Our second stop in Memphis was to the home of Tennessee's largest tax payer ever: Graceland. Home of Elvis Aaron Presley.
Let me begin by saying I was never a big Elvis fan. By time I came to truly know of him, he was at the stage in his career where he was trying to fit into jump suits a size or two too small for his frame. So the thought of paying $64 per person (if you also want to see his planes), was a tough pill to swallow. After much deliberation, and reading online reviews, we decided in favor of going.
His home sits along Elvis Presley Blvd.
When we pulled into the crowded parking lot --across the street from his actual home-- I immediately realized that "Elvis" has turned into a thriving industry. On the expansive grounds you find museums, gift shops, restaurants, displays, a theater, a Sirius Radio station, cars, motorcycles, planes and.. jump suits.
When it was all said and done, I came away with a new appreciation (and a bit of sympathy) for the man, and his effect on the world.
A poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi born on January 8, 1935, who by happenstance walked into Sun Recording Studio in 1954 to cut a $4 record for his mother.
"He was 19 years old; a good-looking boy with acne on his neck, long sideburns, and long, greasy hair combed in a ducktail that he had to keep patting down. But what struck Sam [Phillips] most was his quality of genuine humility – humility mixed with intense determination. He was, innately, Sam thought, one of the most introverted people who had ever come into the studio, but for that reason one of the bravest, too. He reminded Sam of many of the great early blues singers who had come into his studio" --Peter Guralnick (click here for link to the full article)
And the rest as they say, is history. He rocketed to fame..
And sadly, through the over-use of drugs (or maybe a mis-prescription), flamed out at age 42.
His life unfolds before you as you walk through the exhibits. You learn about his early years:
Elvis at two with his parents, Gladys and Vernon (1937)
Elvis in high school
His graduation program. And of course, his early musical career:
You're then taken through museums housing the things he had accumulated over his brief lifetime.
There are a total of 117 gold, 67 platinum and 27 multi-platinum records and albums (a world record):
Cars (here are just a few of the many Elvis owned):
His iconic patent leather shoes:
And many of his other toys:
Above is a snowmobile he had converted to run on grass.
And Elvis would rarely purchase just one. He would buy a dozen so he could race around his estate with his friends!
And there was the Elvis Air Force. Two planes, one a larger passenger jet (a Corvair 880), which he named the Lisa Marie:
Which he had renovated to meet his eclectic tastes (yes, that's a gold plated bowl):
His private bedroom at the back of the plane.
He also owned a smaller Lockheed Jetstar for his back up singers and road crew:
From the museums, we caught a bus to his estate across the street. Finally we would get to see Graceland. My first impression is very underwhelming. It is a modest house by today's standards. With small awkwardly shaped rooms.
The estate was purchased in 1959 for $102,500. The property came with its famous moniker already in place. When Dr. Thomas Moore and his wife Ruth built the Colonial Revival style mansion in 1939, they named it after Ruth’s Aunt Grace, whose father had owned the land previously used for farming (Elvis added the two concrete lions).
As you step through the front door, you are greeted by a narrow entry way. Facing in this direction, his living room is off to the left and the dining room, to the right.
Oh, interesting tidbit, directly above this entryway is the master bedroom bathroom, where Elvis's body was discovered on that fateful night of August 16, 1977.
The steps in the picture below lead to the second level of the house. It is off limits to almost everyone. Even Presidents have been turned away. The only visitors allowed entrance are Priscilla Presley, Lisa-Marie (his daughter) and Graceland's Curator. The only other person that has seen the upstairs since Elvis's passing is Nicolas Cage (why am I not surprised by this?). Who, when married to Lisa-Marie, was allowed to visit. This took place during the week of the 25th Anniversary of Elvis' death, at which time it is said he sat on the King's "throne", assumed the prone posture in which Elvis died, laid on the singer's bed and tried on a leather jacket. Apparently, everything upstairs is exactly as it was when Elvis passed.
Below is the backroom where Elvis would play the piano for his guests.
His living room with a 15 foot couch.
Elvis's dining room. What's not pictured is the big TV off to the left. Elvis enjoyed watching tv and had one in almost every room of his house.
The Jungle Room, with green shag carpeting on the floor and on the ceiling:
His kitchen where his favorite meal was often prepared: A Peanut Butter, Banana and Bacon sandwich:
His parents downstairs bedroom:
His billiards room, where it took three men 10 days to cut, pleat and hang the nearly 350 yards of fabric. :
After reading that President Lyndon Johnson had three television sets to allow him to watch all three major network news programs at once, Presley took the idea for his media room.
A bar area off of his tv room:
And of course, I had to snap pictures of his iconic front gate; Elvis's first major renovation to his new home:
(Interesting tidbit: "The night of April 29, 1976, Bruce Springsteen performed in Memphis to support his album "Born to Run." Legend has it that sometime after the show while returning to his hotel-he saw lights on at Graceland and decided he wanted to meet Elvis. He jumped the wall and ran up the hill to the mansion, where he was stopped by security guards at the front door. Elvis wasn't home, and Springsteen was politely escorted off the property." )
And in the back of the property lies Elvis's grave. The tourists around me stand in total silence. Some are dabbing the tears from their eyes. It is a very silent and somber experience. His grave is surrounded by his loved ones: His Mother (Gladys), his Father (Vernon), his Grand Mother ( Minnie Mae) and a plaque dedicated to his still-born twin brother (Jesse Garnon Presley).
...And now about Elvis's last performance.
While it is hard to determine with complete accuracy what transpired on the night of August 17, 1977, but we do know that Elvis had returned from a midnight dentist appointment. He was a chronic insomniac. As the night dragged on, he found himself unable to sleep. He called a "doctor" friend, Dr. Nick (George Constantine Nichopoulos) who mixed up a concoction to help him sleep. After downing the pills, he found he still wasn't able to sleep. He called a friend (now around 4am) for a friendly game of racquetball.
His friends indulged him in a few games and afterward they lounged around in the adjacent lounge area. Elvis sat at the piano and sang the last two songs of his life: “Unchained Melody” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
After saying goodnight to his friends, Elvis showered and changed into a pair of comfortable pajamas. He crawled into bed next to his girlfriend Ginger. Still not able to sleep, he reached for a book on the night stand titled: A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank O Adams. A book examining the Shroud of Turin, said to be Jesus’ burial wrapping, from a scientific perspective (rather ironic that he chose this subject on the last night of his life).
His girlfriend Ginger recounted rolling over a while later and seeing Elvis still awake and reading the book. He told her he was going to the bathroom. Then Elvis got up and Ginger rolled over and went back to sleep. She would never see Elvis alive again. They found the book on the floor of the bathroom next to his body.
If you aren't an Elvis fan when you arrive, you probably will be when you leave. This exhibit deepened my appreciation of what one man, with a guitar and a sultry yet vulnerable voice accomplished. He was a deeply humble man that struggled with the question of "why me?" He struggled with his identity and his purpose. Why had God singled him out to become world famous? He had done nothing to deserve this. He was a poor kid from Tupelo trapped in a persona that was larger than life. Larger than his life. And it swallowed him up. A prison he helped create and yet, could not escape.
RIP Elvis Aaron Presley.
(below is the last known photograph of Elvis returning to Graceland. It was taken on the night he died.)