Ivy Carruth follows in Elvis' footsteps to Memphis, Tennessee, a sultry Southern city full of musical history and lively attractions.
Sauntering into Sun Studio, past the window's neon emblazoning the Memphis Recording Service, he was blissfully unknown for the time being. He had hair the colour of an oil slick and an eagerness that would make Elon Musk look indifferent. The comb he used ploughed lines down to the scalp where he'd once been butter blond, but ebony shoe polish worked wonders to keep it dark; no one even knew.
He was 19 years old, and he'd paid about US$4 to record two records "for his beloved mama [Gladys]", it's said. When the receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked him who he sounded like, he famously replied, "Ma'am, I don't sound like nobody." And he didn't. That day set the course for the rest of his life, and Elvis emerged. The world has never been the same.
Perhaps you're aware of a little Elvis movie from one of Australia's favourite sons – Baz Luhrmann - to be released on June 24. Is there anyone else with the same mass appeal? Who crosses racial, cultural, generational and economic boundaries? Why don't you take your own journey down to the city that rests stylishly astride the Mighty Mississippi River? Drink in the sultry air. Marinate in the Southern accent. Walk in Elvis' Memphis, the home of blues, soul and rock 'n' roll.
Tupelo, where it all began
No trip is complete without a visit to the King's birthplace: Tupelo, Mississippi. Just a quick hour-and-a-half from Memphis, visitors can tour the two-room shotgun house where Elvis and his twin brother, Jessie, were delivered on January 8, 1935.
Jessie was stillborn, but Elvis became a proper "mama's boy" singing in church (sit in for a "service" while you're here) to please her. When his father, Vernon, went to prison in 1938 for doctoring a cheque, the two Presleys moved to the other side of the tracks where they were the only white people in the segregated neighbourhood – it was all they could afford. Here, he was taken with revival-style gospel; the energetic, evangelical foot-stomping, hymn-crooning glory of black churches, with Shake Rag blues and the Grand Ole Opry coming through the radio. Straddling both sides of the racially divided South, these are the influences he took with him to Memphis.
While you're in Tupelo, stop at Johnnie's for a doughburger with good ol' plastic cheese (trust me), and sit in the same booth where the man himself ate. You can also wait in your car for drive-in service like it's still the 1950s.
At Tupelo Hardware, Elvis pilgrims from everywhere in the world come to see the place where Gladys bought him his first guitar (or as they say around here "ghee-tarr"). It was a consolation, the last choice really, as she wouldn't buy him a rifle (too dangerous) or a bicycle. It was his 11th birthday gift.
Making tracks in Memphis
In 1948, 13-year-old Elvis and his family packed up what little they had and officially became Memphians. The work for Vernon was better in "the big city" and they needed financial stability. Elvis took a job as a theatre usher and then a truck driver for the electric company. He sang at rodeos and state fairs. He had that fortuitous meeting with Marion at Sun Studio.
Stylish even then, but lacking the funds to support his natty tastes, he'd linger at the glass doors of Lansky Brothers clothiers on rough-and-tumble Beale St. Finally, Bernard Lansky invited him to come on inside, and asked if he ever intended on buying anything "or just lookin' in the winda' all day?" With nothing flash to wear on his first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, Lansky gave him clothing on credit; and from then on, the two were inseparable chums.
Now located inside the storied Peabody Hotel, where a teenaged Elvis went to his high school prom and later signed his first recording contract with RCA, Lansky's remains a fashion institution – it's a Memphis must-see. You're as likely as not to run into a celeb. Be sure to ask about the ducks.
Frenzied fans and a fat bank balance sent Elvis to the outskirts of Memphis in 1957, where he purchased Graceland (locals say "Gracelyn") for the grand sum of US$102,700. He lived there for 20 years until his death, as did his parents– remember he was a mama's boy – his wife, Priscilla, and their only child, Lisa Marie.
Though no one is in residence now, bar the rescue horses that receive their own fan mail, the home is as busy as it ever was. Go with the VIP tour for a deep dive into a celebrated man's daily life, including the racquetball court where he played hours before he died and the piano where he sang the last two songs of his life.
Accommodation options include The Arrive Hotel and the Hyatt Centric Beale Street, which are both centrally located and within walking distance to downtown and all that it offers. For an upscale dinner, try Bishop and for the best dry ribs in Memphis, go to Rendezvous Charles Vergos.
Delta flies direct to Memphis via LAX. For more information on Memphis and Elvis, see memphistravel.com