It was just a trip to the South – eight states in roughly ninety days. We didn’t go out of our way to look for Elvis Presley. Graceland was on our short list, for sure, and we also decided to stop at Elvis’s birthplace, Tupelo, Mississippi, en route to Memphis. But, he just seemed to appear everywhere – in diners, BBQ joints, old gas stations, and downtown murals. We bumped into an Elvis statue on Beale Street in Memphis and perused through countless Elvis trinkets, shot glasses, and mugs in various gift stores. Nearly seventy years after he made his first record in Sun Studio, Elvis is still a big part of the South.
We stopped first in Tupelo, Mississippi, about 100 miles southeast of Memphis. In 1935, Gladys Presley gave birth to baby Elvis in the two-room, shotgun house built by his father, Vernon. Some small cities are defined by a famous personality, book, or event, and Tupelo is one of them. It has a quaint downtown with several murals of Elvis. There, we saw the store where he bought his first guitar.
The starkly furnished shotgun house is the heart of the Elvis Presley Birthplace site in Tupelo. The birthplace also includes a museum, a large memorial park, and his gospel church that was relocated there. It’s, however, Elvis’s humble first home that I recalled when we later visited Graceland, with its luxuriant decor and Elvis’s over-the-top collection of automobiles and airplanes. His modest beginnings to the soaring heights he reached is the classic rags to riches story. As Americans, we love that kind of tale.
Elvis’s Graceland was a more intimate experience than I imagined; no throngs of Elvis impersonators in white jumpsuits in sight. In our era of oversize, the colonial revival home is modest in scale, though each room was exquisitely fashioned and conceived in high 1970s style. Some of the rooms are quirky. The Jungle Room is the ultimate tiki bar man cave, replete with a built in rock waterfall, green shag carpet and wood lacquered furniture. The living room is white with accents of color and large stained glass of peacocks. I marveled at the Billiard room, with its pleated paisley fabric walls, excess exquisitely done.
The Graceland experience includes museum halls of his jumpsuits, a never-ending collection of vintage automobiles, his two airplanes, one named Lisa after his daughter, and a touching retrospective of one of his later concerts.
In the South and probably throughout the United States, any museum tied to music will have a tribute to Elvis. The ones we visited, The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, the Stax Museum, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio all showcase Elvis Presley.
At Stax, I listened to a recording of “Suspicious Minds”. I like the song for its soulfulness and its display of complex emotions. It was “Suspicious Minds” that marked Elvis’s comeback, securing him his final number one hit in the United States in 1969. After a string of mediocre movies finally behind him, Elvis was free to pursue music seriously again and reclaim his significance in music. And that’s the kind of tale Americans love too.