considered the most immediate ancestors of rock and roll.
The guide plays some of them, including their first big hit, Rocket 88.
That record’s success convinced Sam Phillips he should open a record label to go along with his studio.
With a label he could capture more of the revenue beyond just recording fees.
Sun Records ultimately became the most successful of the early rock and roll labels, at least creatively.
Financially, it was always teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
The most famous of the acts on the label was, of course, Elvis Presley.
The story of his discovery
is much mythologized.
The oft repeated version is that Elvis first went to Sun in 1953 to record a record as a birthday present for his mother.
The guide points out that his mother’s birthday was some three months before then; Elvis really just used it as an excuse to record for Sam
Sam Phillips recording gear
Sam Phillips used this gear to record live blues shows before opening the studio
Although he later claimed otherwise, Sam wasn’t interested.
Elvis at the time played country music.
His assistant Marion Keisker ultimately persuaded Sam Phillips that Elvis had potential and he should give him another chance.
This time, Elvis brought two of his friends to act as backup.
After two hours, Sam told them things were going badly and they should take a break.
Afterward, the three of them started playing an informal jam, combining country guitar with blues rhythms.
Sam Phillips told them to keep it up and turned on the recorders.
The result was "That's All Right (Mama)", which Sam sent the result to a local blues station, and the rest is history.
Elvis recorded for Sun Studios for three years, until Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA to pay off a large amount of debt.
Elvis was just one of the rock and roll pioneers who recorded for Sun Records. Carl Perkins
is now considered the prototype of all rock guitarists.
He recorded his first hit, Blue Suede Shoes, with Sam Phillips. Jerry Lee Lewis
was not much of a performer in his
Sun recording studio
The recording studio at Sun. The most influecial records in popular music were made in this room.
early days, but he could tear up a piano.
Sam Phillips hired him to be a session musician.
He played on dozens of records before making one of his own.
It became Sun Records most successful seller, Great Balls Of Fire.
It’s rather ironic that the most creatively successful country artist of the era also worked for Sun. Johnny Cash
found Nashville too conservative for the country-folk hybrid he developed.
Sam Phillips was willing to work with him, and he became a star.
The magic lasted until 1960, when Sam Phillips moved his studio to a larger space and renamed it Phillips Recording Service.
That business still exists, but it has been nowhere as influential as Sun Records was.
After the museum, the tour goes to the actual studio.
The building was closed after Sam Phillips moved out, and stayed that way until a group of rock pioneers reopened it to make a reunion album in 1985.
As a result, the entire studio (except the actual audio equipment) is still in the same condition it was during the golden years.
The first room is the size of
The Elvis Microphone
The single most popular artifact at the studio, the actual microphone Elvis used to record his hits.
a closet, where Sam Phillips had his office.
Behind it is a room the size of a small bedroom which is the studio.
It has 1950s style lights hanging from the ceiling, and foam ceiling tiles on the walls to act as sound buffers.
The walls are covered in photos of the acts which recorded here, and the same tiles and lights are visible in many of them.
One corner has a collection of instruments and microphones, used by the current studio.
The spot Elvis stood while recording is marked on the floor.
I held my breath while in this room; the most influential music in American history was made right here.
Tonight, I wanted to experience the Memphis music scene for myself.
This requires even more research than experiencing country in Nashville.
Until the late 1960s, the center of live music in Memphis was downtown’s Beale Street
Both blues and rock and roll were forged here.
Much like lower Broadway in Nashville, things then went into a precipitous decline (accelerated by Memphis’s notorious white flight to the suburbs), until the only thing left
Memphis's famous Beale Street after dark
were tourist bars featuring bad cover bands.
A revival took hold in the middle 1990s, just like in Nashville, but it is nowhere as far along.
Most of the street is still painfully cheesy.
Thankfully, my guidebook did a good job of finding the diamonds in the drek.
First, I needed some dinner.
Memphis is famous for its ribs.
The best ribs downtown is at a restaurant called the Blues Street Café
The place looks like it hasn’t been updated in thirty years.
The food is really good, and messy.
The waitress delivers a packet of handywipes to go with the dinner.
The beer list is pretty extensive.
Be sure to take a look at the flashing neon sign outside, which is straight from the 1950s.
After dinner, I wanted some music.
I found it at a smoky dive bar known for its beer, the Beale Street Tap Room
A blues band was playing in a corner of the room.
Everyone here seemed to know everyone else, including the band.
I enjoyed my time here.
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