America at Last – Part 12
By Parson Thru
I wasn’t sure about visiting Graceland to begin with. It was on the tourist trail and we were tourists, but… well, I don’t know. I don’t really do stately homes.
For me, Elvis is part nostalgia, part curiosity and part good music. The songs from his phenomenal late ‘60s comeback period belong to the golden dream phase of my childhood where, for all its much-reported problems, the world was a perfect place through innocent eyes and ears. Elvis Presley hype, packaging, movies and music were everyday household consumer products. That said, if we’re all honest, the man could sing with a passion in his voice that few have been able to match.
Graceland is a short mini-bus ride out of Memphis along a busy freeway. I found it hard to get used to there being no ‘s’ on the end - I'd always pronounced it Gracelands. Ignorance peels away like a neglected sticking-plaster.
We were off-loaded into a complex that might have been the entrance to an adventure theme park, except the clientele was a little older. All around the slick ticket hall were retail opportunities for the needy, covering all possible angles. We bought tickets and rode the shuttle-bus across the road.
Swinging in under tall trees, we stepped out in front of what looks like a plantation-owner’s mansion. The white stone façade practically shone in the Southern sun. Broad steps led under an imposing portico to the front door.
As we tramped through Elvis’ home, it dawned that, for all the hype, it wasn’t excessive compared to today’s superstar needs. The house is almost modest. It isn’t secreted among square miles of parkland – it isn’t on its own small Scottish or Caribbean island.
There is a boyish, sociable quality to the rooms. Like the games room and adjacent TV room with three televisions running side-by-side so as not to miss anything – he’d need dozens now. The kitchen was big and open with a breakfast bar and stools. Only the dining room was in any way formal, but even this was cosy and the table surprisingly small for a man who could fill a banqueting hall with guests on demand.
At the foot of the stairs, our gaze was drawn to an imposing crystal chandelier on the landing. In our headphones, Lisa-Marie’s voice recounted how her father would prepare himself carefully, putting on jewellery before leaving the sanctuary of the first floor to greet guests.
As we looked and listened, you felt he might appear on the landing to trot down the stairs in a roustabout half-run.
We passed through rooms exhibiting his stage clothes – the gaudy fringed jump-suits, studded with stones and enclosed with the broadest belts ever known to man. His brash and bling-y gangster-style is said to be respected by contemporary rap stars, also known to have a weakness for large stones.
Beyond the endless gold and platinum discs is a small collection of plaques listing some of the good causes supported by Elvis – mainly local – giving the impression of a man who cared.
I felt that although he oozed mega-persona, energy and presence, Elvis Presley was a private, even nervous person who needed the familiar around him. He never moved far from his roots. Graceland itself isn’t hidden – it sits in full view of the main road.
You get the impression that Elvis was pretty comfortable right here in Memphis. He wasn’t part of the new ‘60s cool – he was portrayed as a clean-living, old fashioned Southern-boy. It left him part revered, part ridiculed by the counter-culture – musicians continued to hold him in high regard.
He set himself against drug-use, offering Nixon his services as a Federal Agent. Yet, the tales persist of his own drink and drug abuse and the damage it may ultimately have inflicted on him.
We filed out through the side garden, converted to a Presley cemetery, then round to stand in front of the house. Here we chilled for a while, taking photos of each other and watching passing traffic through the trees.
The shuttle-bus whisked us out through the gate and we took a walk to see the quietly rotting collection of private jets, including Elvis’ very own Air Force One, named Lisa-Marie. After picking up the obligatory post-cards and fridge-magnets, we dined on Presley’s favourite peanut-butter and banana fudge, finished off with a banana-split.
We picked up a two-CD collection of his music before re-boarding the mini-bus back to Memphis – next stop Sun Studio.
The shiny black bus dropped us in bright afternoon sunshine outside what looked like a small local hairdresser’s shop with Venetian blinds in the windows. The giveaway was a large Gibson blues-man guitar bolted to the wall. A pretty little red 1960s Corvette was parked on the road outside.
This was where Sam Phillips opened his modest recording studio, from where he hauled his heavy mobile equipment to weddings, christenings, and anyone who would pay the small fee. His door was open to any musician who wandered in with a song.
In the early ‘50s, Phillips had a small pool of local talent coming in to play and sing folk, blues, country, gospel and the whole potent mix. One of those was Elvis Presley.
The story goes that Sam wasn’t initially impressed and left his secretary to deal with the young singer while he headed out on another job. The secretary was impressed though, and soon Presley was in the studio recording with Phillips’ house musicians. One of those recordings was “That’s Alright”.
Sun Studio was the jumping off point for other local players, such as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was said to have the best left hand in the world of boogie-woogie piano.
Apparently, Johnny Cash had no drummer in the early days and the studio guide showed us how they recorded percussion for “Walk the Line” by placing a rolled-up dollar bill between the strings and fretboard of a guitar and strumming.
We were led from the café-souvenir-waiting area up narrow stairs to view relics of Rock ‘n’ Roll archaeology. Phillips’ not so portable recording gear, studio equipment looking like it was built by the Aztecs and, sitting forlorn in a glass case, an old guitar amp that looked like it had fallen from a car roof.
Well, it had. When Jackie Brenston and his R&B band were driving to cut their record at Sun in 1951, the amp tumbled off the roof onto the road and tore a gash in the speaker. The paper cone was hurriedly stuffed with newspaper and the ensuing growl is claimed to be the first distorted guitar sound. Brenston’s record, “Rocket 88”, is widely agreed to be the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record. And all in this tiny shop in Memphis? Where else?
We wound back down the stairs and into the legendary Sun recording booth. A period mic stands close to an ‘X’ on the floor – pointed out by Sam Phillips as the exact spot where Elvis stood to record “That’s Alright”. The mic was returned to the studio by Phillips, who claimed it was the one used in the session. Is it sad that we posed behind it for photos? The mic flops over on its stand and has to be held in place these days. None of us are getting any younger.
Another myth dispelled for me was that this building had been demolished and rebuilt just for tourists like us. Not so. This is the original room in which Presley, Howlin’ Wolf , Roy Orbison and all the rest cut their very first hit records.
The studio closed and became a shop for a number of years but, amazingly, the fixtures were left intact. Sam died in 2003, and the Phillips family had moved the operation to larger premises a few blocks away, but bands have recently begun recording here again – what an inspirational space.
Although its main role now is tourism, a jumble of mic stands and a drum kit stood waiting at one end of the room for the evening recording session.
That night, we hit Beale Street a final time. The blues bars were as busy as ever and we wandered into Handy’s where a trio were shaking the joint. I never did ask the bar-staff about the significance of a large pot fish on the back wall of the stage.
In front of the fish the singer was laying it down, blending blues and R&B styles on a white Strat. The drummer was right on the money, and in one corner prowled a tall, dark-haired and undeniably pretty girl on bass. She knew her moves, and the whole combo ground out the bluesiest sound, like don’t think I have ever heard back home.
Memphis can have an edgy feel to it but, on the flip side, walking down the city streets is like walking to the newsagent on a Sunday in my mother’s York suburb. Strangers say hello and ask how you are. Cars wait at junctions to let you step off the kerb and cross. More than once we confused drivers by not trusting them.
The story was piecing together of how this impoverished region had supplied the most exciting cultural phenomenon in modern times from its volatile mix of musical styles. And Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio was in exactly the right place at the right time to capture it.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, we were standing right there where it all happened.