Zoey Goto explores the city that made a legend out of Elvis Presley

Memphis is the city that introduced young Elvis Presley to African American music – via the bustling juke joints of Beale Street and buoyant gospel church services – which he then blended with country music to create the trailblazing sound of rock and roll in the mid-50s.

It's also the city that lifted Elvis from rags to riches, upgrading his low-income housing to a palatial Graceland mansion in just a few short, sweet years. Memphis made Elvis, and he repaid it by faithfully staying rooted to the city for his entire adult life.

I am here in Elvis' hometown to celebrate what would have been his 85th birthday and to try to understand why his appeal is still so great that Graceland remains the second most visited private home in the United States, pipped to the post only by The White House.

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Elvis grew up just across the border in Tupelo, where he lived until he was 13, when his parents decided to try their luck in a new town.

Within a year of arriving in Memphis, the Presleys had set up home in a two-bedroom apartment in the public housing development Lauderdale Courts. Elvis took full advantage of having Memphis on his doorstep, listening to the latest records at the neighbouring Pop Tunes store, admiring the sounds and style of the blues musicians on Beale Street and swinging by at Sun Studios, hoping to catch a break.

Thankfully Lauderdale Courts was saved from the wrecking ball in the mid-90s, and Elvis fans can now stay in the renovated apartment, sleeping overnight in Elvis' teenage bedroom, where fans decorate the walls with fuchsia lipstick kisses.

Memphis' Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley cut his first hit, That's All Right in 1954. Photo / Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau
Memphis' Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley cut his first hit, That's All Right in 1954. Photo / Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau

Following a peanut butter and banana sandwich in Elvis' favourite diner, the Arcade (arcaderestaurant.com), I stroll over to Sun Studios. This historic recording studio launched the careers of legends such as B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course Elvis, who cut his first hit, That's All Right, here in 1954. Nowadays, hip and knowledgeable young musicians lead the tours, guiding you through Sun's impressive musical history. The Sun tour culminates with a photo-op with Elvis' original chrome microphone.

Blinking into the sun, I venture out on to the sidewalk and spot the vintage Backbeat tour bus. Guitar slung over her shoulder, tour guide and musician Kathryn Brawley waves me on to the bus, and treats us to a high-energy, all-singing tour of Elvis' Memphis. Crowd participation is encouraged, and the busload of tourists are soon singing along merrily and shaking tambourines with wild abandon.

Street art in Memphis. Photo / Supplied
Street art in Memphis. Photo / Supplied

Between lively renditions of Love Me Tender and Hound Dog, drive-by hotspots include Elvis' high school, the Overton Park Shell amphitheatre where he performed his first big show in 1954 (he was so nervous he kept shaking his leg, which soon became his trademark move), and his former girlfriend Anita Wood's house, which currently has a large rental sign out on the lawn.

"There was a rebellious spirit in Elvis that people still connect to," Kathryn observes. "And they come to Memphis because he spent most of his life here, so there's just so much Elvis history."

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The duck march at the Peabody Hotel, Memphis, lead by Duckmaster Doug Weatherford. Photo / Supplied
The duck march at the Peabody Hotel, Memphis, lead by Duckmaster Doug Weatherford. Photo / Supplied

I jump off the bus outside The Peabody, a grand dame hotel that has been a Memphis icon since opening in 1869. It's early evening, so I grab a spot next to the red carpet in the lobby, just in time for a line of ducks to waddle past me on their twice-daily procession through the hotel. The acclaimed Peabody ducks spend their days swimming around the fountain in the lobby and their nights cooped up in a plush duck-palace on the roof, rumoured to have cost almost a quarter of a million dollars.

Elvis signed his 1955 contract with RCA in the old world grandeur of The Peabody and in the hotel lobby you'll also find his favourite tailoring house, Lansky Bros. I'm greeted at the door by Hal Lansky, second-generation owner of the historic menswear store, which specialises in cool updates of Elvis' mid-century style.

A Memphis native, Hal has many fond memories of Elvis growing up. "You can touch the shoulder that Elvis touched," he laughs, pointing to a framed photo of Elvis resting his hand on Hal's shoulder. "People come to Memphis to walk the streets that Elvis walked. They can still come here and meet the musicians who played with him, the original people who knew him. Sadly, in a few years time, that won't be the case."

At daybreak the next morning, I find myself in a crowd of hundreds of fans, who have gathered outside Graceland to pay their birthday respects to The King. "As soon as I saw the house, I started to cry," confides Dawn Conners, 47, a first-time Graceland visitor and long-term Elvis fan from Philadelphia.

Fans outside Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley. Photo / Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau
Fans outside Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley. Photo / Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau

After cake-cutting and a speech from Elvis' former wife, Priscilla, we tour the fantastic home, past the green shag-pile ceiling and fake waterfall of the notorious Jungle Room, through to the peaceful meditation garden, where Elvis was buried.

At the grave I strike up a conversation with Nathan Mowery, a 28-year-old film producer who is visiting Graceland with a group of wrestlers he is making a documentary about. Nathan arrived in Memphis knowing very little of Elvis, but is leaving a fan. "It's cool seeing all his furniture and flamboyant outfits. As a creative person myself, I've found being here at Graceland really inspiring".

Perhaps that's the key to the enduring attraction – it's not just poor boys and pilgrims, as Paul Simon once sang, that are received at Graceland. Presley devotees, music-lovers, wrestlers, filmmakers or the just plain curious – there's something for everyone waiting for you in Elvis' Memphis.

GETTING THERE
Fly from Auckland to Memphis, via Houston with Air New Zealand and partner United Airlines. hot.co.nz/usa
DETAILS
visittheusa.com