Of all the stories my Southern belle grandmother has told me of her youth, only one really stands out. And that is the day she locked eyes with Elvis Presley.
When I ask her about it, a smile creeps across her face, and in her sweet Southern lilt she tells me the story. “I was maybe 17, visiting a friend in Memphis, and for fun we drove past Graceland in my old Chevy. Well, there he was! He was leaving Graceland in his big Cadillac just as we drove by. There were maybe 40 girls lined up along the fence, hollering and screaming, but he waved at me! I nearly died.”
My grandparents grew up in Tennessee, and though that’s not where Elvis was born, he grew up and spent most of his life in Memphis. “He was a real local,” my grandfather assures me, “a Memphis man through and through. A local boy who made it big and put our podunk town on the map.”
And what a podunk town it was. My grandparents grew up in Sharon, a farming community just outside of Memphis, home to around 1000 people. My grandparents met when they were in kindergarten, and started dating in high school. For them and their little Tennessee town, seeing Elvis succeed was a big deal.
I’ve been to Graceland, Elvis’s estate-turned-ode-to-the-King, three times now. The first time, I went with my sister, the second time I went with a friend and this time, I went with my great-aunt to pop her Graceland cherry.
Graceland sits on a tightly secured 1.4-acre estate. High, black fences separate the sprawling lawns that lead to the front stoop of Elvis’ white, Southern mansion from the street. Four guards patrol the perimeter, another sits in a booth that operates the boom gate. To get to the museum, you have to catch a shuttle bus from the reception and gift shops (plural) .
This seems like overkill, but the annual pilgrimage to Graceland that takes place on Elvis’ death date every year was only ten days before, and had drawn over 35 000 visitors.
In front of me on the Graceland shuttle bus is a Dutch woman who had to attend a wedding in New York and was only able to make it down to Graceland now. She told me she had been in love with Elvis ever since she first heard him sing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in 1955. Behind me sat a couple from Louisiana who had also missed out on the anniversary. When the bus pulled up to the mansion, the wife let out a sharp gasp and literally began trembling with excitement.
“Elvis’ home is almost exactly as it was since his tragic death in 1977,” the audio guide explains to me. As you enter the house, on your right is ‘The Piano Room’, complete with gaudy stained glass and a white shag carpet.
On your left is a dining room with curtains that may have been made from pairs of Elvis’ infamous blue- and gold-trimmed pants.
In a rather scathing biography of the King, Albert Goldman noted that “it cost a lot of money to fill up Graceland with things that appealed to Elvis Presley, but nothing in the house is worth a dime.” Though a cruel sentiment, it is difficult to defend Presley’s aesthetic choices, even accounting for their 40-year vintage. His living room, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Jungle Room’, is carpeted with evergreen shag and includes mohair-upholstered tiki furniture as well as a healthy amount of fake foliage and various figurines of disparate cultures and religions.
While this all sounds trendy enough — Goodgod, I’m looking at you — it simply isn’t. There is nothing ironic about the way he chose to decorate his house. Overlooking the tiki room is the kitchen. It’s modestly sized with elaborate wooden cabinetry and red, vaguely art deco carpet. “And on your left is Elvis’s Kitchen. This is where the Graceland chef would prepare Elvis’ favourite meal, the fool’s gold sandwich. It was made from one loaf of white bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of grape jelly and a pound of bacon. He ate this everyday, sometimes twice a day.” The girl behind me made an audible gagging sound.
The tour route makes its way through the basement of the house and emerges in the backyard, where a large section of the house has been converted into a shrine-like museum. His collection of platinum and gold records fill a corridor, and around the corner glass cases are crammed with all sorts of memorabilia: posters from Elvis’ various film appearances, pictures of him performing across the decades, costumes, tour merchandise, and news clippings. A large section of the museum is dedicated to documenting his acts of charity in the Memphis area. A poster tells me that he donated millions of dollars to various Memphis charities and regularly helped local projects with fundraising.
My grandfather remembers Elvis like a god. Unlike my grandmother, he never had the occasion to see him in person, but he will happily list the number of ways that Elvis helped to improve the prospects of Memphis, including donating football equipment to local schools, and fixing up shopping centres.
As we finish the audio tour in front of Elvis’ gravestone, we are invited to look across Graceland. “Elvis often said that owning his own home was truly his greatest accomplishment. Elvis died on August 16, 1977 and is buried here at Graceland.”
He died at the age of 44 of heart failure. My grandparents had moved to Chicago by then but said that they still remember hearing about it on the radio. They had left Tennessee to pursue better jobs and better schools for their children, eventually even buying a big house in the suburbs. “I had loved his music, and when I was in high school I had really admired him because he was a Memphis boy through and through that became king of the world,” my grandfather told me later.
My aunt and I move out of the way for the Louisiana couple from the shuttle bus to take a photo in front of Elvis’ grave. The wife is sobbing uncontrollably, and she is not the only one. In the queue behind them there are four or five other people – men and women – shedding tears for Elvis, throwing plastic roses onto his grave.
As the couple walk back to the shuttle bus, the wife manages to add in her thick Louisiana drawl, “He was so young! He was so beautiful! So kind! Why did the Lord take such a beautiful soul from us so young?”