When my father would take me to elementary school, we had something of a tradition: We would listen to music to set the mood for the morning. It was through these early morning music sessions that I was first exposed to classical composers such as Vivaldi and Brahms, as well as the guitar magic of Fernando Sor and Enrique Granados. One of the albums that made its way into the mix was Paul Simon’s, Graceland.
The entire album is fantastic, but there was something in the catchy bass hook of “Graceland” that really resonated with me. This was the first time I had ever heard of the place, but I didn’t know what it was. My father informed me that Graceland was the famous residence of none other than the legend himself, Elvis Presley.
Recently, I had a chance to finally follow in the footsteps of the King. Paul’s Simon’s eponymous theme played through the speakers of the rental car on the way there, as it should. The Graceland Museum is right across the street from the mansion itself. It is filled with all manner of Elvis artifacts, ranging from his cars, including the famous Pink Cadillac, some of his Army gear from the time he was drafted, and tributes and various personal possessions. His signature jumpsuits and golden records are also on display, though I wasn’t able to see them this time around. It’s good to have something new to see next time I’m in Memphis, however, since I already want to go there again.
Where I was fascinated, however, was in the mansion itself. Elvis bought the estate when he was just 22 years old, and he lived there for the remainder of his life. He modified the grounds extensively, adding the iconic guitar gates, an outdoor pool, a trophy building, and an indoor racquetball court.
The grounds there are peaceful. Part of me was captivated by the trees on the green in front of the house. I went in with the tour group, just one more pilgrim in the crowd. While luxurious, even decadent in places, I was struck by just how small the house was. Elvis was arguably the first international megastar. Musicians nowadays with a fraction of his star power live in megamansions that could dwarf Graceland. That Elvis chose this place as his main residence, and didn’t have a string of much larger places, is something that’s worth noting.
The Graceland Mansion has been frozen in time from the era when he lived there. His living room with a grand piano and stained glass peacocks, his yellow basement lounge with its three TVs and a (for the time) state-of-the-art RCA sound system, the world-famous Jungle Room with its carved wooden furniture and green shag carpeting on the floor and ceiling — it’s all in the state that Elvis left it.
It’s here that I had my ‘oak tree’ moment (a phenomenon that happens to me often enough at places like this that it really deserves its own blog post). Basically, it’s the dawning realization that the place you’re standing in isn’t a reproduction or facsimile; it’s the very real place where this person lived. This is where they sat down for dinner, spent time with family, took important phone calls, made tough decisions that are now lost to the sands of time — where the quiet moments of their life took place. In Elvis’ case, it’s also the place where he passed away. Heavy stuff, man.
The second floor of the Mansion is roped off. The audio tour, hosted by John Stamos, tells the visitors that the upper floor is kept private. I suspect that’s largely because having people see the place where he died just should not be on display. And, you know, I’m fine with that.
The next day, I went into Memphis proper to see the place where Elvis’ recording career first began its meteoric rise to prominence. Just as I would recommend the tour of Graceland, the same is true of Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock and roll. The likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, and so many others made their careers at Sun Studio.
The space where Elvis recorded “That’s All Right,” his first runaway hit, is right there on the first floor of Sun. You can see the spot where he recorded the single that began his rock stardom. The story goes that Elvis had a fateful recording session with Sam Phillips, Sun’s owner and record producer, one that did not go so well at first. After a few hours, Sam decided to call it quits. The guitar and bass players began putting their instruments away when Elvis started singing “That’s All Right.” Something in it really grabbed Sam’s attention, and he asked Elvis to sing it again. The bass and guitar players pulled their instruments back out and they spent the rest of the night trying to get the song down.
Once they finally had it in the can, Sam sent the record over to the “Red Hot & Blue” radio show hosted by legendary DJ, Dewey Philips. “That’s All Right“ became an instant hit. A few days later, Elvis signed his first recording contract with Sun. His first record came out two weeks later, and so begins Elvis’ path to becoming a fixture in American pop culture. He inspired a generation of artists, and his fame paved the way for many other musical legends. As Buddy Holly put it, “Without Elvis, none of us would have made it.”
Buddy Holly would, in turn, go on to inspire many others, including the Beatles. So, the impact that Elvis has had on music cannot be understated. As an aside, I once knew a lady who had a collection of pristine liquor decanters in the likeness of Elvis, complete with microphones and necklaces gilded with real gold. I mean, that’s a little on the weird side, but how many other musicians are ever enshrined in such a way?
Yet, when I think of Elvis, not the one we see on black velvet but the man himself, I can’t help but feel pity for him, especially in the final years of his life. Increasingly isolated, with most of his musical rights sold, divorced, performing constantly, with years of bad habits taking their toll, he died alone at the age of just 42.
There’s a piano in the lounge adjoining the aforementioned racquetball court. That was the last instrument that Elvis ever played, on the day he died. According to his cousin and member of the Memphis Mafia, Billy Smith, the last songs Elvis sang were “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain“ and “Unchained Melodies,” the latter of which was one of the last live performances he ever gave. Both songs, especially when sung by Elvis, have that poignant, yearning quality to them, which I can only conclude encapsulated his state of mind at the time. Listening to them now is haunting.
I didn’t know this before I arrived at Graceland, but Elvis is actually interred on the grounds, near a fountain in the Meditation Garden. He’s there along with his mother and father. Tragically, his only daughter, Lisa Marie, now lies there in a mausoleum next to her son, Benjamin Keough. It’s difficult to stand there and not be moved, yet the peaceful nature of the grounds I spoke of earlier is a balm to this.
You know, in many ways, I have been on my way to Graceland for a long time, ever since those trips with my father as we zipped down the country roads in his ’72 Datsun pickup truck. Trips like this are transformative in many ways. Where I thought the visit would be for the glitz and glamour of one of America’s brightest stars, I came away with more of a feeling of introspection for having been there, a cause to ask the important questions of life, death, and existence. My trip to the Buddy Holly Museum had a similar effect on me.
Even still, Elvis had a personal mantra in the ’70s, summed up in this logo. Believe me, it is everywhere at the Graceland Museum.
It stands for “Taking Care of Business in a Flash,” or often shortened to simply “Taking Care of Business.” I believe this was Elvis’ way of telling us that time is short, to stay focused on what’s most important, get stuff done with style, and live a life worth remembering.
Not bad advice from the King, really. And considering everything that was going on in my life when I took this trip, they are sentiments I needed to take to heart. So, from me to all of you out there reading this…
Thank you. Thank you very much.